A hiker in Big Bend National Park, January 2, 2016 (Tom Michael / Marfa Public Radio)
This year, 2016, is the centennial for the National Park Service. And Big Bend National Park is expecting a rise in visitors.
It’s January 2nd and a rare desert rain is pouring off the roof at the Panther Junction Visitors Center. Just returning from a hike, Joselyn Fenstermacher of Alpine is not bothered. “Love it,” she said, “so special. This is totally setting the stage for amazing spring wildflowers. It’s the smell of creosote. It’s the beautiful clouds wafting through the canyons.”
After a 10-hour drive from Galveston, Kimberly Beatty wasn’t disappointed either to see those rain clouds: “It makes the mountains ominous with all the clouds and the fog.” She got married in the park 9 years ago, but for Mike Hoff of Austin, it’s his first visit. “We just decided to take a road trip and west looked the clearest on the weather, so we decided to head west.”
Most people don’t just drop by Big Bend National Park. It’s remote and hours from any city. That’s why it’s important, Fenstermacher says – even for those who never go. “Maybe people that never visit, but yet they support the idea of having a wilderness, so it’s ok for my tax dollars to support that system for the advantage of lots of people. Whether it’s underserved kids getting into the wilderness for the first time or if it’s stressed-out office workers, needing to take a chill pill so they can recover themselves, so they can continue to make the economy work.”
Users don’t pay entrance fees at all national park sites, but they do at this one. But user fees alone can’t pay for them, of course – these parks are federally funded.
“A lot of these things that are for the human good tend to get overlooked. And the funding has been decreased and decreasing for the park service for a long time. I know for Big Bend (National Park), they are down several permanent positions, especially in interpretation.”
This has been the snapshot of park funding in recent years, but just before Christmas, U.S. Congress approved an omnibus budget that included increases for programs within the Department of the Interior, which includes the National Park Service.