How the Great American Outdoors Act will save US national parks
On Wednesday, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which combined two earlier bills to commit $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and $9.5 billion over five years to address critical infrastructure updates across the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.
“Passing the Great American Outdoors Act is quite simply the most significant investment in conservation in decades," said president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation Collin O’Mara in a statement.
“It’s a huge win for wildlife, our natural treasures, our economy, and all Americans, who enjoy our America’s public lands for solace, recreation, and exercise, especially amid this pandemic. All Americans will benefit from this historic legislation, which will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, expand outdoor recreation opportunities in every community, and accelerate our nation’s economic recovery from COVID-19.”Rafting tours down the Snake River near Grand Tenton Mountains ©Mark Read/Lonely Planet
The expansion of access to outdoor spaces, and the restoration of existing destinations is crucial as more and more Americans have turned to outdoor recreation in recent years. Some 327 million travelers a year visit national parks, forests, and Wild and Scenic Rivers from Mt. Rainier and the Rouge River to the Great Smokey Mountains and the New River Gorge, traveling over some 5000 miles of paved roads, nearly 20,000 miles of trails, and making use of almost 25,000 buildings.
Back in June, when the US Senate initially passed the Great American Outdoors Act, the Land Trust Alliance noted that the LWCF has "only been fully funded once in its history," despite the fact it's been promised $900 million a year since its inception and supports "over 41,000 state and local park projects, contributing $778 billion to the nation's economy annually and providing 5.2 million sustainable jobs nationwide."Men from the Civilian Conservation Corps finish a shelter house at South Mountain Reservation, New Jersey, 1935. Many such structures are still in use today. © New York Times Co. / Getty Images
Because budgets haven't increased even as traffic on public lands has grown, officials haven't been able to keep up with the deterioration of key infrastructure nearing, or past, the end of its lifespan. A significant portion of the federal assets at national forest campgrounds, national parks, and state parks were built nearly a century ago, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work during the Great Depression. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, 70% of the National Park Services' overdue projects pertain to structures at least 60 years old.
That's had big, costly consequences that impact visitor experiences. For example, a sink hole nearly the length of a subcompact car opened up in Shenandoah National Park on the busy George Washington Memorial Parkway last May – and it wasn't the first such incident in the park. The series of sinkholes were the result of delays to roadwork and updates to storm water drainage networks, the kind of problems that are cheaper to fix before they eat into an entire roadway.Hunt's Mesa at sunrise, Monument Valley, Arizona, Utah, USA ©Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/500
Meanwhile, the Transcanyon Pipeline in the Grand Canyon is fifty years old and perpetually leaky. Built in the 1960s in the midst of Mission 66, one of the last major flurries of upgrades to the national parks system that formed in response to similar concerns about degraded infrastructure and funding, the pipeline has been a focus for replacement for years. Although the pipeline supplies all the potable water to the South Rim of the park, officials have carried on with makeshift repairs because they haven't had the $100 million necessary to build an alternative.
"LWCF is an issue I've been working on since my introduction into the outdoor policy world six years ago," said Katie Boué, founder of the Outdoor Advocacy Project. "This week's passage marks a huge victory for so many advocates who have invested years in making it happen. In a time when our public lands and green spaces are more valued and visited than ever before, it gives me hope to see Congress stepping up to support them."High-angle view of Jackson city covered in snow and the Teton Valley. ©Adventure_Photo/Getty Images
Budget constraints have also made it harder to establish new public lands and expand existing parcels, especially around fragile conservation areas like the Everglades and the Grand Tetons that are experiencing increased development nearby. In January environmentalists celebrated when the state of Florida purchased 20,000 acres of swampland that feeds the Everglades in order to end Kanter Real Estate's multi-year quest to drill oil on the parcel. A greater number of similar deals will be possible at the federal level now the Great American Outdoors Act has secured permanent funding.
It's been proven that new national parks can be a big hit, like when visitor numbers soared at Indiana Dunes after it was designated a national park in January of 2019. The same was true for White Sands National Park in New Mexico – the newest of the country's 62 national parks. The increase in funding could aid efforts to upgrade a handful of national forests and monuments that advocates hope could be national parks candidates, like Craters of the Moon in Idaho and Louisiana's Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, without further stretching a cash-strapped National Parks Service.White Sands National Park Yucca picnic area covered in sand in New Mexico. ©krblokhin/Getty Images
Exactly where and how to first apply the funds secured by the Great American Outdoors Act still needs to be decided by multiple federal agencies. But legislature's passage is reason enough for outdoor enthusiasts and activists to celebrate – it heralds the biggest overhaul the parks have received in a generation. And with many grounded travelers turning to road trips and visits to state and national parks in lieu of international travel as a result of the global coronavirus outbreak, the timing couldn't be better for the country's beleaguered public lands.
