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A View From The Overlook: The Advantages Of National Parks

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A program at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park launched in 2010 works with under-privileged high school students to introduce them to the array of sciences  exploredin the park. NPS photo.

“What good are national parks?”

This is a question often raised by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party when faced by non-utilitarian public land use.

It is an interesting question. The first answer is the John Muir answer; that national parks are “good” in and of themselves; that they are not required to be economically valuable.

The idea that plants and animals are spiritually valuable and soul nourishing was first proposed by the first century naturalist, Jesus Christ, who famously observed “Consider the lilies of the field; how they grow, they toil not, nor do they spin, and yet I say onto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

The quote (Luke 12:23-40) was undoubtedly made in response to the Judean Sheep and Goat Association’s claim that God had given them the right to overgraze the Holy Land (This doesn’t show up in the Bible, but it should!).

Now we are not inferring that the Tea Party Republicans are the Anti-Christ, but you might want to check your congressman for the Mark of the Beast!

The second answer to the question of the value of national parks takes the dilemma by the horns and states boldly that the parks ARE economically valuable; that you CAN make money off them; that is, folks who show up to “Consider the Lilies” are going to need something to eat and a place to sleep, as well as a souvenir of their “Considering,“ and you can make money selling these goods and services to them.

This is not quite as spiritual an answer as that of Christ or John Muir, but it has a powerful appeal to the local chamber of commerce. Indeed, the presence of the NPS arrowhead or a patch of dark green or pink on a road map, indicating the presence of a national park unit, is much sought after by most of the normal parts of the United States.

The NPS brand on a piece of property, large or small, is sort of the touristic version of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” The park patron is assured of first-rate museum exhibitry and a friendly, knowledgeable staff that will leave the patron with the feeling that his time, tax dollars and admission fee were well spent. A sizable segment of the traveling public views visiting NPS sites as virtually a patriotic duty, making sure to get their NPS Passports stamped, and encouraging their children to work to acquire the Junior Ranger badges offered at most sites.

All of these activities precipitate money into the surrounding communities. Everyone, particularly normal Republicans, likes this. This helps to make national parks a rare bi-partisan issue that most people can get behind. (Readers will recall the recent frantic efforts of Utah, Arizona and other “red States” to re-open parks closed by the government shutdown.)

Battling Poverty With Parks

It is also helpful that many national park units are located in what President Lyndon Johnson called “pockets of poverty.” These are generally rural areas with declining industries such as mining, logging, or marginal agriculture, with low educational outcomes and a high proportion of jobs that are seasonal in nature and close to minimum wage when available.

Some of these “pockets of poverty” are pretty big pockets, such as much of Appalachia and the Ozark Plateau. In other cases, NPS units butt up against or are surrounded by Native American reservations where unemployment and alcoholism is in the high double digits.

NPS units in these “poverty pockets” constitute a sort of small economic oasis for the local population. NPS jobs, even when seasonal, generally pay more that the going rate and are among the few jobs in the community guaranteed not to be outsourced to China.

This brings us to the third advantage of National Parks: the presence of the NPS staff. The rangers, interpreters, maintenance, and administrative folk are a great resource (and role model) for the surrounding community. They provide vital backup and support in law enforcement, medical first response, fire and natural disaster assistance, and education They are intelligent, well-educated, well-trained, outgoing persons with a broad worldview due to the nomadic nature of the NPS life style.

They are also well paid (at least by poverty pocket standards). This allows them the luxury of working only their NPS jobs, rather than several low paying jobs to make ends meet. This in turn, provides the luxury of spare time, which they often invest in volunteer work for the community. Using the bases of schools, churches, service organizations such as Rotary or Lions, youth groups such as the Boy & Girl Scouts, these NPS volunteers do provide reinforcement to the community, for the betterment of the locals and the mission of the NPS.

Park personnel and spouses often assist after school in tutoring or coaching sports. Now, we are not implying that every NPS bureaucrat is some sort of Lord or Lady Bountiful, bestowing wisdom on the surrounding yokels as in a Department of Interior version of “Downton Abbey.” But the NPS staffers do have an effect on the community and it is usually positive.

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Some of the program's students are involved in interpretive programs. NPS photo.

Let us consider one such example of NPS effect on a “pocket of poverty” located on the Big Island of Hawaii.

“But”, you say, “Hawaii is a tropical paradise! No one can be miserable! It’s against the law!”

That may be the case in the Kona district of the Big Island, where all the famous resorts and beaches hold sway. But it is not so in the Ka’u district, an agricultural area that abuts Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Ka’u District is economically depressed.

Why is this the case? Breaks of the game, neighbors! The Hawaiian sugar industry collapsed due to the “deregulation” that forced Hawaiian sugar to compete on the world market. In such cases, Bangladesh wins every time.

