As a special ops vet, I understand the importance of fighting for what I believe in.

Protecting our country from threats has been key in my life, and I celebrate the ideals of freedom, independence and community our nation was founded upon. Calaveras County embodies those principles.

For me, an expression of our American ideals is our system of national parks. Nearby is Yosemite, mighty with rugged beauty. I’ve hiked in Yosemite’s wilderness areas far beyond the park valley and spent significant time in more than four-dozen national parks all across the country.

State parks are vital as well. California has, by far, the best state park system anywhere. Let me focus on our national parks.

The United States invented national parks. Now these places are threatened by long neglect by Congress, which has failed for decades to provide the national parks with basic funding, leading to big backlogs of long-delayed maintenance in public areas.

“National parks just need to raise admission charges,” many say. Have you been to a national park lately?

Admission charges have increased. Even with flat rates per car, only well-off families can afford the ever-rising costs of staying several days; many families with kids can’t afford such a visit. That also means overall public support for parks slides downward.

Congressional neglect is shameful. But before my anti-tax friends start after me, we all need to understand that stopping this neglect would cost each federal taxpayer only a couple of dollars a year, and many low-income Calaveras County residents are exempt from federal taxes.

To those who want to privatize the national parks, I say, “Then, after a while, forget God-given natural beauty. We’ll get ever-higher fees and high-profit Ferris wheels, water slides and roller coasters to raise profits.”

Park shortfalls are documented. They threaten natural and historic treasures held in public trust. Cutbacks have been across the board and include trash pickup, toilet cleanup, needed repairs to buildings, trail safety and maintenance, necessary operations the public doesn’t see and the number of rangers on duty. One visible indicator is that as park rangers have been cut back, vandalism has increased.

From years of Con-gressional underfunding, the backlog of vitally needed projects has grown to more than $12 billion across the National Park System.

More than $1.7 billion of that backlog (out of the $12 billion nationwide) has degraded national parks in California.

Yosemite is in need of $555 million in work, including basics like adequate parking and new ways of accommodating record numbers of visitors with quality experiences.

The most critical fix for Yosemite is less visible to the public but could spell disaster for the Merced River, both within the park and in communities downstream outside the park. Officials say that $80 million in repairs are needed at the park’s wastewater-treatment plants at El Portal and Wawona.

National parks are seeing record visitation. These visitors support economies beyond park borders. Extensive studies document that $1 invested in national parks provides an average $10 return to surrounding communities. A tenfold payback is good business.

Beyond economic benefits, national parks introduce us to towering sequoias in dense stands unlike any found elsewhere in the world, towering peaks, cascading waterfalls, free-ranging wildlife, deserts filled with stark beauty and sites that connect us with our shared heritage and history. They help preserve our founding ideals and foster new, creative ideas that help inspire the future.

Being in our great American parks reminds me of the importance of what I went in harm’s way to protect and what I must continue to protect in new ways.

As a citizen, I’m a long-time supporter of the National Parks Conservation Association, founded a century ago by the same person who was the first director of the Park Service. I’ve guided advocates for deserving places nationwide to get those places listed on the National Register, or to become National Historic Landmarks, a big jump up from the register. I’ve worked to protect water in dry parts of California from being sent to cities in Southern California.

Previously in my career, I worked as a legislative staffer in Congress, which gave me rare insight into its inner workings. Voters need to urge Congress to make a genuine effort to save our parks.

National parks are national treasures. I want my children, my grandchild and America’s kids everywhere to explore the wondrous natural places I’ve been so fortunate to experience.

Bill Withuhn, Smithsonian curator emeritus, is a former USAF special operations officer who was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, 12 Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation. He lives in Burson and is married to Gail, a retired teacher. You can contact him at editor@calaverasenterprise.com.

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