On the first warm day of spring, a corner of Madison Square Park was filled with green uniforms and distinctive tan hats.
They belonged to a group of park rangers who looked just a bit out of place standing in front of the Flatiron Building. The National Park Service, in conjunction with the National Park Foundation, the official national park charity, held the inaugural event in its “Find Your Park” tour to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016 and to entice young people to visit the parks.
The event featured a red carpet and a rotating electronic installation that pointed to 407 national parks around the United States, and displayed the name of the park shown on a screen. On the side of the stage, Michelle Obama’s advertisement for the campaign also played on a big screen.
But to attract a young audience, the organizers brought along 17-year-old actress Bella Thorne, who previously starred in the Disney Channel TV show, Shake It Up. As reporters gathered around Thorne, dressed in stretch pants and a midriff-bearing top, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who was standing nearby, drew less of a crowd.
After the 2008 recession, visitation rates to national parks soared, as they provided a more affordable vacation option. Last year, 292.8 million people visited the parks, a new record. But the National Park Service still struggles for funding.
The parks were famously hit hard by the 2013 automatic budget cuts, with all national parks shutting down to visitors for over two weeks in October. In 2014 the National Park Service was appropriated $2.56 billion, and in 2015 that number rose to $2.61 billion. But in 2016, the service is requesting $3 billion. “We have been significantly underfunding our parks, really, at every level,” said Jewell. “And that’s been going on for some decades. So what I’m saying to members of congress is, ‘We need to step up and provide parks the support that they deserve.’”
Interior Secretary Jewell and the Obama administration have been more focused on telling a broader story of America through its parks and monuments. She offered up examples. “We now honor Cesar Chavez through a National Monument,” said Jewell, adding that the story of African American soldiers who were the first park rangers in places like Yosemite and Yellowstone has not yet been well told.
Daniel Prebutt, a park ranger at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, mentioned that his site was the closest to the event, just a few blocks away on 20th Street. “A lot of people in New York City don’t think we have national parks here,” said Prebutt. “But actually around the New York City area, we have 22 national park sites.”
Governors Island National Monument is one of them. It’s “the coolest national park,” said Noah Lumsden, a park ranger who works there. He said the organizers asked each park in the city to send representatives so he came with two other rangers from Governors Island. The island has about 400,000 visitors over the course of a 120-day season, which begins on Memorial Day weekend and lasts through the summer.
At Madison Square Park Thursday, people sat near tables, eating their lunches as they watched the spectacle.
“I think it should be a priority to upkeep the national parks and any wilderness areas” said Carey Seward, who was walking by at around noon. “I think it’s one of the most important things on the national agenda.”