SINCE 1759

Free alert to Candide's Notebooks
Your email:


Parks in Distress
Saving our National Treasures

When the pilgrims arrived in America, wilderness was the enemy—a heathenish sort of place “darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown saw it on his way to discovering the devilry it harbored.

No wonder John Winthrop wanted to build a city on the hill rather than take to the hills, and indeed Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first settlements were America’s first gated communities. Wildlife, Indians and dissenters were not welcome. Developers—of souls first, of land later—were. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Americans began to realize they’d been taking Winthrop so literally that wilderness was disappearing in many places as efficiently as buffaloes and Indians were disappearing from the Great Plains. The impulse to preserve kicked in, and by 1872 President Ulysses Grant managed at least one useful legacy out of his otherwise corrupt administration: He signed the act declaring Yellowstone’s 2 million acres a national park where “all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities or wonders within” should be preserved “in their natural condition.”

No nation had ever taken such a step. The national park system—and the National Park Service, created in 1916 -- became the conservation movement’s crown jewel and a model to the world. Paradoxically, it gave pioneers, boosters and developers more license to go hog-wild anywhere not explicitly protected, while public lands held by the federal government became (and remain) the largest federal subsidy to loggers, ranchers and miners.

Yellowstone’s birth in 1872 is a landmark for environmentalists. But that same year Grant signed one of the most environmentally devastating bills in the nation’s history—the General Mining Law of 1872, which gave miners unlimited rights to minerals as long as they paid $5 an acre. The free-for-all law is still in effect.

In other words, the federal government since 1872 has subsidized environmental protection and environmental devastation on a vast scale. But it hasn’t been an equal scale. Mining and industry have been getting what amounts to a free ride. Parks have been getting pocket change.

Today, the National Park Service is in trouble. The NPS’ 378 areas across the country drew 280million visitors in 2001 -- 1.4million at the Everglades and Big Cypress, compared with 2.8million at Yellowstone, 3.4million at Yosemite, and 4.1million at Grand Canyon. The system is overwhelmed, understaffed, barely maintained, hardly policed and endangered from every side—tourists in excess from within, industrial and environmental threats from without.

Parks have a $3.5 billion backlog of repairs but a $2.4 billion budget that hasn’t quite kept up with inflation. President Bush’s budget request for 2003 provides a $33 million increase in actual dollars, but it is a decrease when inflation is figured in. And it does nothing to address larger environmental issues.

Of course, the National Park Service is no saint. The fact that 42 species of mammal have gone extinct or been driven out of national parks is itself an indictment of NPS management. But blame can only go so far when significant investment in NPS infrastructure has occurred only twice this century, in the 1930s and in 1966.

There is only so much the government is willing to do, and even when it does it, its good intentions can be outrun by its ruinously bad judgment. The Everglades is a case in point.

By the time the federal government turned the Everglades into a national park in 1947, it was already too late for the flamingo and the ibis, the wood stork, the panther, the crocodile, several species of turtles and several kinds of plants. They’d all been hunted or hacked to near extinction.

But it wasn’t too late for President Truman to promise a whole new age of environmental desecration, this one not the result of haphazard poachers but of organized engineering, the sort of hapless insanity only the federal government could dream up.

Which explains how Truman at the Everglades dedication ceremony could in one breath thunder against the “hogs trying to get at our natural national resources for their own benefit,” then promise dams, canals, levees, erosion and fire control schemes to, naturally, “make a wise use of all our natural resources if we wish to remain the home of the free.”

The U.S. Corps of Engineers, which has never resisted the impulse to control nature by chopping it beyond recognition, went to work inside the Everglades, while developers and sugar growers devoured it from the rim. Once a 9 million acre “river of grass,” in Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ beautiful phrase, the Everglades have been reduced to a national park one-sixth that size and a river of crass locked in 1,800 miles of canals, gates, pipes and valves built to protect Florida’s east coast sprawls from floods while watering its subdivisions’ lawns.

So when the National Parks Conservation Association, an 83-year-old advocate for the National Park Service, released its annual top-10 list of most endangered parks on Monday, the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve made the list for the fourth straight year. Other contenders include Yellowstone, Glacier in Montana, Great Smoky Mountains, Valley Forge in Pennsylvania and Big Bend in Texas. The list is only four years old, otherwise the Everglades would have been a standard top-10 ruin going back to Truman’s day.

Congress and Florida are pledging $8 billion to restore as much of the Everglades as has survived developers’ maws. It sounds like great news, and in many ways it is. It is certainly better than nothing. But the seemingly huge pledge masks the Everglades’ diminished existence as well as the fact that the National Park System itself is an endangered species.

The fate of the Everglades is probably the worst of all the parks, considering the extent of the damage and the relentlessness of the assaults on the region over the years (In 1905, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward actually won the Florida governorship on a promise to drain the entire Everglades. He didn’t keep his promise, but set the tone for a century of contempt toward the region).

Proximity has also bred some familiarity with Big Cypress National Preserve’s problems—a company wants to drill for oil there and blast a few thousand charges of dynamite to test for oil deposits along the way.

Similarly contemptuous attitudes beset parks across the country.

