In the not-so-distant past, Republicans as well as Democrats were strong proponents of America’s public lands. And both parties usually supported the national parks—most beloved of all public lands. But now, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan reflect the contempt of the Republican Party’s far right for all public lands—even the national parks, long renowned as “America’s Best Idea.”
No matter how much Romney might claim he loves the national parks, he can’t escape the fact that he chose a running mate who voted for the “Sportsmen’s Heritage” bill (H.R. 4089). In classic Tea Party fashion, proponents tell the public this is only a pro-hunting measure. But in reality it permits such impacts as extensive hunting, trapping and off-road vehicle use in the national park system. Even Civil War battlefields parks are at risk.
The Democrat-controlled Senate has held up the bill so far; but a Republican-dominated Senate in 2013 could be supportive. Thus, tragically, a Romney-Ryan election could reverse nearly 140 years of Republican Party support for the national parks, beginning with President Grant signing the 1872 law establishing Yellowstone—the world’s first national park.
Republicans And The National Parks
By the close of the 19th century, Republican presidents had ushered in three more giants of the system: Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier national parks. They soon added Crater Lake, Mesa Verde and Glacier, among others.
Moreover, in 1906 Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. Roosevelt then used his newly minted Antiquities Act executive authority to proclaim 18 “national monuments” on the public lands, including Grand Canyon and Olympic—later “elevated” to national park status, as happened with many national monuments. Approximately one-quarter of the nearly 400 units in today’s National Park System were created by authority of the Antiquities Act. Republican presidents helped mightily to build the bedrock foundation for this world-renowned park system.
Since Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican president who benefited the National Park System most was none other than Richard Nixon, with 26 parks to his credit. More recently, President George W. Bush used his Antiquities Act authority to establish the 139,797 square-mile Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Not part of the National Park System, this monument encompasses the northwestern Hawaiian Archipelago, and is one of the world’s largest marine reserves.
The national parks are the pride of the American Republic. In addition, many of them are cash cows. They boost the national economy, creating jobs and economic opportunity in the parks and surrounding areas. The annual national park system visitor-count now totals just below 300 million.
How H.R. 4089 Harms The System
Yet despite the Republican Party legacy, Tea Party Republicans intend to subject the national park idea to the crippling mandates of the Sportsmen’s Heritage bill—such as:
* Permitting hunting and trapping in extensive areas of the National Park System where they are now prohibited, including designated wilderness areas; and defining these activities so as to include the option for recreational and even commercial hunting and trapping. This also includes historical parks, such as Civil War battlefields.
* Training hunting dogs in national parks, including field trials.
* Permitting off-road vehicles in national parks to enable hunters to ride noisy, ground-disturbing machines into these long-established wildlife sanctuaries to find and kill (or spook) animals—thereby sharply decreasing wildlife viewing, a major attraction for park visitors.
* Emasculating the Antiquities Act to diminish the president’s ability to quickly protect threatened nationally significant public lands by proclaiming national monuments.
* Making null and void the all-important National Environmental Policy Act as it relates to Sportsmen’s Heritage. With a few exceptions, the bill intentionally obstructs scientific studies, and thus public information, on the impacts of Sportsmen’s Heritage.
Deeply concerned, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (including many of the Service’s senior leaders from recent decades) views this bill as “perhaps the greatest threat to the National Park System throughout its history.” And there must be millions of hunters and non-hunting Americans who object to such damaging, disruptive intrusions into the national parks. The parks are, after all, national icons.
Mitt Romney has stated that he does “not know why the government owns so much” of America’s public lands (even though public lands have been around since George Washington’s time). If Republicans control the White House and Senate in 2013, Sportsmen’s Heritage may indeed become law. The voters must decide. But it is clear that very few people know about this bill before Congress, so even after the election it’s important to get the word out.
Richard West Sellars is a retired National Park Service historian and author of Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History (Yale University Press, 1997, 2009). This book inspired the Natural Resource Challenge, a multi-year initiative by Congress to revitalize the Park Service’s natural resource and science programs. The Challenge made possible what Stewart Udall, former secretary of the interior, called “the greatest advances in scientific natural resource preservation in the history of the national parks.”