A Brief Note on the Future of America’s National Parks

NPS I am Not AshamedAt some point during the government shutdown earlier this month I wrote about the need to find a balance between preservation and access in preserving our national parks. I also shared an image that was being spread around the internet proclaiming that there was no need to feel ashamed about the National Park Service, even if some of our leaders in Congress feel like they’ve acted in a shameful manner. I was asked by several people on and offline whether or not they could purchase buttons, stickers, and/or t-shirts with the logo emblazoned on them. The answer to that question is yes: I was just contacted yesterday by a person who has undertaken the effort of putting the logo onto these items. Click here to purchase a range of items with the “I am not ashamed” logo on them if you are interested. All funds are going to the Association of National Park Rangers, so they’re going to a good and worthy source.

It is important that those of us who are advocates for National Parks don’t take our foot off the gas because the government shutdown is over. The National Parks experienced funding issues long before the shutdown. The Great Recession of 2008 and recent sequestration cuts have only exacerbated these funding issues, leading to employment shortages, maintenance issues that are long overdue for a fix, and a workforce unsure of where the next cut or shutdown will take place.

I’ve read Anne Whisnant’s article on the need for funding for the NPS several times now, and I think it’s an important read for outlining goals for the future. While I am not comfortable assessing blame on one individual or political party, the recent shutdown demonstrated to me that not everyone is a friend to the Park Service. In 1953, Bernard DeVoto called for the complete closing of the NPS because the service was so poorly funded as to be a national embarrassment. Continued complaints about the state of the Park Service eventually led to President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration undertaking a ten-year, $1 billion dollar effort to renovate the parks in time for the NPS’ 50th anniversary in 1966 (“Mission ’66”).

While Mission ’66 was largely successful, I wonder if a “Mission ’16” project would be successful. In an age of economic stagnation and government contraction, how will America care for its National Parks in the future?


Is it Time for Jon Jarvis to Retire?

For five hours today, National Park Service Chief Jonathan Jarvis was grilled by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa of California was particularly harsh on Jarvis, arguing that “I believe he should resign. But the better term is I think he should retire because he no longer serves the public interest.”

Jarvis was charged with immediately shutting down 401 National Parks by October 1. Of the 300 staff members who work at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., all but 12 were furloughed. Parks don’t operate by themselves, and Jarvis correctly argued that such a tenuous situation at the National Mall put the public at potential risk of a serious accident, injury, and/or vandalism. Arguing that Jarvis “no longer serves the public interest” is a pretty mean comment to make, especially by someone who helped facilitate the government shutdown in the first place.

I was unable to watch the hearings today, but I initially applauded Jarvis’ response to Issa when he was quoted as saying that “what I do is I open parks and operate parks, not planning for a closure.” When I first read the quote, I thought it effectively argued that the National Park Service is not in the business of closing parks and preventing access to America’s National treasures to their rightful owners, the American people. However, fellow blogger Al Mackey made a good point that is worth considering:

Based on what I understand about the National Park Service and their contingency planning for past government shutdowns (this is not the first time such an issue has arisen), I feel confident in asserting that the NPS was ready for the government shutdown. My friends in the Park Service were certainly ready for it. Was their room for improvement in communicating the NPS contingency plan to the Public? Perhaps, although the real issue is the handling of contingency details for open-air spaces like the National Mall, not places like Yellowstone or Yosemite (I think). Many people would have complained no matter how good the contingency plan was anyway.

Has Jon Jarvis failed in his capacity as NPS Chief? Should he now be forced to retire, as Issa has suggested? I say no, as I believe Jarvis has been a capable leader of the NPS, even if we acknowledge that there were shortcomings in planning for the shutdown. His work (along with Dwight Pitcaithley’s) in remodeling the interpretations of the Civil War made by Park Rangers at Battlefields and other National Parks is worthy of lavish praise on its own.

The floor is yours.


Preservation and Access at National Parks

NPS I am Not Ashamed

On October 1, a group of Massachusetts residents arrived at Yellowstone National Park to discover that the park had been closed thanks to the government shutdown. What occurred at that point was then described by the tour organizer in near-apocalyptic terms:

We’ve become a country of fear, guns and control. It was like they brought out the armed forces… They looked like Hulk Hogans, armed. They told us you can’t go outside. “Some of the Asians who were on the tour said, ‘Oh my God, are we under arrest?’ They felt like they were criminals… My father took a lot of crap from the Japanese,” she recalled, her eyes welling with tears. “Every day they made him bow to the Japanese flag. But he stood up to them. He always said to stand up for what you believe in, and don’t let them push you around.”

Another person in the tour group described their treatment by NPS guards as akin to “Gestapo tactics.”

Meanwhile, the National Park Service’s Facebook page has become a cesspool of misplaced outrage and vitriol, as many commenters blame the shutdown of America’s National Parks on the National Park Service itself, not the Congress that is in charge of funding it. One comment that particularly outraged me stated that they would do anything to subvert the wishes of the NPS:

Ha ha, I love this about America… That’s exactly what I’d be doing right now if I had planned and traveled to some of these open-air monuments and parks that are “shut down” for no defensible reason.

I have little sympathy for this tour group, especially because they defied the wishes of the NPS to leave the park and put themselves in potential danger by getting out of the bus to take pictures of nearby bison anyway. Many bloggers have correctly argued that the tour organizers–not the NPS–deserve further scrutiny for the organization of their trip. The government shutdown was anticipated long before October. Others that have expressed their wishes to defy the NPS also deserve little sympathy.