The big Ka'u plantations like C. Brewer shut down, as did all but one in the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. This left a lot of folks out of full time work.

Now perhaps they should have all moved to North Dakota to get in on the oil boom, but they didn’t. Some were able to transition into the developing Ka'u Coffee industry, others settled into tropical torpor, subsisting on welfare, subsistence wild pig and goat hunting, part time or odd jobs, supplemented in some case by a little pakalolo (marijuana) farming; for recreation there was surfing, music, and hanging out with buddies.

It is not a bad existence; nobody starves or dies of exposure in Hawaii. “Poverty is a warm weather sport” as one acquaintance put it.

It was, however, a very limiting role model for the children. Indeed, such children are known as “at risk,” particularly to the crystal meth problem, the “drug of boredom” in rural America.

Parks As Educators

The astute principal of the Ka’u High School perceived that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and its rangers have the ability to help the students gain self-esteem, to learn more about the homeland they love, and to set goals for acquiring professions and higher education

At roughly the same time, visiting anthropologist Dr. Joan Rubin and her retired NPS husband contacted a major figure in the Ka’u district, Julia Neal, who in addition to being a crusading local newspaper woman, was actively involved in promoting the Pahala community.

What to do?

“When in doubt, ask a ranger.”

So the three presented a plan to Cindy Orlando, superintendent of Hawaii Volcanos National Park, who thought it an interesting challenge. It was especially timely since the park was interested in greater outreach with the surrounding communities.

Cindy asked Interpretive Park Ranger Kupono McDaniel if he was interested in the plan to involve the Ka’u students in the park by training them in the various NPS disciplines. Indeed, Kupono was interested in helping the “at risk “youth of Ka’u, but knew it would be a challenge for both sides.

National parks and the National Park Service are resolutely middle class. For example, “volunteering in the parks,” that is, working for nothing, is pretty much a middle class concept. Since the Ka’u kids were not middle class, that concept would have to be shelved for the time being; “Only a chump works for nothing!” 

So, Kupono instituted the “GS-1 Ranger.” At the bottom of the GS ladder, there are no prerequisites for the GS-1 position other than to show up breathing. Humble as it was, the GS-1 paid $10 an hour. Not bad pay for a Ka’u kid.

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Students learn about the geologic forces at play in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. NPS photo.

In addition, the park provided a training program and uniforms. The uniforms were the real deal. If they passed the training course, they would wear the same uniforms as regular park rangers. For the first time in their young lives, they would feel and be important. It would prove to be a heady feeling.

Thus was born the Youth Ranger Internship Program. Ostensibly, the Ka’u kids were being hired and trained as seasonal rangers. In reality, they were being introduced to middle class values. There was the concept of the alarm clock; you didn’t shut it off and roll over; if you were expected to be at a certain place at a certain time, you were there, not just the first time, but always. The job came first; you didn’t drop it, because there was something “interesting” happening on the other side of the island. Above all, you would talk to strangers, look them in the eye, and answer their questions.

To many, if not most, of the Ka’u Kids, talking to strangers was primordially terrifying. Six-foot-tall Hawaiian surfer kids who had no fear of a 20-foot wave were reduced almost to tears by the prospect of talking to middle aged Iowa farm couple.

“What will they ask? What will I say?” were the fearful questions.

“Don’t worry! We will teach you,” said Kupono.

At Path Out Of Poverty

And teach and instruct they did. Training this fourth year of the program started on April 4, 2013, with 45 youth from Ka’u, Pahoa, and Kea’au public high schools, as well as the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences. There were short courses on how the volcano worked, the more common native plants and their uses, conservation values, teamwork and, of course, Hawaiiana; the rousing history and legends of the Hawaiian and Polynesian peoples. Practice on how to impart this newfound knowledge to others followed.

The Nature Conservancy, the powerful private conservation organization, got involved and took the Ka’u kids on overnight camp overs on their land. A local philanthropist provided a van to take the kids to the national park (Incredibly, few of the kids had ever visited the park; that, they thought, was for Haoles).

Those who completed the training program, 33 in all, were assigned to all six of the divisions of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; Interpretation, Natural Resources, Cultural Resources, Maintenance, Protection, and Administration. They then worked the summer of 2013 under the supervision of their ranger-mentors.

So, bottom line, was the Youth Ranger Internship Program a success? Seems to be the case. Let’s take the interns in the Interpretive Division. One by one, after much mentoring and critiquing, and considerable trepidation, every Youth Ranger Interpreter eventually gave his/her maiden interpretive talk. It was invariably well received, often with applause. Success begets success: half-remembered stories from grandparents were recalled—and researched, and incorporated into other talks. The kids began proposing ideas—always a good sign.

Over at Natural Resources Division, Youth Ranger Intern Grace Tredinnick was having the time of her life.

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Some students are immersed in the park's botany, which includes this Uluhe Frond. NPS photo.

