This week we're celebrating National Parks Week, an annual promo for the vast network of public space that’s been called our country’s best idea. This week, in honor of the Nation Park system’s centennial year, access to all National Parks in the US is free for the entire week.
Here at SAANO, we like our National Parks. In addition to their being majestic, egalitarian, living, symbols of our American democracy, they’re also kind of our bread and butter. Preservation of wilderness ought to be a priority, we feel, and saying that brings up an interesting thing to consider, more than ever in this symbolic year. Preserving wild spaces isn’t enough--it’s also important to do it the right way.
The National Parks are seriously underfunded, and this is creating uncertainty about their future. A recent story on NPR discusses the backlog of repairs and maintenance in the Nation Park System, which total $12 billion. For a more regional perspective, Joshua Tree National Parks’ backlog is $60 million worth of repairs, largely for infrastructure like roads. The real punch in the gut is that the park’s annual budget is only $6 million.
There have been calls as a result to privatize the park system, such as this one by the executive director of the Property and Environment Research, a group proposing that “secure property rights and free markets are essential to the conservation of environmental resources.” Not all of these are radical--public-private partnerships have been around for a while--although environmental advocates tend to see this as a move towards full privatization by individuals or corporations.
Public-private partnerships, such as the ones that provide services at Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and other parks, may be necessary as long as the federal government is unable or unwilling to come up with the funds for maintaining the park system. It has a tendency to make nature lovers squeamish, however, conjuring images of national parks with Disneyland-like amenities and prices.
Business owners tend to dismiss this concern, saying they cater to park visitors, who want nature, not a theme park. However, a recent attempt to develop a tram to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is one example of howone visitor’s idea of a nature experience can be radically different from another’s.
One other example of less than ideal results of privatizing services in the parks is the recent contract change at Yosemite, in which Delaware North, the for-profit management company that has overseen concessions and services in the park since the 1990’s, lost its bid for renewal. Subsequently the company requested $44 million as compensation for “intangible assets,” including the names of iconic park locations to which they own trademarks. Since then, the park service has had to change those names, or risk a lawsuit.
Lastly, while public-private partnerships may not mean the end of our park system, it’s important to remember that the existence of the parks and the lands they protect is not a given. Extraction industries have always had their eyes on the parks…indeed, battles over park boundaries are ongoing, such as the one over the proposed uranium mine near the Grand Canyon. For the last ten years we have seen an ascendant sense of mistrust in government, which, among other things, is necessary to oversee public lands. At the same time, the recent events at the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon exposed a similar ideological current in our society: that we should do away with public lands altogether.
For those of us committed to the idea that all people should have access to the wild spaces, this is a critical time to celebrate our National Park System.
By Brian Gruters
Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.