At Big Bend, the national park along the western Texas-Mexico border, summer visibility can go as low as 9 miles (from 100 miles) because of air pollution from outdated coal-fired power plants on both sides of the border. The Rio Grande flowing through the park is shriveled from all the diversions upstream. As a result, it absorbs less pollution and provides lower-cal irrigation for a desert ecology that cannot function well on a diet.

At Yellowstone, the problem is snowmobiles -- 70,000 of them pumping out 3 million pounds of carbon monoxide a year. Parasites in the form of non-native plant and fish species have been invading the park as well, but Yellowstone is so short of money that it can’t afford to eradicate them any more than it has managed to rule out snowmobilers: The Bush administration won’t let it.

At Glacier National Park on the Canada-Montana border, strip mines and timber harvesting at the edge of the park are changing the complexion of streams inside it.

A small power plant is tarring the air at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California. Smog from power plants is giving the Great Smoky Mountains a whole new meaning. And on it goes.

But since 1872, parks by definition have been drawn as ghettoes of protected wilderness, as if anything outside their boundaries is fair game to developers or industry. It may work in New York’s Central Park, where Frederick Law Olmstead designed the 843 acres at the heart of Manhattan as an integral part of the city, not as a preserve apart from it. It can’t work with national parks that depend on a large radius of semi-protection well beyond their borders to preserve their distinctiveness.

If the parks are to survive, the ghetto approach must go: Just because it is 200 miles from Big Bend doesn’t mean that an outdated power plant shouldn’t be forced to modernize or shut down. Strip mines and landfills don’t belong anywhere in the neighborhood of a park. And of course oil drills don’t belong in Big Cypress anymore than they do in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

None of that changes the problems inside the parks—low budgets, huge numbers of visitors. There are many ways to look at the funding problem the parks face and how to solve it. Here are two diametrically opposed approaches but with the same goal of preserving the extraordinary for everyone, at a price that reflects the value of what’s being preserved.

The first is to raise entrance fees drastically higher than the current average of $10. Before you panic, think of it this way: In 1916, when the National Park Service was created, the entrance fee at Yellowstone for a car was $7.50, or $123 in current dollars. That was when cars were rare and overcrowding wasn’t a problem, and when tourists traveling from almost any point in the country to Yellowstone would have had to spend a lot more money to get there than they do today. The getting-there part is still relatively expensive. But why should a week’s pass at Yellowstone be 10 times cheaper than a day’s pass at Disney?

The entertainment park is privately run, it sets its price as high as the market will bear. National parks are public properties, supported by taxes. Well, yes and no: Disney, too, is heavily subsidized in its own creative ways. It still has no qualms over gouging visitors where it can. National parks, which arguable provide a more lasting value than Goofy, ought to have the same right. The tax support parks receive, on the other hand, is paltry—and it doesn’t compare at all with the subsidies in the multibillions far richer interests (the miners, loggers and ranchers mentioned above) receive for profiting from public lands.

Which raises the second, more democratic—ergo less Republican—solution. Parks are national treasures the way the Smithsonian’s museums in Washington, D.C. are national treasures. Like the museums, the parks ought to be free to all comers, entirely and heavily subsidized by the government. If the government were to subsidize parks for the benefit of 280million visitors as much as it subsidizes public lands for the benefit of a few hundred corporations and a few thousand ranchers—perhaps by subsidizing those interests less and shifting those subsidies to parks more—the balance would finally be righted: Parks would be repaired and their future insured, and there would be fewer incentives to abuse public lands at the public’s expense.

The absence of entrance fees could end up attracting even more people. But heavier investments could also finally achieve what ought to be any park’s long-term goal: the eradication of all individualized, motorized traffic inside park boundaries, to be replaced with a system of low-impact light rail and electric public transportation that would improve access to park areas even as it reduces the need for paved roads.

That’s not a new idea. “No more cars in the national parks” was the naturalist Edward Abbey’s mantra four decades ago, and it was finally adopted, experimentally, in parts of the Grand Canyon. But it hasn’t gone further than that while cars, SUVs, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles have created their own hideous version of inside-the-park sprawl.

Neither funding idea is going anywhere these days, letting neglect of the parks reign by default, and visits to national parks have declined each of the last three years from their peak in 1998, for the wrong reasons—because they’re less safe, less well-maintained, and, implicitly, less treasured. John Steinbeck never set foot in a single one when he traveled the country with dog Charley 40 years ago. “Perhaps,” he wrote, “this is because they enclose the unique, the spectacular, the astounding—the greatest waterfall, the deepest canyon, the highest cliff, the most stupendous works of man or nature,” because “we enclose and celebrate the freaks of our nation and of our civilization. Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland.”

Hard to imagine that in this, the centennial of his birth, Steinbeck would have wanted those great freaks of nature, no less treasured for being freakish, to become more representative of America in the way that they are becoming—to become more common, less interesting, and more of a sprawl of human hardware than a refuge from it all.

Bookmark and Share



Read Pierre’s Latest

The Latest Comments

Add to Google Reader or Homepage Subscribe in NewsGator Online Subscribe in Rojo   Add to My AOL Subscribe in FeedLounge Add to netvibes Subscribe in Bloglines Add to The Free Dictionary