The National Park Service, along with most other branches of the federal government, is being shut down today. I think the whole shutdown debacle is ridiculous, but I want to focus specifically on the impact on the national parks, though what I say here also applies to other institutions that connect ordinary Americans to their national legacy, such as the Smithsonian institutions and the National Zoo.
Today, countless thousands of visitors and tourists in places like Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains and New York’s Statue of Liberty are being barred from interacting fully with our national treasures—cultural and natural monuments to a country whose government seems to have lost its way. Park rangers and guides, who already have to deal with annual furloughs even when they work full-time, will not be paid for the duration of the shutdown, and there is no guarantee they ever will receive any back pay.
This matters, because the National Park Service matters, and park rangers matter. The success of America’s national parks is unimaginable without the existence of a uniformed cadre of men and women, in the form of the National Park Service, who have long provided a powerful unifying “face” for the parks. It is these men and women who, every day, connect visitors directly with their parks.
Whenever a shutdown looms, the media often focus on the impact on the national parks—one of the most visible facets of federal government operations, and one of the most highly regarded. But park rangers are, for the most part, not considered an “essential occupation” that must be maintained through a shutdown. Some members of the public (fortunately a minority) will even see them as an expensive extravagance the nation can no longer afford. I think such a view is false and short-sighted in the extreme. The park service is a bargain for the nation, operating more than 400 units—including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and all the rest—on a budget of about $3 billion. That, by the way, is enough to fund Medicare for about two days, or the Defense Department for 36 hours. Three billion dollars buys the American people access to millions of acres of the country’s most magnificent scenery and hundreds of national monuments, all for free or for a subsidized fee. Three billion dollars is, however, not a lot of money—a drop in the federal bucket, in fact. The park service had already been underfunded and running on a shoestring for years. And the current sequestration crisis has made the problems worse. This directly affects the number of actual park rangers available to interact with visitors.
Like most non-essential federal government agencies, the park service has been forced to cut five percent from its 2013 budget. These cuts meant there were approximately 1,000 fewer seasonal employees helping out during this year’s peak summer season—leading to fewer program offerings, longer wait times at entrance stations, delayed road and park openings, and reduced hours of operation. (See, e.g., Christopher Dawson, “7 ways budget cuts will hit national parks,” May 30, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/17/travel/national-parks-budget-cuts ). And it looks like things will be even worse next year. This current shutdown just exacerbates and already-serious funding crisis. I don’t know how things get better from here.
I think my favorite episode of the PBS series “The National Parks” is the last one, where we see the parks develop and flourish in the post-war period. The narrator notes the dilapidated state the park system had fallen into after the war, when the parks became more and more popular with Americans even as the facilities needed to accommodate them—from roads to camping grounds to bathrooms—were stretched beyond the breaking point. It took a significant infusion of cash in the late 1950s and early 1960s—the Mission 66 project—to modernize the parks’ facilities properly. This ushered in a golden age of park usage, when for millions of Americans a road trip to a national park became a defining rite of passage. But the funding infusion did not last, even as the National Park Service took on more responsibilities and saw rising visitation. Now, I fear the parks are heading into dilapidation once again. Even as the park service approaches its 100th birthday, there seems little hope of another Mission 66-style cash infusion.