"As an avid outdoors woman and activist, I’ve been going to DC for many years advocating for more funding for our national parks, public lands and green spaces," said Caroline Gleich, an Utah-based environmental advocate and pro ski mountaineer who summited Mt. Everest last year. "As America is dealing with the pandemic, more and more of us are turning to our parks and public lands for our mental and physical well being. The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act gives us something to celebrate. It gives us hope for the future."
Amid COVID-19, Americans are flocking to the relative safety of the outdoors. Recreating in national parks delivers fresh air, stunning natural surrounds, physical exercise, and stress relief. However, as the flag went up for summer outdoor recreation over Memorial Day weekend, visitors flooded park viewpoints, trails, and shuttles, making maintaining social distance impossible even in the great outdoors. The National Park System oversees 62 parks, so there are plenty of places to explore beyond the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Here are 10 of the least visited national parks. Don’t confuse a lack of visitors with a lack of merit. These parks are remote, which keeps the number of travelers to a minimum. However, they boast magnificent — and untrammeled — scenic beauty. 1. Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska This park’s name is no misnomer: It hugs the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s northern reaches. The 8.4 million acres here offer natural splendor largely untouched by humans, with no roads, trails, or established campsites. This is the domain of enormous herds of caribou, musk ox, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears. Only the most rugged explorers, who have solid outdoor survival skills, should venture here. However, a stable of outfitters, guide services, and air taxi operators, who offer flight-seeing trips, can ease the challenges of your expedition. Alaska’s Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, Wrangell-St. Elias, Katmai, and Kenai Fjords also rank among the country’s most far-flung and least visited parks. Take note of Alaska’s COVID-19 travel restrictions before booking your flight. Kenai Fjords National Park. Photo by ©James + Courtney Forte/Getty Images 2. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan The centerpiece of Isle Royale is its eponymous 45-mile long island. Hiking the 165 miles of trails there is only an appetizer: The park also includes 400 smaller islands and some 80 percent of it lies underwater. There’s plenty of territory to explore both for trekkers and scuba divers, kayakers, canoers, and anglers. Wildlife watchers will find plenty of sights here, too. From the heavily forested shoreline, visitors may spot eagle or osprey. Although they’re harder to spot, an isolated species of wolves roams here, too. Isle Royale’s ecology is so unique it doubles as an International Biosphere Reserve. 3. North Cascades National Park, Washington Travelers don’t have to venture to Alaska or Patagonia to see epic glaciers. North Cascades has the highest number in the lower 48 states with some 300 clinging to craggy peaks here. In less than a three-hour drive from Seattle, visitors will find a vast wilderness of glacier-carved crevasses and crisp turquoise lakes (such as Diablo and Ross, two of the park’s most popular). Around 400 miles of trails ribbon through forested valleys, trace ridges, and ascend spires. For an alternative to all that trekking, travelers drive the North Cascades Highway, which offers picturesque views from early May to late November. 4. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa Set more than 2,600 miles southwest of Hawai’i, this national park earns the distinction as the southernmost in the U.S. and one of the most remote. Getting there pays dividends with a South Pacific paradise spread across three islands — Tutuila, Ta'ū, and Ofu — and some 4,000 underwater acres. Fruit bats, which frequent the island rainforests, and the Indo-Pacific coral reefs, which have more than 950 species of fish, are two top attractions. The chance to experience the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture is also reason to make the journey. 5. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida The Dry Tortugas are a much-sought-after place to escape in the Florida Keys. A collection of seven islands 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are as well known for scenic beauty as pirate lore. The isles are only accessible via boat or plane, so they’re one of the most secluded units in the national park system. The park protects 100-square-miles of sandy shores, shoals, and ocean waters. In those ocean depths, visitors will find coral and seagrass communities that rank among the Keys’ best. Here, shipwrecks are just as common as marine life. Garden Key, home to the massive Fort Jefferson, is often the jumping off point for park visits. Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo by Laura Brown 6. Great Basin National Park, Nevada Four and a half hours north of Las Vegas, Great Basin National Park delivers natural wonders from the cosmos to underground. The International Dark Sky Park, an accolade it earned thanks to its low light pollution and clear views of astrological phenomena, offers particularly heavenly views from Wheeler Peak. Hikers can reach the 13,063-foot summit via an 8.6-mile hike; however, many visitors ascend via Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (June to October). From there, travelers can take in panoramic views of the park’s mountain slopes, which contain stands of bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on Earth. The sights are just as impressive below ground, where tours of Lehman Caves reveal elaborate stalagmites, stalactites, “soda straws,” and other formations. 7. Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands The island of St. John is popularly thought of as a polished resort destination; however, more than 60 percent of the island is set aside as a rugged national park. Entering through Cruz Bay, Virgin Islands National Park protects rainforest hikes, sandy beaches, and complex coral reefs (a marine reserve lies offshore). The 20-square-mile park is more than a tropical playground; the landscape delivers a history lesson, too. Travelers may hike to plantation ruins that date to the island’s sugar trade days, as well as ancient petroglyphs the Taino people left. 8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina Set in the middle of South Carolina and only 30-minutes away from the city of Columbia, Congaree National Park feels like a faraway wilderness. In fact, its stands of towering loblolly and white pines, and swamps make it seem like a fantasy movie set. The park is also home to 130-foot-tall bald cypress, and it contains the most ancient stands of old-growth cypress of anywhere in the world. Elevated board walks meander through its towering forests. The 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop offers the shortest tour and departs from the visitor’s center. For another type of trail, paddlers can follow the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail deep into the forests on a float to the Congaree River. 9. Pinnacles National Park, California Visitors may come to Pinnacles National Park for the geology, but they’re also treated to remarkable fauna and flora. Volcanic activity 23 million years ago created a weird and wonderous landscape of rock spires, towers, canyons, and even caves. The park boasts colossal talus caves, which boulders created when they lodged in narrow canyons. Visitors can hike to and through Bear Gulch and Balconies Caves. Townsend’s big-eared bats frequent these caves, so they’re sometimes closed to visitors. Travelers can also spot California condors, California red-legged frogs, and more than 100 species of wildflowers in the park. Pinnacles National Park. Photo by Laura Brown10. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas Texas isn’t just made up of plains. It has peaks, too, and four of the state’s tallest lie within the boundaries of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Guadalupe Peak, the highest in the Lone Star State, looms large. An 8.5-mile hike ascends the summit and offers expansive views over the exposed, ancient fossil reef bed that makes up the park’s landscape. The relatively few visitors who venture are rewarded with true solid among craggy peaks, sand dunes, and desert canyons sprawling across the Texas-New Mexico state line. Keep in mind: Due to evolving COVID-19 conditions, check the park’s website in advance of your visit to ensure it’s open. The CDC recommends following social distance guidelines within parks and wearing cloth masks when social distancing isn’t possible. Finally, many national park gateway communities are small, rural towns. Be sure to follow local guidelines for mask wearing and social distancing to keep residents safe.
Here’s what to expect as the National Parks begin to reopen after COVID-19 closures
Across the United States, local governments are beginning to move from shelter-in-place orders to phased schedules of reopening. This includes America’s National Parks, which are beginning to reopen after being shuttered for most of the spring season to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here’s a roundup of what to expect for the summer season. Each National Park is empowered to make its own open or close decision, which will be based on local conditions and disease spread. Still, as parks open, officials stress that operations will not be close to normal. Visitors should largely expect for visitor’s centers and campgrounds to be closed or slow to open, and amenities like restaurants and gift shops to remain shuttered. Before you plan a visit to National Park, we recommend checking the park website to determine its current status, and searching for it on Twitter to see if proper social distancing protocol is being followed. To check on specific operations in any particular park, go to https://www.nps.gov/findapark/index.htm When America’s most visited park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, reopened select trails on Saturday, May 9, visitors flocked to it. Photos emerged showing full parking lots, crowded trails, and people disregarding trail closures. