Op Ed: More funding needed for National Parks

Op-ed by Bob Sutherland

As a business owner I am proud of the way our communities come together to welcome visitors who wish to experience our state. From our natural beauty, to sports and recreation, to world-class goods and services, Michigan is sure to create lasting memories for all who come here.

I believe a true centerpiece in what our state has to offer can be found in our national parks. Michigan has five sites that include the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks and Isle Royale. Visitation numbers are at an all-time high and in 2016 we saw 2.6 million people experience our extraordinary parks.

With six Cherry Republic stores across the state I recognize the huge benefit that these visitors bring to my business. And it’s not just my business — bed and breakfasts, restaurants, outfitters, hotels, gas stations — virtually every area of our local economy is positively affected by our national parks. According to the National Park Service, in 2016 alone spending hit $235 million in communities neighboring national parks. This not only boosts small business but it generates over 3,800 good paying and reliable jobs.

Unfortunately, while our national parks are as popular as ever, many are in need of repairs. Because of aging facilities and unreliable funding, roughly $46 million worth of repairs have accumulated in our state alone. These include crumbling buildings, closed trails, outdated water and electrical systems — things we need to keep our parks accessible, safe and attractive enough so that folks are encouraged to make return visits.

And our state is not alone in terms of crumbling park infrastructure. Across 417 national park sites in our country — which include monuments, battlefields, trails, historic sites, rivers and natural areas — some $11.3 billion of maintenance needs demand our immediate attention.

One bright spot I can see is a bipartisan bill in Congress that would provide dedicated yearly funding to repair and rehabilitate our national parks. The National Park Service Legacy Act (H.R. 2584) has 28 Republicans and 28 Democrats signed on in the House — a level of bipartisanship almost unheard of in Washington these days! A Senate companion bill has been introduced, too. This support bodes well for national parks as Congress may begin debate this year on a larger infrastructure package to invest in improving the nation’s transportation, power, and telecommunications networks, my hope is that national parks’ deferred maintenance needs are part of that conversation.

The other huge benefit to addressing crumbling infrastructure in our national parks is job creation and support. A recent report commissioned by the the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that nationwide fixing our national parks could help create and support 110,000 new jobs. A majority of those jobs would be in non-metro areas, something that would really help rural areas of our state that often struggle through winter when tourism is down. Here in Michigan that investment would support 452 jobs in planning, road building, construction and carpentry, among other positions.

There’s a reason national parks are popular. They are places that tell our unique American story. They teach our children the value of protecting our land and respecting our natural areas. They honor the men and women who fought and died to help make this country what it is today. And they provide a place of solace to the wounded veteran, the adventurous hiker, the one who seeks the road less traveled.

That’s why we owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us to preserve and protect our national parks. As a business owner I hope that our congressional leaders in Michigan will stand with us to get the job done.

Bob Sutherland is president of Glen Arbor-based Cherry Republic, the world’s largest exclusive retailer of cherry products and gifts.