By: Kate Nation
Watching Old Faithful blast boiling water more than 150 feet into the air at Yellowstone National Park or listening to the thunderous roar of 3,160 tons of water per second pouring over Niagara Falls State Park are experiences you will never forget. If you haven’t visited America’s first national park or oldest state park, there is still a good chance you’ve spent time exploring one or more of America’s 59 national parks or 6,624 state parks. The U.S. national system of parks is the envy of the world and part of our national heritage, yet it’s easy to take for granted the natural beauty, diverse wildlife and recreational opportunities those parks provide without giving thought to the impact of more than a billion annual visits.
America’s National Park Service turned 100 years old last August. While that is reason to celebrate, we must face the reality that the infrastructure of our national and state parks is deteriorating faster than it can be fixed. For more than a decade, Congress has declined to provide adequate funding for national park infrastructure, resulting in a $12 billion maintenance backlog. State parks face a similar funding crisis – $18.5 billion in unmet repairs – as spending on education, health care and corrections takes priority over “nice-to-have” amenities.
For the public to enjoy the natural beauty of America’s parks, they require roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, buildings, trails and other infrastructure. Putting off basic maintenance leads to bigger, costlier repairs in the future and steadily degrades the parks and visitor experience.
As a newly-formed Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable works to ensure recreation is included in infrastructure legislation, union members are battling the crisis on the ground through the USA’s Work Boots on the Ground (WBG) program, demonstrating the centuries-old American spirit of rolling up one’s sleeves to solve the country’s problems.
Last year, 863 union volunteers donated nearly 6,800 skilled man-hours to complete 18 USA conservation projects in 15 states, saving state parks, wildlife refuges and other public land agencies a whopping $210,910 in labor costs.
For the first time this year, Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge has a central and secure facility to store thousands of pounds of dropped elk antlers – an important funding source both for the refuge and local Boy Scouts – thanks to volunteers from IBEW Local 322 who built the 20×26-ft. storage shed.
“We had these skilled tradesmen working alongside a Boy Scout, who was getting his Eagle Scout honor by participating in this project, alongside refuge staff,” said Natalie Fath, visitor services manager and volunteer coordinator at the National Elk Refuge. “This is really the first time this refuge has had a project this dynamic. I certainly have a better sense of the expertise union workers bring to federal lands. This project would not have been possible … if not for all of their involvement.”
That same level of teamwork and collaboration was illustrated in Texas last spring when the USA, AFL-CIO, U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined together to dedicate a boardwalk connecting the city of Liberty with the nearby Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. Built by volunteers from the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council who spent a grueling 950 hours battling heat, mud and mosquitos in the swamp, the 500-ft. elevated boardwalk and observation deck provide refuge visitors with access to more than 13 miles of trails and a more intimate view of the bayou.
“This project is a success story about how partnerships among agencies, communities and volunteers working together can accomplish great things,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle, Ph. D.
Through a partnership between the USA and Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, volunteers from the Southcentral Alaska Building and Construction Trades Council began construction in 2016 on two cabins at the headwaters of Eklutna Lake in Chugach State Park – the third-largest state park in the nation. Unlike existing cabins, which are only reachable by foot, ATV or boat, the new drive-up accessible cabins will provide greater access for families with young children and people with disabilities.
At another lake in the Lower Forty Eight, 44 volunteers from the Ohio AFL-CIO volunteered an impressive 1,255 total hours – an average of 30 hours each – to replace dilapidated decking, railing and benches on a fishing pier at Ohio’s Antrim Park. Volunteers also installed a section of railing at a lower height to improve fishing access for youth and those with physical limitations.
In other parks and public recreation areas across the country, volunteer projects ranged from repairing horse stables and paddocks, painting Boy Scouts cabins, replacing windows, installing fishing piers and upgrading shooting facilities.
In addition to construction and maintenance projects, USA volunteers provided youth with fun and instruction at three annual Take Kids Fishing Day events in Wisconsin, a first time fishing day in West Virginia and the USA’s annual Get Youth Outdoors Day in Minnesota.
As we celebrate the USA’s 10th anniversary this year, we are closing in on our 100th WBG project. Since WBG’s launch, dedicated union volunteers have donated more than 18,000 hours, worth more than $600,000 in labor costs, and we are just getting started. Though dark clouds may loom over parks faced with financial crisis, union members offer a ray of hope as they flex their muscles and wield their tools to ensure America’s public lands and outdoor recreation infrastructure remain for generations to come.