America’s soft spot for its national parks

Yellowstone Main Gate

(Photo credit: Main gate, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, courtesy of Brian Landis, Flickr Creative Commons)

Our local PBS station (WXXI) was replaying the Ken Burns series the “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” last weekend. The one I saw was the last episode, focusing on the story of the parks after World War II. The narrator made a big deal about the popularity of the parks among all kinds of Americans. It’s not something where, say, party affiliation makes much of a difference. That’s interesting.

I’ve noticed how the National Park Service has managed to largely steer clear of both the national culture wars that have roiled America and the increasingly vicious ideological debates over the role of government in recent years. It has managed this feat in spite of the fact that it is a highly visible, centralized federal government bureaucracy, dedicated to telling America’s story in not only natural history but also, increasingly, cultural history terms—and mostly on the taxpayer’s dime. (Although it doesn’t cost the taxpayers all that much: The NPS’s entire annual budget currently is a little more than $3 billion a year—that’s a bit more than PBS gets, but $3 billion is about enough to fund Medicare for about two days, or the Defense Department for 36 hours).

When Burns unveiled the “National Parks” series in 2009, complete with its subtitle “America’s Best Idea,” he was echoing a sentiment first expressed by writer and historian Wallace Stegner, who called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” It’s a sentiment that even today, few people seem to take issue with.

And alongside the national parks, equally prominent in the public imagination, is the organization that puts a human face on our national parks: The National Park Service and its core of interpretive rangers, complete with their iconic Smokey Bear hats. Although the park service itself is less than a century old, it’s an organization that seems to have woven itself intricately into the fabric of the parks themselves, and into American life. I’ll probably talk more about that in future blogs.

At the same time, it is clear now that the United States currently is entrenched in an era of heightened political partisanship, and has been for some years. In the past the so-called culture wars—over issues such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—seemed to provide most of the fuel for partisan divide.  More recently, more of the ideological ferment has focused on the broader economic matter surrounding the role of government—and especially the federal government—in the life of the country. How big or small should it be? How much should it be used to promote equality of opportunity? How much should Americans pay in taxes to support it? In such a divisive period of hyper-partisanship, Washington, DC, federal government agencies, and, increasingly, federal employees, have become targets of partisan attacks, predominantly from the right.  With the exception of the military, many, perhaps most, organs of the federal government seem to be under attack.

This partisanship over the role of the government is reflected in the opinion polls.  For example, a Pew Research Center opinion poll over the summer found that 77 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans now hold the opinion that “‘when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful,’ up from 65 percent who agreed with that sentiment in 1987” (C. Cillizza & A. Blake, Do Republicans hate government? Kind of. Washington Post, June 7, 2012). Democrats, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction; back in 1987, 59 percent of Democrats believed the government to be wasteful and inefficient, compared to just 41 percent in the most recent numbers. That’s a 35 percent-plus gap between the parties in terms of whether the government is a force for good or bad.

Yet the National Park Service is the one federal agency, outside the military, that seems to remain broadly insulated from this sort of systemic, broad-based critique. This 97-year-old agency, a unit of the Department of the Interior, has been charged under its founding legislation, the Organic Act, to maintain the nation’s natural and cultural wonders and leave them “unimpaired” for future generations to enjoy. It occupies a unique space in the federal government, highly visible yet widely admired. Among Democratic and Republican politicians, the park service is rarely an object of controversy.

Now I’m not saying that the park service has been totally immune from criticism. The service has seen its share of controversy over the years, from both left and right. It has seen populist backlashes to its operations come and go, involving everything from allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone to dealing with how to interpret President George Washington’s use of slaves at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historic Park. And, to take another example, the park service’s huge expansion in Alaska in the late 1970s kicked up heated protests over what was seen by some as federal government overreach. More broadly, the park service administration has received a steady trickle of criticism in numerous locations as it has struggled to find the right balance between its preservation mission and the commercial lure of recreational use for park lands.

But what I am saying is that this criticism has, for the most part, remained localized, limited and conditional, and has not metastasized into a broader, systemic critique of the agency. There has been no concerted effort to frame the park service as, say, a greedy, inefficient or overreaching Big Government agency with lazy employees.

If politicians are wary of sticking it to the park service, it may in part be because most Americans continue see it as a benefit to society. Another poll conducted this summer, this time commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association (and the National Park Hospitality Association), bears this out. In this poll, 95 percent of respondents said they see protecting and supporting the National Parks as an appropriate role for the federal government; 81 percent of voters reported having visited a National Park at some point in their lives, and nearly nine in 10 say they are interested in visiting in the future. 80 percent of respondents expressed concern that funding shortages are damaging National Parks and marring visitors’ park experiences, and 77 percent of voters say it is important for the next president to ensure that parks are fully restored and ready to serve and be relevant to this country for another hundred years.  While admittedly this poll was commissioned by a group committed to the preservation of the parks, it does provide evidence for a broad consensus that the national parks in America are a good thing.

To be continued.

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One response to “America’s soft spot for its national parks

  1. Pingback: The shutdown: Week 2 | The Memory Hollow·

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