Adventures are born in century-old park system

Local mountaineer Jim Whittaker has ascended Mount Rainier nearly 80 times.
Local mountaineer Jim Whittaker has ascended Mount Rainier nearly 80 times. Courtesy photo

One hundred years ago this week, Congress created the National Park Service. It’s an agency that has been called “America’s best idea,” and has given generations of Americans the ability to enjoy our country’s most important cultural and natural areas.

Experiencing the natural wonders of the park system led me to become involved in the conservation movement from the time my twin brother and I were teenagers. After becoming the first American to scale Mount Everest, I realized mountaineering could inspire others.

Lou and I had begun by climbing Mount Rainier and later guiding others to its peak. He climbed the mountain 250 times; I lagged behind at only 70 to 80 trips. My life has been one of recreation, climbing tall peaks and warming my hands by an open fire. National parks have given me the opportunity to create that life.

Today, as we enter the National Park Service’s second century, it is time for rededication and recognition of the work we still need to do. If we want to preserve our history, maintain our connection with the untamed part of our souls and pass on a legacy of wonder to coming generations, we need to address the backlog of deferred maintenance and repairs that has grown into a crisis.

The national parks can wait no longer. Congress has been unreliably funding the parks for many years. We now have an estimated $12 billion infrastructure repair backlog, and it will continue to worsen until Congress provides dedicated funding to fix our parks.

National parks in Washington state carry more than $510 million in unfunded repair projects, including $285 million in deferred maintenance at Mount Rainier and $139 million in Olympic National Park. The backlog affects the quality of visitor services and impedes our ability to interpret our national history in authentic settings.

Not only do the parks provide education, entertainment and adventure, they impact our economy. In 2015, the National Park Service estimates that park visitors spent more than $470 million in Washington. It’s hard to imagine our economy thriving without the presence of the tourist attractions our parks have become.

Nationally, Olympic National Park was the seventh most-visited park, with 3,262,761 visits. Mount Rainier National Park was ranked No. 18 with 1,237,231 visits. That means a lot of food, lodging, fees, outdoor gear and gas is sold and hundreds of jobs created.

It has given meaningful work to hundreds — if not thousands — of trail guides for decades. For example, the company my brother founded, RMI, has led guided tours of Mount Rainier for more than 40 years.

As we begin our next hundred years of the National Park Service, we have a legacy to pass on. You might begin by visiting a park (#findyourpark) with family and friends to learn more about why the parks are so important to our own sense of who we are. But don’t stop there. Become an advocate. It’s not a red thing to do or a blue one. It’s an American thing.

In honor of the Aug. 25 centennial celebration, call or write your members of Congress.Tell them you want them to support the parks and address the deferred maintenance and repair problem; only then (#fixourparks) will we be able to guarantee they will last for another 100 years.

Born 13 years after the National Park Service’s inception, I essentially came of age with our parks. I hope young people today will have the same access to the adventures the parks provided me. Let’s keep America’s best idea alive.

Jim Whittaker of Port Townsend was the first American to climb Mount Everest, receiving the Hubbard Medal from President John F. Kennedy. He was the first employee and a fomer president and CEO of REI and has been a vocal supporter and advocate on behalf of America’s national parks.