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North America’s National Parks: Canada Adds Them, USA Closes Them

While Canada is expanding already protected areas and freezing use fees for visitors, across the United States, parks are facing proposed and actual closures as a result of an economic downturn leading to lower tax revenues for most states.

The Honorable Jim Prentice, Canada’s Environment Minister and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, recently announced the massive expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The expansion will make Nahanni six times its current size, and the third largest park in Canada. It will protect over 30,000 square kilometres of land, which is approximately 91% of the Greater Nahanni Ecosystem in the Dehcho region. Much of the South Nahanni River watershed will be protected. Canada’s government has also frozen fees in all Parks Canada managed national parks and historic sites this year and next in an effort to encourage more tourism.

Public lands are not faring as well state-side. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently and controversially proposed to close 220 of California’s state parks to the public. With a budget shortfall of $26 billion, the California governor hopes the closures will save the state millions of dollars in park maintenance and service costs over the next year.

However, not everyone agrees. A team of researchers at Sacramento State University released a new study they say shows that the state parks system pays for itself. Researchers at Sac State’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration, estimated 75 million people visit California state parks annually. According to survey results taken over the past two years, these visitors spend $4.3 billion in “park-related expenditures” each year. This money generates $300 million in sales tax revenue to state government.

“Factual survey information tells us that local economies depend heavily on the money that park visitors spend in their communities and we have heard from many local areas that they are concerned on how this will negatively impact their areas” says Roy Stearns, Deputy Director of Communications, California State Parks.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal would affect 80% of California’s nature reserves and recreation areas and restrict access to 30% of the state’s coastline. Affected areas would stretch from the Sierra Nevada mountains in the north of the state down to the deserts of San Diego and the beaches and wetlands of Big Sur. At least 2,000 park rangers, biologists, lifeguards and maintenance workers would loose their jobs if the proposal were adopted.

Similar proposed closures and reductions are occurring throughout the country. In New York, Niagara Falls State Park and Long Island’s state parks will trim hours, days and even programs. Louisiana’s Audubon State Historic Site would be closed to visitors all but Fridays and Saturdays under a new plan that slashes state government budgets.

In response to the situation, the National Parks Service has threatened to seize six of the California sites if closed. Six of these parks occupy former federal land that could revert to the US government if the state fails to keep them open. Schwarzenegger has rejected Democratic proposals to add a $15 fee to annual vehicle registrations to raise money to run the parks. The proposal is still pending.

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