There is a delight in the hardy life of the open, or so said the father of the U.S. National Park Service, President Theodore Roosevelt.
“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm,” he said. “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired.”
Over 100 years later, though, the “mystery, melancholy and charm” of the wilderness is at risk of becoming prohibitively expensive for many Americans.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has expressed intent to nearly triple the entrance fees at 17 national parks to nearly $70 during peak season, and this would affect parks as well-beloved as Acadia, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion.
The commodification of our public lands, or “America’s best idea,” is as nonsensical as it is abhorrent.
The National Park Service was created in a spirit of conservation and so that Americans could have fair access to time outdoors as the country rapidly industrialized and urbanized.
However, visitors to national parks are already overwhelmingly white and affluent.
Traveling to some parks’ remote locations is already a significant expense for many families; increasing the net price even further could hasten the parks’ transformation into playgrounds for the privileged.
Surely this is not how Roosevelt would have wanted the surging geysers of Yellowstone, the eclectic terrain of Saguaro or the stark taiga of Glacier to be handed down to the next generation.
According to Zinke, the price hikes are necessary to ensure park preservation. However, these changes would occur alongside a cut of approximately $300 million to the National Park Service’s budget, and the rate increases would only add about $70 million in revenue. Inconvenient math.
While it’s true that many national parks suffer from poorly tended trails, deteriorating roads and ranger shortages, among other problems, we can practice better stewardship of these exceptional places without excluding Americans who may be struggling financially.
It makes sense for Congress to allocate a greater amount of discretionary spending towards the National Park Service: 331 million visitors enjoyed a national park last year and brought with them billions of dollars in revenue for local businesses. This country needs more trails to waterfalls, not border walls.
A rock scramble to a vista at sunset is the same thrill whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican and shoring up the future of our country’s best natural assets provides an excellent opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in the midst of a deep political schism.
Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) recently introduced legislation to address the infrastructure needs of the park system by investing in it rather than turning it into a more-exclusive club.
Denying less-privileged Americans access to national parks deprives them of far more than just recreational opportunities. National parks have a tremendous amount of intrinsic value in terms of biodiversity and historical preservation.
When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly fails to exhibit a middle-school grasp of the Civil War, you know that every child needs the opportunity to learn from National Park Service historians, rangers and scientists. Perhaps if Kelly had spent more time visiting Appomattox Court House or the battlefield and cemetery at Gettysburg, he would understand that the Civil War was not about a “failure to compromise.”
Perhaps if Zinke or EPA director Scott Pruitt saw the stunning yet receding ice fields of Glacier (which within the next decade will be visible only to back-country hikers, and distressingly soon after that, not at all), they would appreciate the urgency of safeguarding our public lands.
Regardless, whether or not an average American can experience these sights and learn from them should not be determined by their socioeconomic status.
At a time when it feels like the sand is rapidly shifting beneath our feet, it is comforting that the Mesa Verde or Apostle Islands of my childhood are hardly different from the Mesa Verde or Apostle Islands of my parents’ childhoods, and I look forward to exploring some of the best and most beautiful places with my future children.
But your income should not determine whether or not you have the opportunity to see a black bear, sequoia tree or hike the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Our country might not have Gothic cathedrals or Roman coliseums, but we are fortunate to live in a place where the best views are for everyone. This land was made for you and me, but we can’t take it for granted.