Happy Centennial, National Parks Service
This is the centenary year of the National Parks Service, established in 1916. PBS has called our national parks America’s best idea. I would respectfully disagree, believing our best idea was Social Security. I like another term I’ve heard, that they are America’s crown jewels. The original concept has been credited to artist George Catlin in 1832, six years before John Muir was born. He was famous for his paintings of Indians. As a watercolorist, I’m a huge fan of Catlin, who was meticulous enough to paint each warrior’s gear to the last detail. He was disturbed by the destructive effect the great westward expansion would have on the wilderness, unless it could somehow be protected by the government. The first step towards that end came during the Civil War, in 1864. President Lincoln signed into law the Yosemite Grant Act, which preserved the area for public use, the first such area so designated.
Naturalist and writer John Muir would visit Yosemite for the first time in 1868. Upon arriving in San Francisco, he took a ferry to Oakland and walked the 200 miles to the valley. Later he petitioned the U.S. Congress for a national park bill. His enthusiasm for nature and the spiritual quality of his writing appealed to many, including members of Congress and presidents. Four years later, on Mar. 1st, 1872, Yellowstone National Park was established as the nation’s — and the world’s — first National Park. In the same year John Muir and other supporters founded the Sierra Club. Muir served as its first president, and held the office till his death in 1912. As the parks movement quickly gained momentum, others followed; Yosemite (1890), Grand Canyon (1893), Mt. Rainier (1899), and Glacier (1910), to name a few of the better known. But an agency was needed to oversee and manage them. In 1915 millionaire industrialist Stephen Mather began a crusade to put into place such a system. On Aug. 25th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act. The NPS fell under the Department of Interior, and its first director was Stephen Mather. Its dual role is preserving the ecological and historical integrity of these places, while making them available for public use.
In between was the Antiquities Act of 1906, singed by another naturalist, President Theodore Roosevelt. Originally intended to preserve cliff dwellings and other cultural sites, it allowed the President to declare such places historic landmarks, and therefore under protection. Fans of the TV series “The West Wing” will know about this act (Season 1, Episode 8, “Enemies”).
The NPS was reorganized in 1933, adding memorials like the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and Arlington National Cemetery. The very first National Monument was Devil’s Tower, in northeastern Wyoming, 1906. I had the good fortune to have grown up in the state with the first National Park and first National Monument, and have visited both several times. Today there are 59 National Parks, and the NPS oversees about 450 various sites. I myself have been to 14 of the parks, among them some of the best; Yellowstone, Glacier, Olympic, Mt. Rainier and Crater Lake. 307 million people visited our National Parks in 2015, out of a population of 325 million, so you can see how popular they are. The most frequently visited is the Great Smoky Mountains NP.
People often come to these parks without much of a clue. One of the questions visitors have asked: At what altitude does a deer become an elk? Another wanted to know why the Pueblo people chose to build their dwellings so far from the railroad. In his book Hey, Ranger! Jim Burnett tells of his time working in the Olympic rain forest (part of Olympic NP). On one of the rare sunny days, a little old lady with an umbrella under her arm marched up to the information desk at the Visitors Center and demanded to know why it wasn’t raining. All too often people think wild animals are Disney characters, and approach them to make friends, take selfies, and so on. On my first visit to Yellowstone at age 10, we heard about a man at a nearby campground the day before. He’d just bought a bag of hamburgers, and had attracted the attention of a bear. As he walked along he was teasing the bear by waving the bag in front of it. The bear swiped at the bag with one paw and took out a large part of the man’s ass. Another time, also in Yellowstone, I saw a lady trying to photograph a buffalo close up. It took off after her, and she looked like an Olympic hurdler as she sprinted away, vaulting over fallen trees, a truly impressive feat.
Today our parks are under fierce assault. For decades they’ve been the victim of Republican budget cuts, as are all government agencies. The NPS currently has a backlog of about $11.5 billion in repairs and maintenance. Perhaps you’ve been to one of these national jewels, walking along the well-maintained trails. Do you know who maintains them now? Volunteers, for the most part. Fortunately, help has come from several quarters. There are a host of non-profit organizations, such as the AARP, The American Hiking Society, Wilderness Volunteers, Nature Corps, and the Sierra Club, who put together work groups, volunteer vacations, and other repair and maintenance activities. If you are interested, you can go to www.volunteers.gov or National Park Volunteer Vacations. The latter usually pays room and board, and the work involves repairs or maintenance for a week or maybe two, depending on the job.
