The closing of America’s national parks was among the most emotionally charged aspects of the 16-day federal government shutdown. As party leaders raced to make a deal to reopen the government and avert a default, House Republicans were accusing the head of the Park Service of trying to make the shutdown “as painful and as visible as possible.” It’s a shame that the parks, usually a source of national pride, became rhetorical pawns amid a national embarrassment. But although the parks still have the country’s attention, it’s worth clearing up some myths about them.
1. The parks’ financial problems are over now that the government shutdown has ended and tourism has resumed.
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees estimated that although all the national parks were closed, lost tourism dollars amounted to $76 million a day — $450,000 of which would have gone directly to the parks in the form of entry fees and other charges.
But entry fees, which are kept low to ensure access for everyone, cover less than 6 percent of park upkeep costs. The federal government makes up most of the rest, and year after year, Congress votes to give less and less. The National Park Service budget is 15 percent lower than it was a decade ago in today’s dollars, 13 percent lower than three years ago. Sequestration cuts have made the situation even worse.
The consequences are real. A $180 million slash in funding for 2013 meant that the parks fielded 1,900 fewer staff members. That translated into fewer ranger hikes and campfire programs, roads left unrepaired, restrooms cleaned less often, visitor centers closed, openings delayed and staff positions left vacant. For example, Everglades National Park has 17 job openings it can’t fill, including deputy superintendent, chief law enforcement ranger, wildlife biologist and water scientist.
You don’t have to know much about water-quality issues in the Everglades, situated just downstream from massive-scale agriculture, to appreciate the value of a water-quality specialist there. Parks are forced into anguished trade-offs: hire that water expert or keep rangers in the field to protect and guide visitors?
2. States should take a bigger role in managing the parks.
The government shutdown prompted renewed calls to let states run the parks. An article in American Thinker was typical: Because of a vested interest in tourism dollars, states would never allow parks they controlled to close. “In fact, many of these parks and monuments could probably, in a pinch, be manned by volunteers who love the history and the natural beauty of their state.”
Probably not. The ability of Utah and a few other localities to cobble together enough money to reopen parks during the shutdown does not speak to states’ ability to keep parks going long term. States have fiscal problems of their own. As for volunteers, they would need a whole lot of training before they could step in and manage a park.
And as much as I applaud Utah for getting its parks reopened, let’s remember that it’s a state eager to plunder its public lands for coal, uranium, natural gas and off-road recreation. If Utah gets its way, Coal Hollow Mine, on the stoop of Bryce Canyon National Park, will soon be allowed to expand its strip-mining operation on 3,500 acres of public land. Utah also fought the establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This is one state government that I’d rather not see managing national parks.
3. The national parks are wild places.
From the beginning, when California’s Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias were designated to be preserved for “public use, resort, and recreation,” the parks have sought to balance protection of natural landscapes with an interest in making them accessible to visitors. Roads, hotels and concessions have made the parks progressively less wild. And other projects, such as the damming of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1923 to improve San Francisco’s water supply, further tamed the land.
The national park mission has also expanded over time, moving beyond wilderness preservation. Today, the system’s 401 units comprise a remarkable inventory that includes national monuments, battlefields and urban recreation areas, such as Maryland’s Greenbelt Park.
4. Wildlife within the national parks is managed for the enjoyment of visitors.
Every park that harbors animals delivers warnings: Watch from a distance. Yet every year, more than a few visitors approach those animals with an assumption of safety because they seem to confuse national park with theme park. In one video posted on YouTube last year, a man is heard encouraging kids toward a bison in Yellowstone with the assurance: “He’s friendly.” The bison proceeds to charge a terrified child.
Wildlife management in the parks emphasizes conservation rather than tourism. The Park Service tries to protect all of its animals — particularly rare, threatened and endangered species — and their habitat. It also ventures into population control when human influences produce unnaturally high numbers of a particular species.
But when human health and safety become issues, priorities have to shift. When people get hurt, animals may be destroyed or relocated. That’s sad, because most dangerous encounters could be avoided if tourists were content with a pair of good binoculars or a telephoto lens.
5. The national parks are timeless preserves.
The notion that the parks must be “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” is etched in the act of Congress that established the Park Service in 1916. The agency does a remarkable job, but it has an impossible mission.
Visitor impact can been seen in places such as Yellowstone’s Morning Glory Pool. Once a striking blue color, it has been dulled and discolored over the years by coins and trash. Recently, native rock art in Joshua Tree was spray-painted by vandals, as were majestic cacti in Saguaro National Park.
More dramatic changes could be ahead.
Glacier could lose its glaciers and Joshua Tree its Joshua trees within this century because of climate change.
Air pollution, which already obscures iconic views across the Grand Canyon, threatens animal and plant health.
Development in the areas surrounding parks — for residential neighborhoods, mining, forestry and other purposes — is fragmenting the habitat of threatened species that don’t pay heed to park boundaries. Now, a giddy rush to frack natural gas wherever it may lurk poses new risks.
Members of Congress offered passionate rhetoric about our national parks these past few weeks. Let’s see if they can muster the will to help achieve some semblance of the parks’ mission.
Robert Earle Howells, a Southern California-based writer, contributed to “Secrets of the National Parks” and “The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.”