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Guest Column: Where's The Vision For Properly Funding The National Park System?


As a historian of the national parks, I followed with interest stories of how the government shutdown – thankfully concluded now – played out in the parks.

From World War II vets “storming” their D.C. memorial, to the private operator of Blue Ridge Parkway’s Pisgah Inn resisting closure in leaf season, to visitors complaining about canceled weddings and wrecked vacations, to state governments rescuing Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, the parks garnered attention during the shutdown that they rarely get in regular times.

The boisterous public and political pressure for park access seems, at first glance, to validate the common perception (supported by poll data) that the national parks are one rare thing people across party lines agree on.

As lead author of a 2011 study “Imperiled Promise,” which documented problems created by longstanding underfunding of Park Service history programs, I hoped the closures were galvanizing support for public reinvestment in our parks as we approach their 100th birthday in 2016.

But the situation did not produce a clear consensus. Many of my colleagues rallied to NPS’s support, but fellow historian Larry Cebula pointed out that the closures also fed right-wing attacks on the Park Service. The National Review Online vilified rangers as “Park Service Paramilitaries.” In a tense House hearing titled As Difficult As Possible: The National Park Service’s Implementation of the Government Shutdown, Republican congressmen scolded NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis for his handling of the shutdown, while focusing on minor issues like tickets given to joggers running in the closed Valley Forge National Historical Park.

For me, the shutdown called to mind historian Bernard DeVoto’s 1953 Harper’s article, Let’s Close the National Parks.

In DeVoto’s era, the traveling public was “loving the parks to death” while parks funding remained anemic. The irreplaceable parks should be shuttered, DeVoto argued, until the federal government funded them adequately.

The mere specter of closed parks struck a chord. In short order, Eisenhower’s Republican administration crafted the 10-year, $1 billion Mission 66 program that upgraded park facilities in time for the Park Service’s 50th birthday in 1966.

But in 2013, the parks did close. And while people who love them and communities whose economies rely on them pleaded for them to be reopened, it remains to be seen whether closure will produce a groundswell of public support for increased funding.

To ensure that it does, we need to look carefully at who said what during the shutdown.

To my knowledge, Republican calls to reopen the parks were accompanied by no vision to address the parks’ severe (decades long) underfunding. Instead, those demands were wrapped in attacks on the Park Service itself – whose rangers were told that they should “be ashamed” for keeping the public out of the parks.

Meanwhile, commentators on the left noticed that the state leaders busily moving funds to open parks (such as Arizona’s Grand Canyon) were the same ones who initially stopped welfare payments in their states during the shutdown.

These observations remind us that many political leaders who cried the loudest for re-opening the parks are not reliable friends of the parks. They are not advocates of a robust notion of a “public good” that under-girds the park idea, nor protectors of parks’ resources, nor allies of visitors from all walks of life who clamor for access to them. They are demagogues who cynically used the parks’ popularity and patriotic symbolism for political gain while repeatedly kicking an agency that was already down.

This is no way for America to treat its Park Service on the eve of its centennial. It is the Republican Party – whose (Theodore) Rooseveltian fore-bearers created many of the early national parks – that should be ashamed. Meanwhile, those of us who love our parks must recognize that the greatest threat to them lies in the systematic demolition of our nation’s public sector. In coming days, we should watch vigilantly for those efforts to intensify, building on hyperbolic tales of “Park Service mismanagement” during the shutdown.

Park supporters should redouble our efforts to build a country in which reliable long-term investment in our parks is part of a broader recommitment to our nation’s public interest. A good starting point could be immediate action on a Mission 2016 national parks investment plan that can assure that our national parks always remain protected, staffed, maintained, enhanced – and open and accessible – for the benefit of all who look to them for economic survival, inspiration, education, recreation and renewal.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant is a historian with long experience writing about the National Park Service. Her essay appeared first in the News and Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina.

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I don't quite understand what the turbulence is here. Historically, Americans are working longer and longer hours (and therefore have less and less leisure time)--far more than the rest of the industrialized world. If the government is able to secure more free time for Americans to spend their mortality, how is that a bad thing? I would defer to Zebulon and imtbke's comments about a lingering Puritan--or Protestant--ethos in our country.

It isn't just a negatively phrased "work ethic". I know federal employees with an excellent work ethic who breath a sigh of relief because they now have sick leave. Because they now don't have to work ill and make everyone else ill. They can now legitimately take a day of leave to care for a sick loved one, where in the private sector they had no such benefits. It isn't all wonderful for the worker in that glorious private sector, ya know? And "feeding at the government trough" isn't all glory and easy sliding.

It is not what I chose, it is what BLS reported according on CNS. The 1.4 and 2.1 figures cited are the aggregate of all time absent for other than vacation/leave. Regardless it still comes out to a difference of 13 hours.

I did not come here to discuss BLS stats, but to comment on the concept of "full" or "proper" NPS funding. Since it seems that most folks rather quibble about 30 v 43 hours of sick time per year. I'll guess I'll go back to lurking.


How significant is the extra 13 hours a year

Its not just 13 hrs. That is the subset Brutus chose. It was 4% absense per week. All the "excuses" you offered would be just as valid for a private sector employee yet on the whole, they weren't absent as often by a significant amount. And if they (government employees) are absent 38% more what does that say about their work ethic? Are they 38% less productive when they do show up for work?

The answer isn't always "more money". In fact it seldom is. If Coburn's numbers are accurate ( and I haven't seen anyone contribute info that says it isn't), I would think you would be as appauled as anyone else that 1/2 the funding never gets to the parks. If you want more funding, as I do, we need to 1) improve the economy so there are more available funds and 2) convince people their money is being spent wisely - by spending their money wisely.

Hard to infer a lot based on the information in the article. For example, reasons for absence included illness, taking care of a family member or transportation problems. Did the population of private sector workers include those whose employer grants little or no time off for such reasons? If so, those employees will likely show up to work, sick or not - or send their kids to school, even if sick, because mom can't take any time off work. There have been some news stories covering the problems with spread of flu and other illness just for that reason. I know people in the private sector in such situations.

How much of the 43 hours a year off work for those reasons was vacation time the employee chose to use for those purposes, rather than for vacation? I have friends who use all their vacation time helping aging parents with needs.

How significant is the extra 13 hours a year (out of 2080 hours for a typical full-time employee) for a government vs. private sector employee?

Nice fodder for discussion, but maybe not much else, without more details.

Brutusman - Do you think the difference in work ethic only shows up in hours of absense?

Oh, and you missed the meet of the article: 4% were absense every week.

In 2012, according to BLS, 4.0 percent of government workers reported being absent from work in the typical reference week compared to 2.9 percent of private-sector workers. -

Thanks ec,

Here are the stats from the CNSnews article if anyone is interested:

In 2012, according to BLS, private sector workers missed 1.4 percent of their usual work hours as a result of absences and government workers missed 2.1 percent of their usual work hours becasuse of absences. Thus, government workers missed 50 percent more of their usual work hours as a result of absences than private-sector workers did..

At 2080 hrs per year, comes out to be 30 hours missed annually by private sector employees and 43 hours missed annually by government employees.

, I have yet to meet an employee who was overpaid, nor a program manager, division chief or park superintendent that didn't need more staff, more resources or more $$$ to get the job done.

Maybe if their staff showed up, they would be able to get more done.

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