Where do America's national parks figure in the minds of the presidential candidates? It's a good question, but one that so far hasn't elicited much more than a sound bite.
Should we be surprised? Probably not. In the overall mix of domestic and global issues -- energy independence, climate change, war and peace, the economy, health and welfare, genocide, constitutional rights -- the national parks are easily overlooked.
Perhaps we should be disappointed by this oversight, though, and perhaps the candidates should take a few minutes to seriously consider the state of the national park system and how it fits into a healthy America. That the national parks are popular with Americans is evident by the fact that the National Park Service's website is one of the more popular federal government sites. And if you take to heart the warnings that America's younger generations are losing touch with the natural world, you'd certainly want to work to make the park system attractive and interesting to this country's youth. And not only to entice the youth into the parks and to engender park advocates for the future but for their own health.
Yet so far we've heard little specifics on national parks from the candidates. We do hear the candidates call for a clean environment and energy independence and provide some details as to how to achieve those goals, and Republican John McCain even gives a passing nod to "Our Nation's Rich Natural Heritage" on his web site:
America has been blessed with a rich and diverse natural heritage. In the tradition of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt, John McCain believes that we are vested with a sacred duty to be proper stewards of the resources upon which the quality of American life depends. Ensuring clean air, safe and healthy water, sustainable land use, ample greenspace - and the faithful care and management of our natural treasures, including our proud National Park System - is a patriotic responsibility. One that must be met not only for the benefit of our generation, but for our children and those to whom we will pass the American legacy.
On his website Democrat Barack Obama offers an 8-page overview on his environmental vision. Skim down to page 8 and you'll find passing reference to his thoughts on the parks.
Protect National Parks and Forests: For too long, America’s National Parks and Forests have been
threatened by lax protection. Barack Obama fought efforts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Obama supports the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which keeps over 58 million acres of national forests pristine. As president, he will repair the damage done to our national parks by inadequate funding and emphasize the protection and restoration of our National Forests.
And yet, should we believe that these are anything more than sound bites written by a junior staffer?
As for Senator Hillary Clinton, who's vying with Senator Obama for the Democratic nomination, if there's reference to her position on national parks on her campaign website, it's not easily found.
So I turned to the League of Conservation Voters, which has a website dedicated to where the various candidates stand on environmental issues. It's somewhat illuminating in general, but not terribly specific on national park issues.
In fact, the league asked only one specific question regarding the parks, and it was a softball:
From Acadia to Yosemite, America's 390 national parks protect and interpret some of the nation's most treasured natural and cultural resources. Unfortunately, the National Park System has an annual operating deficit in excess of $800 million, a land acquisition shortfall of $1.9 billion, and a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog. The National Park Service will celebrate its centennial in 2016, less than ten years from now, and the American people are united around the idea of fully addressing the needs of the National Park System in time to celebrate the Centennial.
Do you support reinvesting in our national parks through a sustained effort over the next ten years to establish reliable sources of funding and eliminate the National Park Service funding shortfall?
And here's how they responded:
"Our National Parks are an incredible treasure, visited by millions every year. I have supported increased funding for our National Parks in the Senate and will continue to do so as President. As First Lady, I served as Honorary Chair of Save America’s Treasures, which worked to preserve America’s historic sites in partnership with the National Park Service."
Senator Obama: "Yes."
Senator McCain: "Yes. I have established a strong and consistent record in the senate for fully funding our national parks. I was the lead sponsor for the National Parks Centennial Act, which would have eliminated the annual operating deficit for the parks. Recently, the Administration, House and Senate passed budget proposing to increase park budgets by $200 million each year to address operating deficits. I support these objectives, but fully protecting, restoring and enjoying our national parks requires more than just additional funding. We need to give the park service the guiding policies that will ensure their protection and the enjoyment of the visiting public. As president, I will continue to champion laws and initiatives that improve air quality, reduce climate change impacts, enhance wildlife populations, and improve education in the parks. By the park system's centennial, and as I expect to be completing my second term as president, we will have a park system that showcases the best educational, environmental and civic engagement programs in the world. We should expect and accept nothing less for our national parks."
While Senator McCain certainly was a bit more specific than his Democratic opponents, the league's question certainly wasn't one that would elicit a detailed response. Senator McCain, though, at least established some bare-bone parameters that he would work within as president. And the Republican does have a track record in at least picking up park issues.
And yet... his claim to have been the "lead sponsor" for the National Park Centennial Act produces little more than a shrug of the shoulders. The act was the brainchild of U.S. Reps. Brian Baird, D-Washington, and Mark Souder, R-Indiana; Mr. McCain was the lead "Senate" sponsor. And then the legislation went nowhere.
Now, Senator McCain was honored by the National Parks Conservation Association back in 2001 for "his role in safeguarding natural sounds in America's national parks." More specifically, the award was in recognition of the senator's role in seeing Congress pass the Air Tour Management Bill. Unfortunately, seven years later there remain battles over how best to police the skies over national parks.
"Over the past decade, Senator McCain has led efforts as diverse as legislation to create bonds for needed National Park repairs, protection of new parks and monuments in Arizona, climate change legislation, protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and greater environmental awareness of Antarctica. Like President Teddy Roosevelt, John McCain's legacy is diverse and meaningful," Paul Pritchard, the trust's president, said at the time.
The NPCA, via its own "Teddy Mather" campaign, has tried to leverage national parks into the presidential campaigns, but with little success. Indeed, while this effort has generated 45,000 signatures on petitions asking the candidates to make the health of the national parks a top priority, the candidates haven't given NPCA the time of day.
Throughout the month of December, Team Teddy made many attempts to contact the candidates to deliver the more than 45,000 signatures from people all over the country who want the presidential candidates to make national parks a national priority.
Originally, every candidate was sent a questionnaire on the national parks. One candidate responded. These questionnaires were sent to close contacts in each campaign, and consisted of three very straight forward questions. Responding would have taken all of about five minutes. The “runaround” that the Teddy campaign continues to experience today had just begun.
So where does that leave us? Well, it seems safe to say Senator McCain clearly has a more extensive track record than his Democratic opponents when it comes to national park issues. But it'd certainly be nice to see each of them talk a bit more specifically about both their concerns with the current state of the national parks and what they would do to help the park system.
Where do they stand on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and on personal watercraft in national lakeshores and national seashores? Do they support a strong science mission within the National Park Service? Do they want to see more full-time rangers on the ground? Do they think the Park Service is top heavy? How would they boost diversity within the agency? Do they worry that national parks are becoming ecological islands, and if so, how would they combat that? Would they be in favor of an apolitical Park Service director, one whose appointment would be for a minimum of six years?
Again, most of these issues pale in the overall context of a presidential campaign. But hopefully in the waning months of the campaign the candidates/nominees will do more than simply take note that the national parks exist and espouse some real thoughts on the roles of the parks in both a healthy environment and a healthy American population.