Rutherford: Fund our Nation’s Parks

Far from the bustle of the city, Rep. John Rutherford joined representatives from Pew Charitable Trusts, Visit Jacksonville, the Timucuan Parks Foundation and the National Parks Conservation Association in the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve today to call for dedicated federal funds for the $11.6 billion backlog of deferred maintenance in our nation’s parks. Rutherford and a bipartisan coalition of Florida lawmakers have joined members of Congress to co-sponsor the National Park Service Legacy Act to provide funds for projects and repairs that have been left undone for many years.

Before the stunning backdrop of the historic Kingsley Plantation and the St. Johns River, U.S. Park Ranger Emily Palmer shared the story of the plantation and its inhabitants of long ago, how a girl born royal in West Africa became a slave who, at 13, was sold to Zephaniah Kingsley, who would become her husband and father of her children, before freeing Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley five years later, in 1811, when she was 18. Two centuries ago, the bone-white buildings of the plantation on the banks of the river were occupied by Anna, Zephaniah, their children and their slaves.

“These [structures] have survived hurricanes, humidity, wars,” Palmer said. “…In those cabins, slave men, women and children lived, broke bread and died.” In fact, Palmer pointed out, Kingsley Plantation is the birthplace of African American archaeology; it was there that researchers first asked what the lives of slaves were like.

“The amazing thing about this site is that we can wander through these cabins,” Palmer said. “…You can feel what they might have felt on a hot August day.”

The story of Anna is one of intrigue; a royal who became a slave, who became a plantation and slave owner, then lost her husband, her son and very nearly her fortune; had she been any other woman, she may have disappeared into history after such losses. Instead, she returned from Haiti, where the family had fled during wartime, fought in the courts to have her lands returned and ultimately succeeded–to do so, the court ruled that she, a black African woman, was Spanish, for she had been freed under Spanish rule. “It was a loophole,” Palmer explained to the captivated crowd.

Today anyone can stroll the grounds where Anna once made her life, but if current funding levels remain, those bone-white buildings where she and her slaves made their homes may crumble to the ground; the pristine lands on which peacocks stroll and bask could become overgrown and forgotten.

Rutherford, who’d last visited Kingsley as child half a century ago, seemed moved by the experience. “I think we need more awareness of our national parks,” he said. Later, he reflected further. “I hate to say that I’ve taken our national parks for granted for way too long.”

Supporting the nation’s parks isn’t just a feel-good initiative, a talking point that’s hard to argue against–though it does enjoy nearly universal support, with polls showing upwards of 95 percent supporting maintaining and preserving the parks for future generations. It’s also good economics. National parks generate billions of dollars of economic impact and create thousands of jobs.

Here in Florida, the 11 million people who visited the 11 National Park Service sites added $613 million to the state’s economy in 2017, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. Bill Prescott, board chair of Visit Jacksonville, said that 10 percent of tourists surveyed said that they came here to visit the parks. Considering that this March more people came to Jacksonville than when the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2005, that’s big numbers–and big money.

A study commissioned by Pew Charitable Trusts, which analyzed 2016 data, found that funding the $11.3 billion of deferred maintenance then needed (it’s since increased to $11.6 billion) could create as many as 110,000 jobs–2,500 in Florida alone. Deferred maintenance refers to a lot of things you see in a park, as well as a lot of things you don’t. Crumbling roads, falling buildings, and signs that are missing or in disrepair are hard to miss, but things like fixing bathrooms or moving the maintenance building on Kingsley away from the encroaching waters rising due to sea level rise can be more expensive and equally, if not more, important. “It’s the dark places we go, we see, we deal with that the public doesn’t see,” said Chris Hughes, superintendent of Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve at a subsequent luncheon and panel discussion at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Jacksonville this afternoon.

All told, according to a handout provided at today’s event, Florida’s parks have $262 million of deferred maintenance, including $3.8 million at Timucuan, a vast national park comprising 130 square miles, or 46,000 acres, of wetlands, forest, waterways and history.

To help raise funds, the Trump Administration, which has floated drastic cuts to park funds, has proposed potentially doubling entrance fees at the nation’s 17 most visited parks during their busy months, which has been criticized for decreasing access, and possibly numbers of visitors. Though he’s often supportive of the president, Rutherford is not on board with raising park fees. “I think history belong to everyone … I think they should be free to the public,” he said today.

Given the bipartisan support in Congress, the vast numbers of people who want our nation’s parks preserved for the future, it can be hard to understand why the parks aren’t getting the funds they so desperately need, why funding has been cut and cut and cut, and yet the Trump Administration wants to cut more. The solution could be as simple as picking up the phone and calling your representatives.

Contacting your representatives “is the first thing I’d do,” said Tom St. Hilaire of Pew Charitable Trusts at the panel discussion.

Based on the attendance of staffers from the offices of Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Bill Nelson, Rep. Al Lawson, state Rep. Cord Byrd, as well as Rutherford himself at today’s event, odds are they’ll hear you out.

“I promise to do more,” Rutherford said this morning.