The NPS has made enemies in its hundred years. There are those who don’t believe in public lands or their preservation, and would like to see them opened up for development. One of these is Paul Hoffman, former Assistant Deputy Secretary for Fish & Wildlife Parks, at Interior. A former aide to Dick Cheney, Bush appointed him to the post in 2006, and he quickly got to work drafting a radically business-friendly reorganization plan. Blowback was swift and from several fronts; the Sierra Club, wildlife and conservation groups, and two with considerable political clout — the Coalition of Concerned NPS Retirees and the National Parks Conservation Association. They were instrumental in Interior’s turning down the plan, Hoffman resigned in 2008, but morale among park personnel was pretty low during the Bush years.
On Mar. 2, 2016 Think Progress ran an expose on dark money backed by the Koch brothers. It was a well-funded effort to undermine protections adjacent to Grand Canyon NP, and mine or drill right up to the canyon rim. They also want to repeal the Antiquities Act.
Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA) is one of 20 House members or Senators in the Anti-Parks Caucus. They’re actively seeking to sell off public lands to the private sector. Most are also members of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, also backed by the Koch brothers. The goal is removing government protections for parks and public lands — you know, privatize. Then on a wilderness hike you’ll be passing fracking wells and open pit mines. Won’t that be nice.
There’s a certain amount of privatization in the parks, and has been for decades. The NPS routinely contracts out services like waste disposal and concessions. Actually concessions would be first, wouldn’t they, and waste disposal would logically follow. Anyway, so-called public private partnerships are code words for finding little ways to chip away at government control. Remember Cliven Bundy and his band of armed idiots seizing a wildlife area in Oregon last year? That was their cause, too, only their beef was with the BLM (also part of Interior).
There’s another factor seriously being considered too, the effect of climate change on these environmentally sensitive wilderness areas. The original wording of the Organic Act of 1916 was to not allow these areas to be impaired, but the overall language was of passive management. So the debate is over whether a more active role is called for. At berkeley.edu in its Winter 01-01-2016 bulletin you can read the paper “The NPS Organic Act and Climate Change.” Oh well, the Republicans aren’t going to vote to fund something they don’t even believe in. Even without the impact of climate change, the incursion of extraction and other development right up to park borders affects the ecological balance within the parks, such as migration patterns.
One of Mitt Romney’s statements from the 2012 campaign gave me the willies. He was in Nevada being interviewed out in some federal parcel of land (about ¾ of Nevada is federal land). He said he didn’t see the purpose of all this federal (public) land. I think he honestly didn’t get it, why it wasn’t being developed in some way. It took me back to the 1970s when I worked on a survey crew. One morning we were headed to Gillette, about 75 miles away. My friend Ron and I were rodmen/chainmen, and we sat in back of the Bronco. Jim, the boss, was driving, and Ron’s older brother Daryl was the instrument man. Ron and I were playing our usual game of counting antelope (over 300 on one trip the previous week). Jim and Daryl were talking as we drove along past miles and miles of grassy prairie. Jim looked out at the scenery and said, “It’s too bad all this land is just sitting here, when it could be put to good use.” He meant development. “It’s just such a waste.” Ron and I exchanged knowing glances, and just smiled. It’s all about different perspectives. David Suzuki, host of Canadian TV show “The Nature of Things,” talked about whether you see a forest, or timber. What’s important is that these areas remain untouched, because once they’ve been screwed with it tales thousands of years to repair the damage, and that’s if we don’t “help.” When I’m on some wilderness trek, I don’t want to hear or see yahoos tearing up the trails with ATVs. I don’t want to hear gunfire, either. Did you know it’s now legal to carry firearms in the National Parks? Thanks, Obama.
On July 15th of this year the NPS announced it would solicit corporate sponsorship for things like trail markers and scenic views. They’re desperate for money. The National Park Foundation is the official charity for the NPS and in 2014 they raised $46 million, but the NPS needs about $3 billion annually just to keep afloat. Their current budget for 2016 is $2.85 billion. So look for corporate logos soon. Maybe they’ll be appropriate, like Clearasil’s Crater Lake National Park, Viagra’s Washington Monument, Rogaine’s Bald Mountain Recreation Area, or Amazon’s Olympic Rain Forest. And while you’re in Washington, don’t miss Walt Disney’s Mt. Rainer National Park. Oh, and do not feed the animals.
The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. — John Muir