Our national parks are ‘essential’: It’s time to declare that
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During prior government shutdowns nearly all, or most, National Park Service (NPS) sites were closed to the public.  In advance of the current shutdown, the Department of the Interior (DOI), which oversees the NPS, directed that access to the parks should continue to be allowed as much as possible. This was despite the fact that there would be virtually no staff or services provided to ensure the safety of the parks, or those who still chose to visit them. Not surprisingly, as the shutdown drags on, there are growing numbers of reports of serious problems at the parks; overflowing trash and porta johns, damage from travel where it is prohibited, possible destruction or theft of park resources, and longer response times where emergency services are required. 

Who could not have seen this coming?  What were senior DOI officials trying to do with this policy?  Instead of doing what was in the best interests of the parks, they apparently saw it as more vital to reduce anger among visitors over being denied access to their parks, because of a President’s decision to hold the parks, and their visitors, hostage to ransom for his entirely unrelated issue of funding a wall on our border with Mexico.  They lost sight of their mission under the Organic Act, sponsored by Republican Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah over 100 years ago; “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”.  

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This administration has already shown its disdain for our parks by appointing as its first secretary of the Interior, someone who saw his mission as opening federal lands to private business interests, seeking to reduce protections for wildlife, and reducing the size of two legally designated National Monuments by some two million acres.  It now is putting the long-term health of our parks, and the immediate safety of visitors, at risk, to help reduce the political backlash against these unpopular actions taken in support of an unrelated policy issue.

It is not only the parks themselves that are harmed.  January park visitation averages 425,000 visitors per day.  Since Dec. 22, park visitors are encountering closed or unstaffed parks.  Communities whose economies are linked to the parks are losing about $20 million a day, while the already underfunded NPS is losing about $400,000 day in uncollected fees.  The incredibly dedicated but understaffed Park Ranger corps sits at home idle and unpaid.  While Park Service staff may be provided their back pay, those communities will never recoup their lost income, nor will the parks recoup their lost fees. 

Now, and during any future government shutdowns, protection of the parks, America’s natural, historical and cultural crown jewels, should be designated as an Essential function.  The parks should ideally be kept open with proper staffing, or they should be closed to provide them the protection they deserve when insufficiently staffed to admit visitors.  Just as the National Archives cares for America’s most treasured documents, and the Smithsonian cares for its most treasured artifacts, the National Park System protects America’s most treasured places.  No-one would be allowed to rummage around in the National Archives or the Smithsonian if there were no funds to protect the treasures housed there; so why are the National Parks being treated differently?  

Regardless of whether closed, partially open, or fully open, it should be established that it is an Essential function of government in a shutdown to protect these jewels, just as we continue to provide airport and border security, and other essential functions. Such action to ensure the present and future safety of our Parks, and any visitors allowed in, as the founding legislation for the NPS understood was imperative for them to remain the shining jewels in our national crown, is something our national conscience demands.

We cannot let America’s Best Idea be ruined by the worst of American political posturing.

Bill Hafker is a retired ExxonMobil environmental engineer, member of the National Parks Conservation Association, Volunteer Bike Patroller in C&O Canal NHP, and author of The Hill Op Ed; “Protect, maintain, and cherish our “crown jewels”, April 25, 2018