RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There's a big birthday today being celebrated from the marble steps of the White House to the granite peaks of the North Cascades. The National Park Service is turning 100. When it was created back in 1916, there were just 35 national parks and monuments for the Park Service to oversee. Today, the National Park Service system manages more than 400 sites, everything from battlefields like Gettysburg to the historic Oregon Trail, and of course the national parks themselves. NPR's Nathan Rott has had the enviable job of reporting on the National Park Service during this centennial year and joins us in the studio now.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Tough assignment, Nate?
ROTT: Yeah. It was a real hardship visiting some of the prettiest places in the country, hiking the Appalachian Trail with rangers, getting to shadow people whose jobs include mornings like Heidi Brill's. She's an animal caretaker. Let's hear from her.
HEIDI BRILL: I would say the best part of my job by far is the early mornings with the animals. Everything's so quiet, and the animals are steaming, you know, as the sun comes down and hits the forest floor. And the animals are starting to get sweated up and crossing through creeks. It's just visually a beautiful sight.
MONTAGNE: A beautiful sight that you got to see, Nate.
ROTT: Yeah. Not so bad, huh?
MONTAGNE: OK. But in the centennial year, many of your reports actually focused on the future.
ROTT: Yeah. Instead of looking at the last hundred years where the Park Service has been, how it got here, we decided to look at how it's doing right now and where it's going - we being myself and other NPR member station reporters. And the way we did that was by identifying what we saw as the four biggest challenges facing the National Park Service and its future. I'm sure people would add to this list, but the four we identified were climate change, overcrowding, financing and relevancy.
MONTAGNE: And relevancy, what exactly do you mean by that?
ROTT: Well, the National Park Service needs to be relevant to all Americans, or at least more of them than it is now. So let's look at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I spent 10 days there on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina earlier this summer, tagging along with park employees like Heidi Brill while they did their jobs. And one of those days included a soggy, rainy hike with the park superintendent, Cassius Cash, and a group of about 20 middle school kids from the nearby Eastern Cherokee reservation. The hike started like this.
CASSIUS CASH: Before I get into the history of anything, how many of you have been hiking in the national park?
ROTT: A few hands go up. Cash tries to put the others at ease.
CASH: When I was you guys' age, I used to always think bad things happen in the woods. I was a kid that grew up in Memphis. I had never been to a national park or a national forest.
ROTT: Cash gives this speech to a lot of people he goes hiking with, especially when they're minority groups or from cities. He wants them to be comfortable. He wants them to connect because it took a while for him to feel either of those things. Later in the hike, he told me the only reason he ever got over his fear of the woods was because of the Boy Scouts.
CASH: If it wasn't for that, as a kid from Memphis, I wouldn't have had that shot.
ROTT: Now, Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not have a visitation shortage. That's not what's driving his efforts. In fact, Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park, with more than 11 million visits last year. The thing about those visitors, though, is they are not representative of the community and nation around them. The park did a survey of visitors the year previous.
CASH: The average age was 41 years old.
ROTT: And most of those visitors were white. Now, that's no different than the rest of the Park Service overall. For years, the National Park Service has made increasing diversity a priority. And still, most of its workforce and its visitors are white. Cash himself is the first African-American superintendent in Great Smoky's history and one of only a handful in the service. Cash says that's a problem. He points to the kids.
CASH: This is the most diverse generation this country has seen. If these kids have no connection to the natural world, what message are we sending 15 years from now?
ROTT: That's why Cash has been leading a centennial effort to go on hikes with folks that don't typically visit national parks. That's how he is celebrating this centennial.
CASH: And it is my hope that we don't make this about a birthday or a celebration. It's a launching pad into what we should be doing for the next hundred, right?
ROTT: And, Renee, that's a message I heard over and over and over during my reporting, from the head of the National Park Service to literally the guys cleaning the bathrooms. The centennial is an opportunity to look in the mirror and plot a course forward.
MONTAGNE: Which sounds like the National Park Service is at a crossroads.
ROTT: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways it is. I mean, take climate change. Part of the Park Service's mandate is to preserve these places and the wildlife and ecosystems in them for future generations while at the same time, the glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting. The habitat where Joshua trees will grow is shrinking because of higher temperatures in Joshua Tree National Park. I mean, it goes on and on. John Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, put it to me this way.
JOHN JARVIS: Essentially, the paradigm upon which we manage is being shifted. And we have to begin thinking about how we manage for multiple futures.
ROTT: Rather than just assume that a landscape or an ecosystem with minimal human impact is going to more or less stay the way it is.
ROTT: And Nate, you listed a different challenge as well, overcrowding. I know that the Park Service broke their visitation record last year with more than 300 million visitors.
ROTT: Yeah. I mean, it's a good problem to have, right? The parks want people to visit these sites. But at a certain point, it can be too much. We've seen some of that in parks like Yellowstone this year, where you have more people visiting the park than the staff can manage. And that's not to speak ill of the park staff. They're just stretched too thin.
Now, a lot of that has to do with funding. One of the other big challenges we identified, the National Park Service has not been able to pay its bills for a long, long time. It has more than $12 billion in deferred maintenance. Those are roads that need to be fixed and buildings that need repairs, even - in some cases, it's entire sewer systems that need repaired, but the money just isn't there. And it doesn't seem like Congress is going to give them any more anytime soon.
MONTAGNE: So you looked at funding, overcrowding, climate change, relevancy. Was there anything that surprised you?
ROTT: Yeah. It definitely changed the way I view national parks. I mean, I'm the kind of person that likes to go out to the parks to get away, to hike, fish, just disconnect. But I met a lot of people that wanted to visit parks to connect, either by traveling in big, loud groups or meeting other people there or even just by posting stuff on social media, you know, taking a photo of that bear and getting a bunch of likes.
And I've realized how valuable that is to the parks, too. My version of how the park should be might not be your version or somebody else's, but that's OK. And I think the Park Service is realizing that, too, and doing a better job of accommodating and meeting people where they are.
MONTAGNE: Well, good stuff, Nate. Thanks very much.
ROTT: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Nathan Rott, who's been reporting on the National Park Service's centennial, a birthday being celebrated across the country today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.