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 while 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 while 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 1 / 8these 3 / 8 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.