(Photo credit: Grand Canyon NP entrance sign, courtesy Grand Canyon NPS, Flickr Creative Commons)
Week 3 of the federal shutdown dawns, and the national parks are still closed—well, most of them, anyway. Some, however, are suddenly not closed. No, there hasn’t been a federal-level big deal to end the shutdown. Rather, some states have stepped in by agreeing to fund a handful of parks for a limited period. Utah, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, and New York have successfully pushed to open a handful of the biggest and most lucrative parks, and to foot the bill for the duration. This development comes on the heels of a Thursday decision by the Department of the Interior to allow all states permission to pay to reopen any of the 401 NPS units within their borders (Mahdani & Sullivan, 2013).
Under the agreements about a dozen parks (so far) are temporarily reopening, using state money to pay for salaries and operations. For example, according to the Washington Post, the state of Utah will provide nearly $1.7 million to enable eight park service units to open for 10 days of operations: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks, plus Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments. Colorado, Arizona, and South Dakota are doing something similar to temporarily reopen Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Canyon, and Mount Rushmore, respectively. Back east, New York state agreed to fund the Statue of Liberty for six days.
Why the sudden push to get these parks reopened? Are their home states concerned about the psychic damage caused to their citizens by a loss of access to these natural wonders? No, not really. They’re concerned about the loss of tourist dollars. October is a prime month for tourism in many of these parks. Tourists stay for extended periods and spend lots of money on food, drink, and accommodation. Many hotels, restaurants, stores and other tourism-related economic concerns are hurting. States want to get things up and running again. And they want their state tax revenues.
Here’s the thing, though. All that money the states are fronting up to get the parks open: The states are going to want it back. As soon as the crisis is over, they’re going to seek a reimbursement from the federal government.
This raises a perennial question: Would the states be better stewards of the national parks than the federal government? After all, on the face of it it looks like the states are acting to do the right thing while the big bad stupid federal government lies in limbo. But I’m not so sure. It’s worth noting that these governors—mainly from the western states, and including some of the most conservative in the country—are cherry-picking the shuttered parks with the biggest economic impact.
Arizona’s governor, Janet Brewer, for example, pushed hard to get Grand Canyon up and running—but is ignoring the state’s other, less lucrative national parks. The Washington Post quotes Rob Arnberger, a former Grand Canyon superintendent who served in that capacity during the last government shutdowns in the mid-1990s. Arnberger said he was disappointed that so many of the state-level politicians trying hardest to get the parks reopened seemed to be motivated only by tourist dollars. He noted Brewer’s lack of attention to nearly two dozen other national parks in the state. “‘What about Petrified Forest National Park? What about Saguaro National Park?’ he asked. ‘I find it distressful the discussion of parks focuses only on their economic value’” (Eilperin & Bernstein, 2013).
I agree. It’s pretty clear that these states have no desire whatsoever to commit to the preservation of the national parks or even to pay their share in funding such powerful engines of economic activity for their communities. They just want the money, with no long-term strings attached. OK, fine. It’s not wrong to want to reap an economic benefit from the national parks. From the very beginning of the parks system, there has been a tacit—and sometimes uneasy—understanding that the only way to permanently secure these magnificent lands for the nation as a whole was to ensure widespread popular support for the national parks. And to do that, people had to be allowed ready access to the parks. That meant roads, hotels, restaurants, and all the rest. There’s nothing wrong with that. All this economic activity provides wealth, tax receipts and jobs in parts of the country where jobs are often scarce. But the park service has never been primarily about attracting tourism. It has always offset the economic emphasis through a commitment to its prime mission, which is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
If the nation’s parks were ever handed over to the states, would that mission survive unimpaired? I doubt it.
Juliet Eilperin & Lenny Bernstein, (2013). Interior allows a dozen iconic national parks to reopen with state funding. Washington Post, Oct. 11. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/interior-allows-almost-a-dozen-iconic-national-parks-to-reopen-with-state-funding/2013/10/11/b010aa82-3296-11e3-8627-c5d7de0a046b_story.html
Aamer Madhani & Tracie Sullivan (2013). Statue of Liberty and Grand Canyon to reopen. USA Today, Oct. 11. Available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/10/11/utah-national-parks-reopen-government-shutdown/2966785/