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona was one of the last parks to close, at the dismay of its staff and eventually the general public. As of press time, the Grand Canyon is planning a phased reopening with limited services. Zion National Park, the most popular park in Utah, is currently scheduled to reopen to the public on Wednesday, May 13. However, the visitor’s center, popular shuttle busses, campgrounds and hiking trails will not be open. Time will tell if the closures of necessary services will suffice to keep people at safe social distances. Further up the state, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are expecting to open their doors after Memorial Day on May 29. However, both parks plan to have their trails, roads, and restrooms open, while visitor’s centers and overnight services will remain closed. In addition, commercial tour providers will be able to begin operations, except in places that are too small to allow people to achieve social distancing. In Montana, the decision to reopen Glacier National Park is expected to be a joint decision made with state, local, and tribal officials, and as of press time, the decision has not yet been made about when to start phasing in openings. It has already been announced that the famous Glacier Park Boat Co., will not be operating tours this summer. Despite these openings, sources inside the park service say they are being pushed to reopen before they are ready. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a group representing 1,800 current, former, and retired employees and volunteers of the National Park Service, raises serious concerns about protecting NPS employees, volunteers, visitors, and local community members from the spread of the coronavirus. The group stresses that it believes it is too soon to reopen. Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, explained: “We are also eager to get Americans back into our national parks. But it is too soon.” “Parks absolutely should not open until the safety of National Park Service (NPS) employees, concession employees, volunteers and other partners, including those who work and live in gateway communities, can be ensured. Parks must be able to demonstrate that they have adequate staff to protect resources, personal protective equipment available to those staff members, and employee training including specific training related to COVID19 as recommended by the CDC and OSHA. “The vast majority of NPS staff will be in contact with visitors to our national parks. And many NPS employees live on-site, in close quarters, in government-owned housing. According to an NPS document, parks should estimate that 40% of the total population at the park will require isolation and 4% will require hospitalization. This is not only impossible under the current set-up, it is unacceptable.” “Parks should follow the most cautious standards to ensure the safety of all involved in park operations, as well as visitors who visit the parks and utilize services provided in gateway communities. Superintendents, in consultation with their local communities, must be delegated the authority to make decisions about when it is safe to open. They should not be treated as pawns in a larger political game. “We take the protection of park resources and employees seriously, and we urge the administration to do so as well. This means protecting our parks for the long term and supporting efforts such as the Great American Outdoors Act, rather than attempting to win short term political gains by rushing to reopen national parks at the expense of human health and safety.”
The Best US National Park Campgrounds for Every Traveler
These top US national park campgrounds offer unrivaled scenery, easy access to outdoor fun and prime wildlife watching. Best campground for stargazers Chisos Basin Campground – Big Bend National Park, Texas Flanked by the rugged Chisos Mountains at an elevation of 5400ft, this remote campground doubles as the finest performance hall in the park system. Nearby, an enormous gap in the mountains, known as The Window, frames the West Texas desert far below, and the show at sunset is memorably gorgeous. After the sun drops, Mother Nature pulls back the curtain overhead at this International Dark Sky Park, revealing a dazzling display of more than 2,500 stars on the clearest nights. Website: www.nps.gov/bibeReservations: www.recreation.gov Open: year-round Fee: $14 per night Best campground for amateur geologists Devils Garden Campground – Arches National Park, Utah The enormous red rocks overlooking this popular campground may have been named for the Devil, but wind, rain and the steady march of time did all the hard work in its creation, eroding the fiery sandstone into a fantastical assortment of towering arches and hulking fins. Botanical flourishes include yucca plants, prickly pear cacti and juniper and piñon pines. The only campground in the park, Devils Garden is 19 miles from the entrance to Arches and 23 miles from Moab. Website: www.nps.gov/arch Reservations: www.recreation.gov Open: year-round Fee: $25 per night Best campground for wildlife spotters Cataloochee Campground – Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina Elk and wild turkey roam the surrounding meadows and forests with photogenic abandon at this camping spot in the secluded Cataloochee Valley - once a thriving southern Appalachian farm community. Overhunting and loss of habitat caused the decline and disappearance of elk here in the 19th century, but the majestic beasts were successfully reintroduced in the early 2000s. Campsites are scattered between hemlocks and white pines beside Cataloochee Creek. Website: www.nps.gov/grsmReservations: www.recreation.govOpen: mid-Apr-OctFee: $25 per night Best campground for hikers Bright Angel Campground – Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona You’ll earn bragging rights after an out-and-back hike to this campground at the bottom of the Big Ditch. Sitting a half-mile north of the Colorado River and shaded by cottonwood trees, this lovely creekside spot is reached by a nearly 