Friday, October 11, 2013

America's Best Idea Shut Down

By now, I'm sure many of you are sick and tired of hearing about the Government shut-down (and being sick and tired of the shut-down itself is an understatement). With many "non-critical" parts of federal government being furloughed, a lot of Americans are wondering what this means for our country now and in the long run. I'm not going to get into political speculation here; no, this blog post is instead about a major part of our government and our identity as a nation that too has been labeled as non-essential - the National Parks.

The Department of the Interior is certainly taking a hit in the shut-down - a whopping 81% of its employees are furloughed. Agencies designed to further scientific research on resource usage and enforce environmental regulations on land owned by the taxpayers are cut to emergency response personnel only. It has never been a better time for an irresponsible rancher to get away with overgrazing and promoting desertification on a leased land. Getting more publicity, however, is the closing of the National Parks - mostly because these parks are gated and make it difficult for coming and going as one pleases. The exception is the Great Smokey Mountains because of the major road that runs through the middle. How GSMNP is handling the shut-down, I'm not actually sure, but I imagine it hasn't affected commute times between Cherokee and Gatlinburg.

I've noticed many people posting on tumblr, facebook, and twitter about how silly it is to "shut down nature". The general consensus is that the government can't keep people out of nature - an idea that I generally agree with. Nature belongs to everyone, and everyone has an inherent right to experiencing nature in the positive manner they so choose. However, to really understand why the National Parks are closed, we must look at why the National Parks were created in the first place*. The National Park Service grew out of a growing concern to protect unique and wild places from development of Westward moving settlers and pillaging from overly zealous tourists at archaeological sites. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was specifically put into place to keep these places intact - and is pretty much the reason why removing a rock from a National Park is a federal offense. It may seem silly and pedantic, but the idea is that nature itself will be the one to modify these great  monuments in our nation's landscape, not humanity. With the support of environmental and scientific visionaries like John Muir (who famously met with President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the protection of Yosemite Valley), the idea of preserving our natural heritage really gained traction and led to the awe-inspiring landscapes and historical sites that will continue to fascinate, enrapture, encourage, and ignite a passion for our place as individuals and as humans in the world for generations to come. It's not about just conservation, but, like I said before, preservation **.

The idea extends not just to the National Parks but to historical sites as well - imagine if people, arguably most with the utmost best intentions, could go find souvenirs for themselves at a historic battlefield? What if the ground so famously consecrated, in Lincoln's words, at Gettysburg were dug up and trampled upon with no reverence to the memory of what took place there? National Parks, Monuments, Battlefields, and Historic Sites are not just places for field trips and good photo-ops - these are places that speak to us about the land, nature, the passage of time, and what it means to be not only an American but a global citizen as well. Our natural and national heritage goes above and beyond merely being aware of the existence of these places and allows us all to immerse ourselves instead. And the sad fact is that these places so chosen because of their grand beauty and impact must be protected - whether by abstract law or by literal personnel.

It is extremely disrespectful, to what the Parks stand for and to the rangers and other government employees themselves who work tirelessly and thanklessly to protect these places, to say "well, nobody is home - let's just walk in!". There is a reason certain activities are strictly prohibited in parks (that are allowed in National Forests and Recreation Areas, which are generally not gated anyhow and thus the "government doesn't own nature" argument doesn't even make sense).

Don't get me wrong - I definitely do not take the stand that these Parks and other places should be enjoyed solely from behind velvet ropes. The Parks provide endless opportunities for personal exploration, getting in touch with nature, sleeping under the stars and discovering and encountering wilderness. This is why it's important to remember that in the Shut-Down, it isn't just park rangers tasked with law enforcement that is being affected. Maintenance has stopped on National Trails - including the famous Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail - which could be hazardous to an unwary hiker. Interpretation programs, designed to immerse visitors ranging from all ages and walks of life to get a personal handle on the respective park or site visited, are shut-down. Scientific operations that range from wildlife management to the effects of climate change, from phylogenetic discoveries to cataloging disappearing and endangered species, are at a standstill.  Were the parks open during the shut-down, Citizen Science programs (designed to involve visitors with the scientific process and enhance their experience in the parks as well as contribute to real, valid research) would definitely not be running. Visitor Centers would be shut down, Interpretive Rangers would be gone. The areas, while still bountiful and beautiful, would lose all context and opportunity for learning why these places are so special  to receive Federal protection.

That's why I find this situation truly distressing - the very heart and soul of these majestic places have been shut down. Lives have been turned upside down as weddings, reunions, and family vacations have been cancelled - trivial as it may seem - but these are valuable opportunities for connecting with our own history. A person who visits a Park may end up cultivating a love and passion for the things they saw, and that is invaluable. The Parks are invaluable, and they are inherently important in the worldly growth of us all.

To close this post, I had a friend recently tell me about her cousin that was furloughed in the shut-down. They figured, in their time off (this was immediately after news of the shutdown being finalized broke), they would finally visit Yosemite, only to find the gates closed to them. As a National Park fanatic and as an American idealist, I found that very depressing. We've all heard these stories - war memorials and landmarks closed to veterans, Yellowstone empty on its founding anniversary, and it's right to feel angry about this.

So how about this, instead; instead of complaining about the government can't keep us out of nature, we demand that the parks stay open no matter what. Instead of railing against the Parks themselves (the argument has an air of "what's the point of Parks anyway? Let's break in!"), why don't we demand as a nation that Congress re-thinks what is "non-essential" (including other departments and programs, such as WIC) during a time of governmental crisis? If we are to keep nature and history open to all, regardless of Congress' failure to get its act together now, then we have to start considering the NPS to be anything but non-essential.

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give us strength to body and soul. This natural beauty-hunger is displayed in poor folk's window-gardens made up of a few geranium slips in broken cups, as well as in the costly lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks...Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have been subject to attack, mostly by despoiled gain-seekers, mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, eagerly trying to make everything dollarable, often thinly disguised in smiling philanthropy, calling pocket-filling plunder "Utilization of beneficient natural resources, that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation grow great." - John Muir

* Ken Burns' documentary the National Parks: America's Best Idea is a fantastic and thorough introduction to the history and importance of the National Parks and NPS. A definite must-watch.

** I won't get into the discussion of Muir ideology vs. that of Pinchot ideology and the differences between conservation (responsible resource use and management) and preservation (no intentional unnatural interference).

1 comment :

  1. Beyond the fact that thousands of NPS employees are furloughed, trail maintenance on the national scenic trails has been suspended, and the other downsides of the shut-down, it's also severely affecting local economies. For places like Gatlinburg, TN, this is usually a very busy time as people come to see the changing trees in the Smokies. This also hurts Estes Park, CO, which sits at the east entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park. Although usually bad, this is terrible for Estes Park, which was already reeling from the floods earlier this year. October is a big season for viewing elk.