Las Vegas Sun

January 21, 2019

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Protect Lake Mead and the legacy of the national parks

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After spending 34 years of my career working for the Department of the Interior, most of which was with the National Park Service, I am no stranger to the power and beauty of our most special places. In my last Park Service position, I served as Superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area from 1987 until 2000. In managing Lake Mead, one of the most visited sites in the National Park System, I was in charge of managing a 1.5 million-acre space – on an ever-decreasing, shoestring budget. With this experience under my national park ranger hat, it disturbs me in the most personal way to know our National Park Service is facing serious across-the-board cuts that, if implemented, will compromise that great experience visitors have come to expect, as well as many of the basic needs that one deserves to experience in when visiting places known as one of our country’s “best ideas.”

At 1/14th of one percent of the federal budget, cutting National Park Service budgets will not solve our deficit problems, but has the power to severely harm local economies, in particular small businesses, that depend on healthy parks and strong park attendance.

Investing in our national parks is the best idea that our country can make. My alma mater, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, is America's fifth most visited national park unit with more than 7 million visits a year. An economic model developed for the Clark County area in the 2010 Southern Nevada Visitor Use Monitoring Survey estimated that Lake Mead NRA contributes $406 million in sales for local businesses, 3,724 full and part-time jobs, and $255 million in value added, which includes employee compensation and proprietary income, profits and rent associated with local businesses, and indirect business taxes and sales taxes. And on a larger scale, the National Park Service reports that every dollar invested in park operations generates about $10, and every two Park Service jobs yields one outside the park service.

Our nation’s treasures are entrusted to the National Park Service for preservation. Great Basin National Park with the darkest night skies in the continental United States; the sheer expanse and mass of the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the USS Arizona, and most iconic monuments and places of jaw-dropping beauty that define our nation are a part of the National Park System. Upkeep and maintenance on these treasures currently poses a challenge to meet unique needs with limited budgets.

America’s national parks already suffer from an annual operations shortfall of $500 million to $600 million. Parks are falling into disrepair and are more vulnerable than ever to inappropriate development within park boundaries. Another deep cut of 8 to 10 percent across the National Park Service will mean even fewer rangers, less maintenance and almost certainly park closures. Maintenance cuts have the ability to impact services even as seemingly minor as clean restrooms when visiting a national park. I’m sure most can attest to unfavorable experiences in public facilities, and how they have the ability to make a 180-degree change in your regard for even the most enjoyable spaces. Given the negative consequences this could have for visitors and local businesses nationwide, Congress needs to find a more balanced solution to our deficit problem.

As the National Park Service looks to its centennial in 2016, I call upon Congress and the administration to ensure that our national parks are protected and funded for the continued enjoyment of our generation, and our children and grandchildren to come. Funding our national parks will help protect the positive visitor experience that I helped create while working with our National Park Service, and will protect the continued successful tourism economy in Southern Nevada, throughout the state, and far beyond. Our national parks are a legacy worth preserving and fully supporting them is without question the right thing to do.

Alan O’Neill served as superintendent of Lake Mead National Recreation Area from 1987 to 2000 and helped found the Outside Las Vegas Foundation, where he served as executive director until 2010.

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