Blog Post Jan 14, 2014

What Does It Take to Run a National Park?

Few of us appreciate the monumental task of caring for America’s national parks—each one a unique part of the country with its own specific management challenges and irreplaceable public resources. Shenandoah National Park staff recently decided to shine a light on what it takes to maintain their landmark Virginia park on a day-to-day basis.

Why? Last year’s federal government shutdown sparked new interest in the idea of states taking control of national parks. Since the shutdown, lawmakers at both the federal and state level have proposed legislation that would assign state governments jurisdiction over the national parks within their borders. While these bills are unlikely to pass, the trend is troubling. It’s also out of step with the overwhelming majority of Americans who support federal management of national parks. It is the job the National Park Service was created to do, and the agency is specially trained to manage these diverse, resource-rich, heavily visited sites—a subject NPCA has addressed before.

I’m sharing excerpts from Shenandoah’s list below because it shows the eye-opening amount of work that goes into maintaining just one of these 401 sites and providing a world-class visitor experience to millions of people each year—tasks we should take very seriously and leave to the experts who know them best.

Excerpts from Shenandoah National Park staff research on what it takes to run their park:


  • Shenandoah National Park is more than a pretty place. It is a large and complex organization, requiring more than $20 million, 150 paid staff, several formal partnerships, and hundreds of volunteers to operate each year.
  • The park encompasses nearly 200,000 acres of land, including 79,579 acres of federally designated wilderness.

Roads and trails

  • The park includes 236 miles of roads, including 105 miles of the famous Skyline Drive, a National Historic Landmark. … If the park were taken over by the state, the state would have to absorb the full cost of maintaining this road and all of its associated features, including 75 paved overlooks, thousands of linear feet of historic stone walls, drainage systems, and culverts, as well as summer mowing and winter snow and ice removal. Most of the remaining roads are gravel administrative roads, which provide access to specific facilities or remote areas for firefighting and other emergency operations. Most of these roads require at least annual maintenance to remain serviceable.
  • There are more than 500 miles of hiking and equestrian trails in the park, maintained by park trail crews and hundreds of volunteers who have worked with the National Park Service for years through the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  This includes 101 miles of the famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Trail work is costly, labor intensive, and time-consuming.

Visitor resources and historic structures

  • The park operates four entrance stations, two visitor centers, two boundary contact stations, four drive-in campgrounds, seven picnic areas, 17 public water supply systems, dozens of septic systems, and four wastewater treatment plants.
  • Specially trained rangers provide a wide variety of public interpretive and educational programs within the park and in local schools. Interpretive specialists design and produce the park brochure, the park newspaper, the park website, trailhead information signs, and wayside exhibits, and oversee operation of all of the park bookstores.
  • The park contains two National Historic Landmarks (Rapidan Camp and Skyline Drive); hundreds of other buildings, including 349 on the List of Classified Structures; 577 significant archeological sites, 11 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places; and more than 100 historic family cemeteries. All of the historic structures must be maintained in compliance with federal standards.
  • A cultural resource specialist is on staff to manage the broad spectrum of issues and initiatives involving these resources.
  • Altogether, the park contains 1,044 physical assets requiring maintenance. The current cost of deferred maintenance on these assets is $87,152,691 and current replacement value is $690,605,601. If the state were to take over the park, the state would also take over these deferred maintenance costs.

Public safety and resource management

  • The federal government has primary responsibility for law enforcement, emergency medical services, and search and rescue within the park. A specially trained cadre of approximately 25 federally commissioned rangers provides these services year-round in the park.
  • Under this form of jurisdiction, state law does not apply within the park and state officers have no authority to enforce the federal laws and regulations that protect park visitors and resources from criminal activity.
  • Protection rangers perform dozens of advance life-support medical responses and high-elevation rescues each year, some involving highly technical helicopter rescue techniques.
  • Specially trained firefighters manage all wild land and prescribed fires in the park.
  • The park manages a wide variety of complex natural resource issues, including air and water quality monitoring and management of invasive species, forest pests, wildlife, endangered species, and a wide variety of issues with park neighbors and utility companies with rights-of-ways through the park. Specialists are on staff to deal with all of these issues.

“Behind the scenes” resources the park manages

  • A 24-hours-a-day communication center
  • A fleet of more than 200 vehicles and 44 pieces of heavy equipment
  • An auto shop
  • A sign shop
  • An EPA-affiliated air-quality monitoring station
  • Live birds of prey associated with environmental education programs
  • A large natural and cultural museum collection
  • Resources to haul more than 350,000 lbs of solid waste each year

The National Park Service has operated Shenandoah National Park for more than 75 years. Even in tight budget times, the staff at Shenandoah has remained fully committed to being outstanding stewards of park resources and facilities, providing outstanding service to visitors, and continuing to be a vital part of the nature-based and heritage education economy in Virginia and the eastern United States.