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.