Open more national parks to boating

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The National Park Service turns 100 years old this year and it’s inviting everyone to join the centennial celebration. But I also find it a time to voice disappointment in the National Park Service’s lack of support for increasing boating activity.

President Obama declared this week National Park Week and every park site that normally charges an entrance fee is offering free admission to everyone. The fee waiver includes entrance fees, commercial tour fees and transportation entrance fees. Of the 409 national parks, 127 charge an entrance fee. The others are free all of the time.

And while we can all take pride in our park system in many ways, we can also be disappointed by the fact that only 66 (a paltry 16 percent) of the 409 have any boating activity. And where boating exists, problems are evident.

There are approximately 2,000 federally-owned lakes across the country. About 25 percent have at least 1,000 surface acres of navigable water. Almost universally, these lakes are publically accessible for boating, fishing, water sports and swimming, along with tangential activities like camping and hiking.

Moreover, recreation activities, including boating, at federally-owned lakes reportedly draw nearly 1 billion visits annually and account for an estimated $44 billion in spending. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Not so fast.

Overall there’s a lack of facilities; inadequate access points, poor docks and ramps; deteriorating infrastructure and restrooms; lack of management and direction; inconsistent and confusing policies; among others. That all comes from a 1999 National Recreation Lakes Study Commission report entitled “Reservoirs of Opportunity.” It produced a number of recommendations. Sadly, to date, significant work remains to be done to achieve the commission’s overall vision of making recreation a higher priority on federal lakes.

Last month, National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich participated in an American Recreation Coalition meeting to brainstorm an “idea bank” to be shared with national leaders. Overall, a dozen strategies were offered by top recreation and conservation leaders.

For boating, the NMMA presented “Reclaiming Our Federal Lakes: Recommendations for the 45th President of the United States.” Specifically, looking forward to 2017, the following obstacles were noted as critical to modernize federal lakes and meet public demand and expectations:

Deferred Maintenance: The backlog is estimated to be about $1 billion. This compounds the fact that, as of 2000, the country already faced a disturbing lack of facilities (ramps, marinas, and restrooms), infrastructure (access roads, parking, navigation markers), and it’s only gotten worse.

Funding: The appropriation process remains an uphill battle likely to remain unresolved. Alternative funding streams (state/local government, user fees and private partnerships) have not provided consistent monies to address operational costs.

Lack of leadership: It has hamstrung federal lakes from reaching their full recreational potential. From day-to-day management, to long-term planning to simple marketing to the public, there is a lack of unified effort.

Bureaucratic complexities: The federal lakes are managed by (hold on) 11 different agencies, many of which don’t even have authority to engage in partnerships with the private sector for modernization projects and concessionaire operations, i.e., maintenance and development.

The next administration needs to commit itself to meet the public’s demand for recreation on America’s abundance of publically accessible federal lakes. Better usage of these lakes will result in significant economic, social and environmental benefits for small businesses, environmentalists, local communities and recreationists like boaters, anglers and swimmers.

While challenging the next administration to make boating access a higher priority, Dammrich also noted that the NMMA encourages everyone to explore our parks and waters.

Click here for a look at some national parks with great boating and fishing experiences.

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