Not too many years ago, I hiked up onto a ridge in Yellowstone National Park. Gaining the top, I sat down to catch my breath and enjoy the view. While sitting there, taking in the early summer day, I looked down and saw on the ground a hand-size piece of rock that held a gorgeous fossilized impression of a leaf.
While it would have been so easy to slip the rock into my pack and give it a new resting place on my fireplace's mantle, I knew how wrong that would have been, (and not just because my wife is an attorney who would have turned me in). Folks travel from around the world to visit Yellowstone and other parks to savor such an experience. And so, while I soon walked back down the mountainside, the fossil stayed where I had found it, waiting for someone else to discover it.
Sadly, not all park visitors are so respectful of the treasures our parks hold. And with park budgets continuing to shrink, the parks themselves are lacking the resources necessary to combat poaching of fossils, plants, and even animals.
This week the Washington Post painted a picture of how much damage poaching is doing to our national parks. The story is built around Skip Wissinger, a special agent for the park service who has spent 32 years in Shenandoah National Park tracking down poachers of ginseng, butterflies, and even black bears.
While the Park Service could not tell the Post exactly how much poaching occurs throughout the national park system, in its 2006 budget request the agency did say that 29 wildlife species have suffered a decline in population thanks to poachers.
And it's not only wildlife that is suffering at the hands of poachers. Fossils have been pilfered from Badlands National Park and the Petrified Forest National Park, elk from Yellowstone, and Native American artifacts from Southwestern Parks.
In Olympic National Park on the Washington peninsula, poachers go after moss, and a species of endangered cacti is stolen from Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, officials say the Park Service's inability to fully mount an offensive against poaching is a consequence of inadequate park funding.
"Our national parks are under assault," says Steven Bosak, the non-profit group's National Park Funding Program director. "Without adequate funding, the Park Service can't keep poachers from stealing the nation's heritage."
As this story rises to the public's consciousness, Congress is actually mulling a 5 percent across-the-board cut in the Park Service's budget. And that will only exacerbate the agency's problems with visitor services, maintenance, interpretation, and poaching.