Millions of Americans this Memorial Day weekend will head outdoors to enjoy the unofficial start of summer, and many of them will choose a national park — even if reveling in the great outdoors is put on hold in South Florida until the rains of what on Saturday was Subtropical Storm Alberto subside.
Already, the Florida Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas national parks, as well as Big Cypress National Preserve, beckoned visitors during the cooler winter months, those without mosquitoes’ sting.
And if visitors could just ignore the rough edges, crumbling walls and bumpy roads, Congress would appreciate it.
A recently released study of the economic impacts of national parks demonstrates just how much Americans and tourists in our country enjoy visiting these precious natural resources.
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In each of the past four years, visitors to national parks in Florida spent more than $600 million on lodging, gas, transportation, dining and all of the other things necessary to make a vacation work. That supported about 9,000 jobs.
Parks around Miami did particularly well for the region.
The Florida Everglades attracted 1 million visitors and generated $144 million of economic activity. Biscayne had 446,961 visitors and $38.5 million of economic activity. Dry Tortuga had 54,280 visitors and $3.5 million. And Big Cypress had 922,883 visitors and $102 million.
Add all that up and the four sites generated almost 2.5 million visits and $289 million. Not bad.
That might be only a small portion of the billions of dollars in total Florida tourism spending every year, but tell that to the thousands of people who have jobs thanks to it.
Not that the local economy is the only or even the best reason to support national parks.
These are places of breathtaking beauty and ecological or historical value in every state.
They are places that define what it is to be an American, from history at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., to the fragile ecological diversity of the Everglades to the wide open vistas of the Grand Canyon.
Yet anyone visiting national parks these days can’t help but notice they are starting to look a little shabby.
Visitors to the Everglades from the Gulf side will stop at a temporary visitors center. The regular one was condemned after Hurricane Irma damaged it. That’s just one item on a lengthy list of $90 million worth of deferred maintenance in the park.
Visitors to Dry Tortugas, meanwhile, need to be careful. The historic masonry moat walls are falling apart, part of $60 million in maintenance needs.
Every park, preserve and historical site across the country can point to its own crumbling walls, potholed roads, failing bridge or worse.
But Congress has not given the National Park Service enough money to keep up with repairs for years and it now faces a $2.5 billon repairs backlog nationwide.
The Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, had proposed jacking up admissions fees at some parks this year to raise a small amount. That met with a backlash, not least over concerns that cash-strapped families would not be able to afford to visit some parks. Officials scaled it back.
Congress should step up. America protects national parks for today and for future generations.
Letting them fall apart isn’t an option.