Investing in America’s ‘Best Idea’ – our national parks

By Guest Columnist SALLY BETHEA, the board chair of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit friends group for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area

America’s mayors are pitching an investment in the infrastructure of our national parks as a win-win for cities and their residents: A way to create U.S. jobs by restoring historic buildings, fixing outdated and unsafe water and electrical systems and improving crumbling roads and trails to benefit all park visitors.

Sally Bethea, croppedThe National Park Service has an estimated $12 billion in overdue repairs because of years of underfunding and infrastructure that is 50 to 100 years old, according to a recent article by Mike Cornett, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Michael Hancock, co-chair of the Mayors for Parks National Task Force.

Of the $12 billion, $4.8 billion is attributed to repairs considered critical to the park service’s mission – to preserve the recreational and historic sites and keep them operating for future generations. A resolution passed by the Conference of Mayors last year – during the National Park Service centennial – urges Congress to create a reliable, predictable stream of resources to address deferred maintenance in national park system.

For many of us, the mention of a national park evokes an image of an iconic landscape: Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. However, the National Park Service manages, protects and interprets other important park sites: Battlefields, memorials, historic sites, scenic trails and rivers and recreation areas – many of which are located in 40 of the 50 most populous cities in the country.

chattahoochee fish trout

Shannon Scalley, wife of fishing guide Chris Scalley, presents a Chattahoochee brown trout caught with daughter Grace (L) and a friend. Credit: River Through Atlanta

In metro Atlanta, we enjoy three national park sites: Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Like other units in the national system, they are suffering from years of underfunding and being “loved to death” by the more than five million people who visit them annually.

While Congress may or may not provide adequate funding to help preserve our national heritage and create jobs, there is another way to help our national parks now – by working with the friends groups that have been established as a way for the private sector to provide essential resources.

The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) has a friends group that was established in 2012 to create a community of support for nearly 7,000 acres of parkland in fifteen park units linked by a 48-mile section of river. It’s called Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy. Providing for this park is our passion.

National Parks Service Ranger Jerry Hightower displays a critter who lives in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Credit: CRNRA

National Parks Service Ranger Jerry Hightower displays a critter who lives in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Credit: CRNRA

One of the top 35, most-visited national parks in the country, the CRNRA was established by President Jimmy Carter on August 15, 1978. Annually, the national recreation area receives nearly 3 million visitors who float down the river, hike the nearly 80 miles of trails near its banks, observe birds and other wildlife, learn about this ancient river corridor and its inhabitants, fish one of the country’s top trout streams or simply relax and enjoy the scenery.

Importantly, the parkland in the CRNRA represents one of every five acres of protected public green space in the 10-county metro Atlanta region and generates an annual cumulative benefit to the local economy of $167 million.

As the new board chair of the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy, I have the privilege of working with the Nationnal Park Service and other partners to inspire people to support projects and programs that protect the park’s natural and cultural resources and enrich visitors’ experiences. In collaboration with park service staff, we are seeking funds and volunteers to help with priority initiatives that the federal agency is unable to adequately cover – from youth education programs and facility improvements to volunteer support and trail restoration.

One of the most exciting projects is a comprehensive trail assessment and management study that will evaluate – for the first time ever – the nearly 80 miles of trails in the CRNRA. The outcome of this effort will be a blueprint to restore and improve the trail system and provide links to local trails in adjacent communities and perhaps, one day, to the Atlanta BeltLine.

Heron overlooking Canoists

A heron gazes on canoists passing this perch on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. Credit: Tom Wilson

The invention of the national park system, said author Wallace Stegner, was America’s best idea: “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” As has been noted, our national parks represent a pact between generations: A promise from the past to the future.

We cannot currently rely on Congress to authorize all the funds needed to manage and protect our national parks. It’s up to each of us to help provide for our parks, especially the ones in our own backyards. To get involved with Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy – as a member, donor and/or volunteer, please visit our website or send us an email at [email protected].

Note to readers: In addition to her role with the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy, Sally Bethea is the retired founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper


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