by Jaime Matyas, CEO, Student Conservation Association
As major-party presidential candidates say they will focus on creating more jobs in America, one wonders why there isn’t more attention given to maintaining our national parks. Every dollar invested in our National Park Service (NPS) returns $10 to the U.S. economy — an extraordinary return by any standard. Yet our parks have a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, and many of our nation’s youth are in need of the jobs that park conservation would both provide and stimulate.
Those jobs are not menial. They are an entryway to a career. That’s clear from surveys showing that seven out of 10 alumni of the Student Conservation Association, which provides high school and college students with summer work experience restoring parks, go on to careers or studies in conservation and sustainability.
We are overlooking a triple play: the opportunity to create jobs, improve our parks and spread the economic impact to every state, every territory and the District of Columbia. The economic impact is measurable and significant.
According to data for the most recently completed fiscal year, NPS lands in more than half of the states (26) have deferred maintenance exceeding $100 million each. NPS lands in California and the District of Columbia each have deferred maintenance exceeding $1 billion. And in Puerto Rico, which is undergoing an extreme financial crisis, the deferred maintenance exceeds $330 million. The impact of eliminating those backlogs would be magnified further by the $10 return on every $1 invested in the NPS.
Interestingly, the parts of the country with the highest unemployment rates also have a stunning combined deferred maintenance backlog. As of June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven states and the District of Columbia had unemployment rates of 6 percent of more – Alabama, West Virginia, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Alaska – and the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico exceeded 11 percent. The NPS lands in those areas have a combined deferred maintenance backlog of more than $2.1 billion — with five of the nine areas having backlogs exceeding $100 million each.
It’s the need to protect cultural and natural resources that holds such potential for our nation’s young adults, because it involves skills and interests that we at the Student Conservation Association find pronounced among them: a desire to improve the environment, a readiness to do hard work, the pleasure of working outdoors and the satisfaction of achievement as a team.