Just how much do Americans care about their national parks?
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, three in five Americans say they won't visit a national park with air pollution. In another poll that Zogby International conducted for the NPCA, 47 percent said they would not visit a park with restrooms, roads, visitor centers or other facilities in poor condition.
That's what the polling shows. Yet those who hold the purse strings in Washington don't seem to care, as I've pointed out in other posts touching on funding for the National Park Service. They don't care about the crumbling roads, the filthy restrooms, the too-small or closed visitor centers, the lack of park rangers.
If other polling for NPCA is accurate, the polling that shows that 45 percent of likely voters planned to visit a national park this summer, you'd think, or at least hope, that those travelers would take note of the condition of our parks and call their congressional representatives and give them an earful.
A member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees tells me he doesn't expect to see any dramatic change in the current direction of the park service. Why not? He questions whether an increasingly urban society such as ours will ever embrace national parks as they once were envisioned.
That's a disappointing, and terrifying, possibility. Disappointing because the United States started the national parks movement with a love and respect for the natural places in this country. Terrifying because that attitude, if unaltered, will send the parks on a long downward spiral and deprive future generations of some of the most fantastic lands on this earth.
That spiral has already begun. You can see it in the smog and haze that hangs like gauze curtains over the Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Mesa Verde and many other parks, in the development that's encroaching on the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and the Everglades.
Some of us are fortunate enough to visit national parks on a regular basis. Along with enjoying these spectacular landscapes, we also see the encroachments that are jeopardizing the parks' health. Development is fracturing the ecosystems that envelope the parks, threatening to turn parks into open-air zoos where wildlife biologists struggle not only to maintain biological diversity but also genetic diversity.
For those who make a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Yellowstones, Yosemites or Grand Canyons, they see a gushing Old Faithful, marvel at the frothing of Yosemite Falls, and gaze into the geologic grandeur that is the Grand Canyon. But do they appreciate the over-taxed infrastructure, the overcrowding, the air, water and noise pollution?
That message needs to be spread over and over and over again.
We have a Congress that eagerly and greedily packs appropriation bills with ridiculous amounts of pork. That's what political influence garners for you. Special interests hold sway in Washington. The Yellowstone snowmobile debate is proof of that. The park service currently is embarking on a third environmental impact statement -- at a cost of $2-$3 million -- to study what two previous environmental impact statements -- each at a cost of $2-$3 million -- have already concluded: snowmobiles are bad for Yellowstone's health, its landscape, its wildlife, its employees, even its visitors.
Time and again vast majorities of Americans have said they don't want to see snowmobiles in Yellowstone. But that doesn't matter, as a park service employee recently pointed out to me. The public comment periods, he said, do not equate with a vote. Perhaps they should. We could have moved so much farther forward in preserving Yellowstone these past five years.
What we need, before it's too late, is for the politicians to transform themselves into statesmen (and stateswomen) and start investing in our parks. I believe preserving the parks as best possible is very, very important for this country. We must hold tight to this part of our heritage, for it shows how we value nature.
It's important for our kids to have these great parks to visit with clean air and water, abundant wildlife, and healthy ecosystems, and for their kids and on and on.
It's time for the 45 percent of likely voters who visit a park this summer to make a commotion and not settle for politics as they've been played for too long. Some will argue that park enthusiasts are simply another special interest group clamoring at the trough. Perhaps. But the clamoring is over the beauty of our country and a legacy of preservation, not the pockets of industry.