Remember that Ken Burns documentary from a few years back, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea?” Remember those gorgeous panorama shots of the Yosemite Valley, the rutilant stills of the Grand Canyon at dawn, the wolves of Yellowstone traversing fog-enshrouded valleys – all bathed in the burnished baritone of narrator Peter Coyote?
Well, there’s no way we’d want Burns to do a sequel — trash bins overflowing at Joshua Tree from illegal campers, snow piled so high at Mount Rainier that no one can navigate, Civil War battlefield artifacts swiped, drone and off-road vehicles traversing Yellowstone with impunity, bathrooms overflowing from sea to shining sea — unless it would serve as a cautionary tale to government leaders and the general public.
The recent trashing of our National Parks, of course, is one of the unfortunate and arguably unintended consequences of the government shutdown, deep into Week Three, with both the Trump administration and congressional Democrats seemingly digging in for the long haul.
And while there certainly are more pressing concerns during the shutdown, such as tens of thousands of federal workers and contractors going without pay and agencies such as the TSA and IRS feeling the burden, the plight of the National Parks should not be shrugged off as the cost of doing business in a fractured political climate. Parks, simply, should be closed to mitigate any further negative effects on their infrastructure and habitat.
There are two disturbing takeaways from the current mess:
1) The American public — or at least a small, yet destructive, segment of it — has so little ethical grounding that, sans supervision by furloughed park employees, it thinks nothing of trashing our natural wonders.
2) The Trump administration put politics and optics before prudence and smart stewardship in choosing to keep the National Parks open, but largely unsupervised, during the shutdown.
On that first point, all we have to say is … Really, people? Have you no respect? Just because park rangers are not around, you feel it’s perfectly acceptable to harass the elephant seals at Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California, or to turn Crater Lake in Oregon into a giant urinal trough? This is no way to show appreciation for our National Parks. Treat these precious natural resources, a joy to so many, with the loving care they deserve.
As to the decision to keep National Parks open but mostly unstaffed during the shutdown, that appears to be a political decision that by all indications has backfired.
A little history is needed to show what may have led to the decision. In recent decades, whenever lawmakers were at loggerheads over budgetary matters, necessitating a prolonged shutdown, the National Parks were closed. It happened during the Clinton-Gingrich tussle in 1998 and again in 2013 during the Obama-Boehner showdown.
In 2013, though, some considered the Obama administration’s park-shutdown decision a political act to sway public opinion and blame the shutdown on Republicans. The public balked at not having the parks open, and Republicans took the heat for the “bad optics” of padlocked gates to Yellowstone and Yosemite. Republicans in the House held a joint meeting, and some observers believed the public’s negative reaction to losing park access led Congress to compromise and pass a budget.
In a recent op-ed in The Guardian, Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service at the time, wrote that the Trump administration wanted to avoid a similar backlash this time. So, it kept the parks open, while furloughing nearly all of its workers. That decision, however, is what has led to the current trashing of the parks – bad optics, indeed.
Plus, in Jarvis’ view, the move is an abdication of governmental responsibility.
“Leaving the parks open without these essential staff is equivalent to leaving the Smithsonian museums open without any staff to protect the priceless artifacts,” he wrote. “It is a violation of the stewardship mandate, motivated only by politics. While the majority of the public will be respectful, there will always be a few who take advantage of the opportunity to do lasting damage.”
National Parks often have been likened to communities: They provide public safety protection, utility services, transportation, trash pickup, road (and trail) maintenance, and shelter for their more than 300 million annual visitors. More than that, though, National Parks are meant to be preserved as environment refuges for the bison in Yellowstone, the alligators in the Everglades, the fur seals of the Farallon Islands.
If, as some warn, the shutdown may be prolonged, the parks, too, should be shuttered — for their own preservation. The action might affect the economy of some communities bordering some parks, but it’s the right thing to do.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis