Creating the national parks was one of America’s best ideas, but inevitable political pressures jeopardize their mission. The parks’ strongest supporters warn of dangers from political management.
Consider a recent New York Times editorial. After noting Americans’ overwhelming support for national parks, the Times opines: “Yet in the past two months we have seen two proposed revisions [of management policy]. The first, written by Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department, was a genuinely scandalous rewriting that would have destroyed the national park system.”
The second draft was only somewhat better. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, “the proposed policies re-define the over-arching duty of the park service, eliminating references to longstanding legal mandates that clearly emphasize preservation of resources.... The replacement statement sets a dangerous precedent that could put enjoyment of resources, including motorized abuse, ahead of conservation.” They warn it would foster increased air and noise pollution due to more jet skis and snowmobiles, as well as expanded livestock grazing: both “high-impact” uses.
As I’ve argued for decades, these treasures deserve better. In today’s rancorous cultural environment, is it naïve folly to trust our parks’ fate to politicians? Political pressures move the Progressive Era’s ideal of management by neutral, scientific experts ever further from reality.
Yellowstone Park was established in 1872. Due to failure to protect its resources, management was turned over to the U.S. Army in 1886, where it remained for some 30 years. The military left the Park in 1918, two years after the National Park Service was established.
When avarice first threatened the Park’s values, the cavalry came to the rescue. At that time, naked private interests tried to stake claims on public resources. Now, their descendents utilize the political process to achieve similar goals. Is this an aberration or the predictable consequences of our institutional arrangements? I believe it’s the latter and that reform is long overdue. Here’s why.
First, the parks will always offer values that attract potential exploiters, folks with little interest in promoting the public interest. Poaching, a huge problem in the 1870s, remains troublesome. And poaching is trivial compared to the ecological damage caused by ORVs. There are multiple opportunities for exploitation, and their value is growing; there have always been huge political incentives to pander.
Second, an increasing proportion of visitors will be from foreign countries, especially China and India. As admissions provide more of the park system’s funding, there will be strong incentives to cater to visitors’ demands. And few of them will draw a sharp philosophical distinction between Disneyland and Yellowstone. The implications are chilling to those who care about the mission of our national parks.
Third, the federal government is facing huge and growing deficits. The park system now carries a maintenance backlog (estimated at roughly $5 billion, twice the entire annual Park Service budget), and it will be ever more difficult to allocate funds to relieve it. Concurrently, there will be seductive opportunities to use the national parks as cash cows. It’s easy to imagine how a budgetary tradeoff between controlling noxious invasive species or vaccinating children might play out.
A public treasure does not inherently require governmental management. Public, nongovernmental trusts present sensible alternatives to federal management. Both Mount Vernon and Monticello are clearly “public” and both are run by trusts rather than government agencies.
Endowment boards, like those running museums, hospitals, and private schools, would operate under a legal charter to steward individual parks. After receiving a one-time Congressional endowment, each park’s individual trust would be “on its own.” The board, established by local environmental groups, business leaders, and citizens, would promote ecologically sensitive economic activities as part of their trustee responsibility.
Creative mechanisms such as a “Friends of Old Faithful” program could entice membership, dues, and democratic feedback from park lovers everywhere. Park trusts would free our parks from their precarious dependency on national politics, encourage long-term planning, and reintroduce accountability in management.
Perhaps Hoffman’s recent assault is an aberration we can ignore. More likely, the dangers to our parks will become more obvious as the threat of commercialization looms larger. Should this occur, those who care most deeply will look for alternatives to political management. Think trusts.