In the 100th year of the National Park Service, or NPS, America's parks and public lands are more popular than ever. Visits to national parks have reached record-breaking levels, with more than 307 million visitors in 2015. That number is expected to grow substantially this year, as NPS puts its centennial celebration at the forefront of an aggressive advertising and outreach campaign. But the national parks are not alone—nearly all public lands, including national forests and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management—have also seen their visitation numbers reach new highs in recent years.
Parks and public lands are also incredibly popular even among those who do not visit regularly. A poll conducted in January 2016 by Hart Research Associates for the Center for American Progress found that 77 percent of Americans believe that the United States benefits a great deal or fair amount from national parks. This number is consistent regardless of political affiliation. Furthermore, 55 percent of voters believe they personally benefit a great deal or fair amount from the country's parks and public lands. These levels of public support for a federal government program are remarkable at a time when only 19 percent of Americans say they trust the government.
With U.S. demographics rapidly changing, it is more important than ever to develop and advance a forward-thinking and inclusive centennial policy agenda for the nation's public lands. The viability and relevance of America's national parks depend on the ability to connect more Americans to their public lands. Land management agencies have not kept pace in reflecting America's diverse population or in engaging new generations to visit and explore the historic, cultural, and environmental resources available through public lands. The parks need the buy-in of all Americans to continue to grow and stay relevant.