On a tour I led recently in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it alternately snowed and rained for five consecutive days. Despite the inclement weather, Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks were busy, hotels and restaurants were full, and the gateway city of Jackson, Wyoming had traffic jams. Busloads of tourists from the U.S. and other countries descended upon the parks. There were long lines at restaurants, bathrooms (National Parks need more of these), and at park entrances. Like us, these tourists came to experience the exquisite beauty, wildlife, geology and fall colors in these iconic Parks.
Our experience was indicative of the upward trend in national park visitation. Last year (2016) was a record-breaking year for visiting national parks. A total of 330 million people visited them, a 7 percent increase from the previous year. Visitation records were broken in many national parks this year, including these new highs:
- Smoky Mountain NP – 11 million
- Grand Canyon NP – 6 million
- Yosemite NP – 5 million
- Yellowstone NP – 4.2 million
While Americans are voting with their hearts and their feet in support of our national park system, AKA “America’s Best Idea”, the current administration wants to cut funding for national parks by 12%. Why?
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” – Wallace Stegner, author
There is no rational explanation for this funding cut. Demand for National Parks is at a historic high. The economy is strong, the stock market is robust, unemployment is down. It is all about politics and priorities. This administration would rather build a wall in front of Mexico, and right through Big Bend National Park, than it would steward what truly makes America great – it’s national parks
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the proposed reduced budget would lead to the loss of 1,242 FTE staff, $30 million in cuts to deferred maintenance projects of which there are a total of $11 billion in pending projects, closed facilities including campgrounds, and reduced services. It makes absolutely no sense to do this at a time when park visitation is growing. We should be doing the exact opposite.
Here is what John Gardner, Director of Budget and Appropriations for National Parks Conservation Association said about the proposed cuts:
“The Administration’s proposed budget is a non-starter for our national parks, our environment, and our cultural heritage, and should be dead on arrival in Congress. Agencies like the National Park Service and EPA cannot take care of our treasured landscapes and historical landmarks with further cuts to what are already shoestring budgets.”
There is a massive disconnect here between what Americans cherish, and what those in power are promoting. Democracy is not at play here; instead, the power of resource extraction industries is.
Ryan Zinke, the current head of Department of Interior fancies himself a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. He therefore should be proposing a budget that supports conservation of the public lands he manages. Instead, he has been trying to undo the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, the father of our public lands.
Zinke is a fox guarding the hen house and a shill for the oil and gas industry. He and his cronies want to exploit public lands for short-term profits, plain and simple. Currently, he is presiding over his agencies’ proposed budget cuts and has recommended shrinking at least four national monuments to make more lands available to oil, gas, mineral extraction, grazing and logging. This, in spite of the fact that 98% of public comments received on his national monument review process favored their expansion and preservation.
National Parks often start as national monuments. Olympic National Park was first a national monument created by Teddy Roosevelt before it eventually became a national park formalized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Just as Zinke mismanages public lands, he also mismanages public funds. On June 6th, he and his staffers flew a chartered plane from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana near Zinke’s home in Whitefish, Montana. This flight cost U.S. taxpayers $12,735. Zinke should pay this amount in a fine earmarked to Yellowstone Park toward the installation of one public bathroom at Artist Point overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Then he will have done at least one good thing for our national park system.
Far beyond this, he needs to steward responsibly the magnificent system of public lands that we inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, a republican, and others after him. Your job, Secretary Zinke, is to tend, not give away the farm. Put your money where your mouth is. Fund our beloved national parks! Teddy’s ghost is watching you.
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.