10-mile hike from the South Rim or a 14-mile hike from the North Rim. Hard on the knees? Yes. But the vast canyon views on your descent are simply gobsmacking. A Tecate beer at the Phantom Ranch canteen just down the trail is a fine post-hike reward. Website: www.nps.gov/grcaReservations: Fax or mail a backcountry permit request form to the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center. See park website for detailed instructions. Open: year-roundFee: Backcountry permit per campsite $10, camping fee per person per night $8 Best campground for families Big Meadows Campground – Shenandoah National Park, Virginia Big Meadows is big fun. Tucked between the Appalachian Trail and lofty Skyline Drive, this woodsy campground is smack dab in the middle of the park – and the action. Kids can tackle the three waterfall trails or walk to the Byrd Visitor Center for Junior Ranger Programs and exhibits about the history of the park. Other distractions include raptor talks in the amphitheater, ranger-led walks through a wetland meadow and wagon rides. Stop by Big Meadows Lodge for trivia nights, craft workshops and live music. The campground is 100 miles southwest of Washington, DC. Website: www.nps.gov/shen Reservations: www.recreation.gov Open: Apr-mid-Nov Fee: $20 Best campground for forest bathers Jedediah Smith Campground – Redwood National & State Parks, California Seamlessly intertwined with three California state parks, Redwoods National Park holds 45% of California’s old-growth redwoods, which are some of the world’s tallest trees. In the northernmost reaches of the 200-sq-mile park, you can pitch your tent inside a thick stand of these ancient showstoppers, all soaring skyward from their lush surroundings. It’s the perfect place for forest bathing, the Japanese-inspired art of relaxing in the company of trees. Several campsites border the Smith River, the longest major free-flowing river in the state. Trails to more redwoods can be accessed from the campground. Website: www.nps.gov/redw Reservations: www.reservecalifornia.com Open: year-round Fee: $35 per night Best campground for beach-goers Assateague Island National Seashore Campground – Maryland This campground is within a national seashore, not a national park, but who’s quibbling with boring federal distinctions when you can camp beside sand dunes a few steps from the surf on a rugged barrier island, with wild horses galloping past as the sun goes down? Add wind-swept sea oats, egrets and herons, crabbing and kayaking, and mythic stories of Atlantic Coast seafarers, and you’ve hit tent-life perfection (but bring bug spray). The campground is 145 miles east of Washington, DC on the Delmarva Peninsula. Website: www.nps.gov/asis Reservations: www.recreation.gov Open: year-round Fee: $30 per night Best all-around campground Norris Campground – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming We’re not saying this is the best campground in the entire national park system, but it does hit all the bases for a satisfying outdoor stay. Spread across a scenic and open lodgepole-pine forest on a sunny hill overlooking meadows and the Gibbon River, this is one of the park’s nicest campgrounds. Watch for roaming bison, attend a campfire program or follow a one-mile trail to the geothermal action at Norris Basin. Centrally located just north of Norris Junction, the campground is a convenient base for exploring the entire park. Website: www.nps.gov/yell Reservations: first-come, first-served Open: mid-May-Sep Fee: $20 per night Visit individual park websites for detailed reservation information; many of these campgrounds also offer first-come, first-served camping. Prices do not include park admission fees. Camping Deals: For great camping deals be sure to check out our partner Campspot. Campspot is the only online booking platform that lets you research, discover, and instantly reserve the best camping stays at the lowest prices from premiere campgrounds across North America. They give campers more control of their trips by offering more options to choose from and an easier way to book. They are experts in the outdoor industry, so they know what campers and campgrounds care about and use technology to better serve them both.
Celebrate National Park Week with these 5 ideas!
1. Play one of these games with your family - the Park Service has a great list of games designed for families to play while in social isolation. Think you know the most about the parks? Love baby animals? They have a game for you! 2. Take a virtual visit to a national park - spend an afternoon exploring Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, or the Clara Barton National Historic Site where the Red Cross was founded. You can also check out live webcams of the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone! 3. Join a virtual event from your favorite park! The parks are famous for their ranger-led activities, and most of our favorite parks have moved these ranger talks online. Check out live trivia at Hot Springs, or even livestream the sunrise from Bryce Canyon! 4. Recreate a national park trip in your backyard! Now that spring is finally here, put that camping gear to good use. Practice setting up your tent, lighting a fire, and then sleep outside and look up at the stars! 5. Dive into the history of the United States with the National Register of Historic Places. Are there historic places in your neighborhood you never knew about? Map out where they are, and how they are relevant to your community.