FREDERICKSBURG, Va. —
Phil Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said he's lost a third of his permanent maintenance crew in the past 11 years. Staff have gotten "a few visitor complaints" about conditions in the park, ranging from its restrooms to its overlooks.
"Of course we know these things," he said. "It's a challenge. We do the best we can, and make sure the impacts are as minimal as possible."
Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said policymakers face a critical decision as the park system approaches its 100th anniversary in 2016. A major influx of funds could mobilize public support for the system, he argued. Without it, he said, conditions at the parks will continue deteriorating and visits could drop sharply.
"It's clear that inadequate federal funding is the number one threat to the future of the national parks and the national park idea," Kiernan said. "We're at a crossroads of historic importance here."
Of the 397 park units, 158 have "friends groups" that help raise private funds. The congressionally chartered National Park Foundation has raised up to $150 million annually for parks in concert with those organizations in recent years, and it hopes to help expand them to 200 by 2016. But that's a fraction of the system's $2.6 billion annual budget.
National parks continue to enjoy significant bipartisan support, both from the presidential candidates and on Capitol Hill. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney has spoken during the campaign of how he "fell in love with the land in America" during family trips through national parks in a Rambler station wagon, and in a statement to the Post, described himself as "a passionate advocate of our national parks."
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional National Parks Caucus, said that he has lobbied the administration and his colleagues to restore park funding but that he's "not optimistic" the current trajectory will reverse itself. "It's just the blind zeal for cuts in the discretionary part of the budget, regardless of the consequences," Kind said.