Gateway communities hurt by national parks cuts

In the Northwest, we love our coffee nearly as much as we love our outdoor recreation experiences. Out of the total federal budget, our National Park System costs 1/15th of one percent. The average American household pays about $2.56 for the national parks annually. That’s like investing in a cup of coffee for places that give us far more than just a short-lived buzz.

While we respect practicing “leave no trace” outdoor recreation methods, it is near-impossible to visit a national park without creating positive impact on nearby communities. In 2012, more than a million visitors contributed over $36.8 million to Enumclaw, Eatonville and other cities that surround Mount Rainier National Park.

As a foothills community, the largest advantage for Enumclaw’s economic growth and destination-based recreational experiences is our reliance upon the traffic that Mount Rainier generates. Almost every traveler that visits “our” side of the mountain drives right through Enumclaw.

Across Washington state, our national park sites welcomed more than 7.5 million visitors in 2012 who infused our state with nearly $420 million and supported more than 5,100 jobs. And nationwide, funding the national parks returns $10 on average, for every $1 spent.

Despite these impressive facts and the unquantifiable experiences found in our national parks, funding has declined for years, leading to restricted hours, fewer rangers to serve the public, and a backlog of needed building and maintenance projects. Last year’s across-the-board cuts led to an indefinite closure of Mount Rainier’s Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, among other challenges.

These impacts were felt months before the government shutdown, with its devastating impacts to gateway communities, not to mention spoiling dream weddings and long-planned vacations.

It took the will and perseverance of many people to establish the National Park System. Our national parks need be funded to sustainable levels so these iconic symbols will continue to be what they were and should always be – gifts to our people.

Our congressional leaders have an opportunity to reverse course and reinvest in our national parks. As the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2016, we urge Congress to adequately fund Mount Rainier – a true icon of the Pacific Northwest – and all of our national parks to levels that will allow Enumclaw and other gateway communities to continue to build their economic base.

By supporting a park operational budget increase as well as a Centennial Initiative, our national parks will be better prepared for their next 100 years by leveraging private dollars to match a long-overdue federal investment.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler are two elected officials who can directly influence this process with their roles in the Senate and House appropriations committees. It is time for Congress to get smarter about how our tax dollars are spent and renew our commitment to supporting “the best idea we ever had” – our National Park System. We can’t afford otherwise.

Liz Reynolds is mayor of Enumclaw, and Rob Smith is the Northwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.