Folks, the parks are closed (except for Utah’s). It takes money to run a National Park, and even though the parks are owned by the American people by virtue of their tax dollars, it doesn’t mean that Americans have unlimited access to their parks, especially when their funding agency decides to cease all funds. What seems to get lost in many of these discussions is that one of the central educational goals of the NPS is promoting conservation and preservation of nature, wildlife, and historic artifacts. Much like practitioners in a library or museum setting, National Park Service employees must find a delicate balance between preservation of and access to resources. Access is important, but that access is meaningless if the resources being accessed are destroyed in the process of accession. When Congress stops funding the NPS, it means that our National treasures are no longer being preserved. Just because you “planned and traveled” to go see a National Park during the shutdown doesn’t mean your wishes will be granted. Rather than blaming the NPS, consider contacting your representation in Washington, D.C.

National Park Service employees fight wildfires, protect borders, provide aid to hikers, educate visitors about American history, and help set boundaries for safe usage of our National Parks (as evidenced in this case here, where someone didn’t follow the rules.). The importance of the NPS and its workers is also clearly laid out here. Sadly, some NPS employees lose their lives protecting visitors of National Parks, and it’s times like these when we need to do a better job of acknowledging the work of the National Park Service. Of all the things Democrats and Republicans disagree on, I’d like to think the NPS is one national organization we can all agree serves an important purpose in promoting and protecting our national heritage.

I am tired of hearing criticisms of the NPS. I stand with the National Park Service.

Progress and Nostalgia in History

It seems that whenever a newsworthy political event unfolds nowadays, social media becomes the central destination for many people to vent their political opinions. These outbursts can be quite frustrating at times because they seem to be self-serving rather than an act of genuine concern with civic engagement and community building. I’ve been guilty of going on political rants occasionally, and I’ve actually learned a lot from political discussions with friends on social media. However, I realize that change most often takes place with real people in the community, and if I really care about making a difference and helping others, writing a status update on Facebook doesn’t equate to much.

The recent shutdown of the U.S. Government has elicited another round of digital outrage. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these discussions has been the ways in which history is used to justify present day political positions, and there were two common arguments I would like to highlight here. Both are often used to help make sense of the past, and they do much to shape our understanding of the world today:

1. History as Progress: One argument places the blame for the government shutdown squarely on the American people. Their political apathy is the reason why the current members of Congress and the President are in office. With so much information at the fingertips of almost every American today, there is enough information for voters to make informed decisions (ostensibly), so politicians, business leaders, and other elites in society cannot be blamed if they engage in inappropriate behavior or help to shut the government down. The peoples’ political apathy, it was argued to me, can be traced to history. Americans have not had a “real crisis” since the Cold War, and people today don’t know what it’s like to face “hard times.” “Only when real crisis arrives will citizens awake from their slumber and care again,” the argument goes.

2. History as a form of Nostalgia: Another perspective acknowledges that we live in a complex world with many uncertainties. If only we could turn back the clock and live like people did 200 years ago, when things made sense. One person stated this viewpoint as such: “Every family for themselves. Hunt and grow your own food. Pay for your own healthcare with whatever you had to pay with. Teach my children respect and how to use a gun and how God has blessed us with every single thing we have.”

Perspective one acknowledges that people in past societies endured hardships and tribulations. In times of crisis, the people banded together and involved themselves in political issues for the betterment of the United States, something that doesn’t seem to happen as much today. While I certainly agree that the American people hold a good degree of responsibility for electing the same cast of characters in the 2012 elections as they did in 2010, this perspective fails to acknowledge the agency of politicians and the media in shaping how we perceive contemporary political issues. Additionally, it fails to acknowledge that many people are enduring “hard times” today. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that 9/11 was indeed a “crisis” that has profoundly shaped the domestic and foreign policy initiatives of the United States over the past twelve years.

Historian/Sociologist Jim Loewen has described this historical narrative of progress as a form of “ethnocentrism”:

[Americans] have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall storyline is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically…This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

Chronological ethnocentrism plays a helpful role for history textbook authors: it lets them sequester bad things, from racism to the robber barons, in the distant past. Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all “know” everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now. Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past.

Perspective two acknowledges that our lives today are complex. New issues like the Affordable Health Care Act are complex to the extreme, and all of us are uncertain as to what the future holds. In acknowledging the complexities of our world, however, this perspective reflects a specific way of looking at the past that sanitizes the trails and tribulations people have had to endure throughout history. The fact that African Americans before the Civil War faced the fear of their masters selling off their family members at any moment or that most were never allowed to learn how to use firearms (for obvious reasons) seems to escape this particular view of history. Additionally, “paying for healthcare” implies that there was actually an effective system of healthcare available to most people in past societies.

Is there a way to move beyond viewing history as a form of progress or nostalgia? In my opinion, history is both painful and inspiring. We must acknowledge the hardships and injustices endured by people in history. We can celebrate the great moments too. However, these acknowledgements shouldn’t come at the expense of forgetting the hardships of people today. We don’t have to join the Green Party and sing Kumbaya together, but we should always strive for a greater sense of empathy for the human condition, even if we don’t fully understand the circumstances of others (both past and present). When we talk about an America in which the last “real crisis” was fifty years ago or we portray the past as a nostalgic fantasyland in which everyone got along and had all their problems solved, we actually share our understanding of the world today more so than any understanding of the past. As Peter N. Stearns argues, “history should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty.” Through a careful analysis of the past, we can “emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness.”

We’ve come a long way, but that doesn’t mean we’re done.