Let’s Close the National Parks Redux
“The crisis is now in sight. Homeopathic measures will no longer suffice; thirty cents here and a dollar-seventy-five there will no longer keep the national park system in operation.”
Western historian and champion of public lands Bernard Devoto penned those words in his 1953 essay entitled “Let’s Close the National Parks.” After spending a summer visiting the West’s national parks, the firebrand Devoto was incensed over the state of the West’s parks, and the government’s, specifically Congress’s, failure to adequately fund them.
Millions of Americans were deluging their national parks, overwhelming the meager facilities. Campgrounds were too few, roads unpaved, and staffing wholly inadequate. So, in the face of Congress’ failure to adequately fund the National Parks, and public lands more broadly, DeVoto launched his missive demanding that if Congress refused to act that they should close the national parks.
Devoto’s essay tapped in to a groundswell of growing public frustration over government inaction. Visitation continued to grow throughout the park system, forcing Congress to finally act with the passage of
Mission 66, a ten-year program that pumped millions of dollars into the National Parks.
Granted, Mission 66 came with a mixed success, but Devoto’s underlining message in 1953 what that it is the government’s responsibility to proper fund and manage our national parks. Anything less, and we might as well board them up. A lesson, it seems, that has been forgotten as Congress and the President appear to be on the verge of enacting draconian cuts to the federal budget that promise to devastate the already grossly underfunded National Parks.
This past month the group The Coalition of National Park Retirees leaked a memo from National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis that warned park superintendents of the looming sequestration. In order to meet the 5% cuts that would come from Congress’ inaction on funding the federal government, Jarvis ordered an immediate hiring freeze, eliminate all “less-essential” costs, including “travel, non-mandatory training, overtime, purchases of supplies, materials and equipment and contracts.” Park service employees will also face continued furloughs in order to meet the budgetary cut.
While such cuts, or to use the current parlance, austerity measures, will allow the over four hundred units under the care of the National Park Service to remain open, unlike during the government shutdown in 1995, they will most certainly wreak havoc during the height of summer season. Campgrounds, boat ramps, bathrooms, roads, and trails will all suffer. Countless wildlife studies will simply cease to operate. And local economies reliant on tourist dollars and federal jobs will take hit at the very moment when people rely on them the most.
The National Parks, like all public lands, are chronically underfunded normally. The National Park Conservation Association notes that since 2002 the NPS’s discretionary budget has decreased by $3 billion. The list of backlogged maintenance needs would nearly swallow the entire NPS budget. Additionally, the lack of hiring of permanent employees has left many smaller parks and monuments so understaffed as to be nonfunctioning. For example, cultural resource positions are so rare as to be listed as an endangered species in most parks, while Homeland Security funds have created a glut in the number of law enforcement officers in parks as diverse as Yosemite to the Black Canyon. The point being, that the National Parks do not get enough funding as it is, and what little they do receive is often marked for specific uses which may not be of highest priority.
Unlike like Devoto, I am not calling for the closure of the National Parks. However, the current crisis does call for action by those of us who love our public lands, and have for the past decade watch in horror as the federal government has sat back and let out nation’s park slowly degrade.
With such sentiments in mind, it is worth revisiting the final paragraph of Devoto’s 1953 essay.
“No such sums will be appropriated. Therefore only one course seems possible. The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened. They have the largest staffs in the system but neither those staffs nor the budgets allotted them are large enough to maintain the areas at a proper level of safety, attractiveness, comfort, or efficiency. They are unable to do the job in full and so it had better not be attempted at all. If these staffs—and their respective budgets—were distributed among other areas, perhaps the Service could meet the demands now put on it. If not, additional areas could be temporarily closed and sealed, held in trust for a more enlightened future—say Zion, Big Bend, Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Everglades, and Gettysburg. Meanwhile letters from constituents unable to visit Old Faithful, Half Dome, the Great White Throne, and Bright Angel Trail would bring a nationally disgraceful situation to the really serious attention of the Congress which is responsible for it.”