Sadly, though, my wonder is increasinly tempered by wondering how much longer Pennsylvanians and others will be able to enjoy these gems the way they do now. As Congress continues to whittle away at the operating budget of the National Park Service, it's a serious question.
The fact is that the agency is facing an across-the-board budget cut that could compromise the great experiences that national park visitors have come to expect - lowering hours for park rangers, reducing visitor center hours, closing campgrounds, and even shutting down entire parks.
But with so many other federal programs looking at a similar fate, why should we care more about this one? Because cutting National Park Service funding would be bad business and economics, creating more problems than it solves. And the Park Service, spending just 0.07 percent of the federal budget, is not contributing significantly to the deficit.
National parks provide hours of affordable enjoyment, historical education, and more to Americans, as well as to international visitors who stay longer and spend more freely, which is especially important as we try to work out of an economic downturn and trade deficit. They're visited by nearly 300 million people annually, ranking them eighth among America's top domestic travel destinations, according to Forbes.
Our parks are important economic engines that support the livelihoods of people and businesses in the rural and urban communities of the 49 states in which they're located. A Park Service study found that visitors contribute more than $31 billion to local economies and support 258,000 jobs; that every dollar invested in park operations generates about $10 in local communities; and that every two Park Service jobs yield one job outside the parks.
In spite of these contributions, the Park Service budget has been cut by 6 percent over the last two years, and it's suffering an annual operations shortfall of $500 million to $600 million. There are not enough rangers and other staff to care for our national treasures and serve visitors. Parks are falling into disrepair and becoming more vulnerable than ever to inappropriate development within their boundaries. Another cut of 8 to 10 percent would mean even fewer rangers, dramatic maintenance reductions, and almost certainly park and site closures.
Close to home, Valley Forge National Historical Park represents an important thread in the economic and social fiber of Southeastern Pennsylvania. It's the flagship attraction of Montgomery County's nearly $1.1 billion hospitality industry, around which hotel stays, restaurant meals, retail purchases, and an array of other visitor services revolve. Its importance to the county's economy is hard to overstate, as is its contribution to the region's quality of life in the form of year-round recreational, "mind-clearing" public space for residents and visitors.
Given the huge negative consequences, locally and nationally, of slashing the National Park Service budget, Congress needs to find a more balanced solution to the deficit. And that's an opinion that's shared by many who are not involved in the issue on a day-to-day basis. A June survey found that 95 percent of Americans are in favor of federal support for the national parks.
It would be doubly foolish to tarnish the national park experience and lose the economic benefits the parks generate in the process. Our representatives in Congress should heed the will of their constituents and the nation by protecting what has been rightly called "America's best idea."
Paul Decker is president of the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau.