black rock campground

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Driving through the gold-brown savanna of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, past its Dr. Seuss-like trees and water-carved rocks, it’s easy to see why the national parks have been called America’s Best Idea.

Spend a few hours with some of the park’s employees, like Cultural Resources Branch Chief Jason Theuer, and you’ll see that national parks are also another thing: expensive. There is a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog of work that needs be done but isn’t because of limited money.

Theuer’s job is to preserve and maintain some of the historical structures here— sites like Keys Ranch, the sprawling high-desert homestead deep in Joshua Tree’s interior. The ranch’s schoolhouse, which is about 80 years old, looks like it was cobbled together with salvaged materials. There are no studs keeping the walls straight and upright, so now there’s as much light pouring in through the warped wooden-plank walls as there is through the windows.

“We came in and added all of these supports here,” Theuer says, pointing to a beefy frame built up against the building’s interior. Without it, it’s hard to imagine the building standing up to a good sneeze.

National Parks Have A Long To-Do List But Can’t Cover The Repair Costs

Photos: Nathan Rott/NPR