The Terrible State of Our National Parks—in Photos

Broken pipes, crumbling walkways, closed trails—this is what the $11.6 billion maintenance backlog looks like on the ground

Operating our parks is expensive. They’re not money-making machines. (tiny-al/iStock)
national parks

Operating our parks is expensive. They’re not moneymaking machines (despite Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s desire to make them so). They cost a lot to manage, and the current National Park Service maintenance backlog is at $11.6 billion, a figure that gets bandied about quite a bit and can seem pretty overwhelming. But half of that number is actually money needed to repair some 5,500 miles of roads in our park system. When you really drill down and only include repairs considered “critical” to running the parks—things like functioning bathrooms or campground and hiking trail maintenance—the figure is much more manageable, at $3.5 billion.

So, $3.5 billion? Sounds like chump change to the feds. Up until recently, the federal government was spending $60 billion a year to maintain outdated tech and computers that still ran on floppy disks—granted, some of that equipment operated our nukes. But consider the yearly report published by Senator John McCain’s office that rounds up dubious spending. In 2015, the report highlighted $294 billion the government gave to programs it was no longer authorized to fund, like researching the bomb-sniffing capabilities of elephants, nearly half a million dollars on a dog-bite prevention website, and—seriously—$387,000 for a National Institutes of Health grant to study the effects of Swedish massages on rabbits.

The government spends a lot of our tax money on things of questionable need. Our public lands, however, are only becoming more loved, more used, and in dire need of repair. Thanks to some photos provided by the National Parks Conservation Association, we got a peek at what the maintenance backlog really looks like.


national parks

(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Jan Kaplan)

This photo is from Grand Canyon National Park, where a pipeline broke and was spewing water à la Old Faithful. As of last September, Grand Canyon had $329 million in deferred maintenance costs.


national parks

(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/J Garder)

This is also from Grand Canyon, although a ranger told Outside all overlook trails are now operating.


national parks

(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association)

This is one of the many rope ladders in Olympic National Park, and as you can see, it’s not the safest climb. Olympic was one of the parks where Zinke wanted to double entrance fees to help pay down the backlog. It was a hugely unpopular plan, and he eventually rolled over on the idea. Olympic has about $121 million in deferred maintenance costs.


national parks

(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Elizabeth Ackley)

At the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, signs like this keep visitors far away from the pier where, as the stick figure indicates, you’re liable to fall through the crumbling cement walls and end up in the frigid water. The park has a total of $86 million in deferred costs.


national parks

(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Joan Frankev)

This is a crumbling walkway in Yellowstone National Park. There are a lot bigger issues to deal with there, like the increasingly untenable visitation. But it’s a sign of much larger problems when we can’t keep our most iconic park in top shape. Yellowstone has more than a half-billion-dollar backlog.


national parks

(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Cory McNulty)

Zion National Park’s trail to Emerald Pools was closed for seven years until last July, when a private grant of $1 million from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation supplied the funds to open the pathway, hopefully by the end of 2019. Zion’s backlog is $65 million.

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