In a letter written at the end of season, she stated: “Before I started working at the park, I never knew how diverse and beautiful the native species in Hawaii are because so many of them are uncommon outside the park…I would encourage anyone looking to start a career in conservation to check out this program. It is a perfect transition to adulthood from high school and gives everyone who participates in it a step up in the real world. In addition to that, it is a wonderful atmosphere. Everyone is so helpful and happy. I don’t think I’ve ever met an unhappy park ranger, and I knew I was happy to be there the entire time. I looked forward to every day.”

Before the program, college seemed as unrealistic as a trip to Mars for the Ka’u kids. Now it seemed a feasible idea, as there was a goal, to be a resource manager, or a park ranger. They would need a degree. There was now a reason. The high school guidance counselor could now do his job of removing obstacles to these goals.

The State of Hawaii was very much interested in the success of Native Hawaiians. You could go to the University of Hawaii tuition-free if you had Hawaiian blood. There are grants and scholarships available to those who have the will. The park staff at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park helped nurture that will. Just one of the many advantages of national parks.

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Turning over the parks to the states doesn't mean they have no value. Everything PJ identified as "the good" of National Parks can and is being done by the states. In just the last two months, I have visted Hobbs State park in Arkansas, which had wonderful facilities, great rangers and created demand in the local communties, and Zackary Taylor State Park in Key West which had a fort built at the same type and with the same architect as Dry Tortugus, free interpretive tours and a beautiful beach. Zackary was $2.50. It was $165 to go to Dry Tortugus.

Again, state versus national control is a legitimate debate and in no way implies someone (much less an entire "party") sees no value in the park. To claim so is nothing more than a false strawman attempt to demonize.

Lee, you're really the original 'one trick pony'. Every subject you post on comes down to the same thing... greed and the evil elephants. But never anything to support your claims.... remember this?

"Thank you, Smokies. That was very interesting reading and did a lot to help explain your stance of the issue. Things like that do a lot more to advance an argument than just posting opinions and sometimes over the top rhetoric."

That was you yesterday on another subject where the poster included some information to support his claim... Too bad you aren't subject to your own caster oil...."just posting opinions and ....over the top rhetoric"

Maybe Kurt could just post a permanent sidebar for you... and save you the trouble.

ec - It's not entirely clear to me if there is an "official" Tea Party position on any issue, but I would, in all sincerity, welcome an explanation on the Tea Party's stance on what this article describes as "non-utilitarian public land use."

To help this question along, I'd suggest that term means uses that are not "consumptive" in nature, such as logging, mining, grazing, and oil and gas wells. You're welcome to provide the Tea Party's take on a definition of that term as well. I realize some of those activities do take place in a relatively few NPS areas, but I think most of us would agree those are not activities generally associated with the National Park System.

welcome an explanation on the Tea Party's stance on what this article describes as "non-utilitarian public land use."

I would say the "party" has no stance other than perhaps it is more approriately decided at the local rather than national level.

I think this is a marvelous program, and don't doubt that other similar activities exist at other parks.

Personally, I think the Muir answer to the question is sufficient in and of itself.

PJ Ryan, thank you for an interesting and well written article. I look forward to finding more information about such programs as I was unaware that they existed. It is good to know that the Park Service work with all aspects of a local community rather than just the profit generating ones. Thank you, again.

The only criteria for getting a job in the NPS should be who can give the tax payer the absolute best value for their dollar. NPS jobs should not exist or be created with the primary objective being, benefiting the individual getting the job; the primary focus should be determining what individual will be of greatest benefit to the park and the public.

There are many who decided to try to pursue a career with he NPS and believed that doing seasonal work was the "pathway" to a permanent position. There are many who at great sacrifice have built up a tremendous record of experience and proven successful performance but not only is he next to impossible for these folks to get permanent jobs now it is getting increasing difficult for them to continue to get seasonal and temporary jobs. A major reason for that is programs like the one described in this article. It is anathema to me to think that someone with multiple certifications through the NPS Interpretative Development Program would be excluded from a job opportunity in favor of someone who is fearful of speaking to a stranger. To me it seems to be a betrayal of those who served the agency so well, and at considerable sacrifice, to say sorry but you don't come from one of the favored communities so you are excluded from consideration for this position. I'm referring not only to the program in this article but to the profusion of ways, such at the pathways program, that the NPS is currently trying to funnel jobs to favored groups at the expense of its long time seasonal workforce.

More and more it seems that experience and proven ability to do the job is a detriment to employment at the lower levels of the agency. And if you doubt what I say take a look on USA Jobs at the number of NPS positions open only to students. NPS jobs should not be used as a wealth redistribution scheme. We exist to fulfill the mission as defined in the NPS organic act. If people are lifted out of poverty and shown a better life as a side effect of carrying out that mission fine, but that should never be the goal of this government agency.

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