August 2017Policy

National Parks Under Siege

On July 23, more than 50 members and supports of Metro DC DSA had a pretty great time holding our first chapter picnic in years at Picnic Site No. 7 in Rock Creek Park. We got rained on twice, fairly seriously, and some of the food and a few of the socialists got drenched. Many of us also had considerable difficulty finding Picnic Site No. 7. But for dozens of old and young socialists, of both sexes and varying gender preferences -- not to mention varying political tendencies -- it was a happy occasion, and getting soaked together seemed to facilitate more solidarity.

The food was good, many of the conversations were happy or intellectually interesting (or both), there were games for young and old, and it was nice to think that we were doing this in a public space designated for the purpose of public enjoyment, not in some commercial resort where we would need to pay some capitalist corporation for the privilege of using the land.

For more than a century now, since the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, the national parks, national monuments, national historic sites, national seashores and other units of the national park system have been providing opportunities for public enjoyment to an ever-growing number of people in the United States, mostly (although not entirely) courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.

Private concessionaires do provide lodging and other services in many of the parks, and there is a long history of different commercial interests, from outdoor recreation companies to oil and gas companies, lobbying the government to allow their profit-making operations within park boundaries. But for more than a century, conservationists and politicians from both of the major political parties have repeatedly sought to protect lands with important biological, scenic, historical and/or cultural values from destructive commercial pressures by folding them into the national park system.

The process actually began before the National Park Service itself was founded, with President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, signing an 1872 act that established Yellowstone National Park as the first national park in the United States -- and in the view of some historians, the first such park anywhere in the world.

Even before the establishment of Yellowstone as a national park, the administration of Abraham Lincoln, in 1864, mandated the transfer of certain federal lands in and around the scenic Yosemite Valley to the State of California in order to protect them from commercial degradation. And over the years, presidents from both major parties, including Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have taken significant steps to expand the scope of the national park system.

It's a safe bet that none of these presidents, and few if any of the members of Congress who have supported national parks legislation over the decades, have portrayed themselves or thought of themselves as "socialists." But all of them have had the common sense to recognize that there are some important values in our essentially capitalist and commercial society, including the promotion of public recreation opportunities and the protection of cultural and biological diversity, that cannot be advanced through market forces alone, and that need some kind of help from government.

This year, though, the long bipartisan tradition of stewardship over national parks in the U.S. is being severely challenged by the Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress. And while it should not be the only cause that democratic socialists embrace (or even the primary one), protection of the national parks and other public lands from the Trump administration's shameless promotion of fossil fuel production and the Republican right's ideological obsession with free-market fundamentalism, aka neoliberalism, is a possible "socialist" activity that at least some DSA members might want to think about.

Parks Advocate Sees "Grim Future" Under Trump, Zinke

On June 9, 2017, Theresa Pierno, President and CFO of the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), stated that "the future looks grim for national parks" in the wake of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's first 100 days in office under the Trump administration.

Ironically, Pierno has noted, Zinke on taking the job of Secretary of the Interior had said that he was a Republican in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, with a strong commitment to parks and conservation. President Trump himself, early in his administration, publicly donated some $78,000 of his government salary to the cause of restoring and maintaining Civil War battle sites in the park system. But the administration's actions since have belied such encouraging gestures and words.

Trump's proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget, Pierno has noted, "undermines our national parks to an alarming degree" and would make "the largest cut to the National Park System since World War II," if enacted.

The Threats Posed by the Trump Budget

As administered by the Interior Department under Zinke's direction, the budget would cut the NPS budget by 13% and reduce the agency's staff by 6% -- or by a whopping 18%, when compared with how many employees the Park Service had in 2010.

Although the Trump administration has said its budget would help address a multi-billion-dollar problem with deferred maintenance in the park system, Pierno noted, it actually reduces funding for deferred maintenance by $30 million. It would make serious reductions in the budget for actually operating the parks. In addition, the proposed budget:

  • Cuts 37 percent from the park system's Historic Preservation Fund
  • Eliminates the National Heritage Area program entirely
  • And nearly zeroes out funding for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funds federal land acquisition efforts to reduce potential threats to the parks from adjacent private lands.

Meanwhile, Pierno observed, the Trump budget drastically slashes funding for the EPA and makes a 45% cut in EPA grants to states. That would likely make states less able to meet federal standards for air and water pollution that are vital for cleaning up the air in many different units of the park system.

The Trump budget's proposed cuts to funding for the Park Service also have been denounced by leaders of other conservation organizations. "These cuts are extreme," a representative of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, an organization of some 1,300 current and former Park Service employees, has stated. "Daily maintenance operations essential to the health and welfare of park visitors and resources would be cut and staff reduced."

According to Greg Zimmerman of the Center for Western Priorities, "President Trump's budget cuts funding for America's parks, public lands, wildlife, and water resources: With the Interior Department already under strain, this budget appears intended to break the agency."

Beyond the immediate threat posed by the Trump budget, Pierno of NPCA has observed, there also a risk of the administration and Congress returning in the future to budget "sequestration" cuts designed to shrink federal spending on discretionary, non-military government programs so as to limit deficit spending and slow the growth of the national debt.

Additional Threats to the Integrity and Future of the Park System

The Trump budget proposal generated enormous controversy when introduced and is unlikely to be adopted by Congress exactly as written. However, there is no guarantee that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will avoid serious cuts to national parks funding when it passes its own budget and appropriations legislation this year.

There also are added threats to the parks posed by recent Trump administration and congressional actions that urgently need attention, but fall outside the budget arena, according to conservation staffers at NPCA. They include:

  • Secretary Zinke's interest in privatizing certain NPS services, such as the administration of campgrounds in the parks, by contracting them out to profit-seeking corporations. According to the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, this could gain the Park Service a relatively trivial $20 million in added concession fees, but at a potential cost of eliminating some $800 million in revenues the NPS gets from its own campground program --- for a net loss to the public.
  • A move by the Interior Department to "review" existing regulations in the Park System that might hamper domestic energy production by limiting oil and gas production in national park units.
  • An Interior Department review of the designation of some 27 national monuments added to the park system under the Antiquities Act, with the possibility of removing federal protections for some of them -- a move some environmentalists say is aimed at unleashing oil and gas development in certain affected areas.
  • An Interior Department move in April to reverse its previous stance and approve of a private company's proposal to extract up to 16 billion gallons of groundwater annually from the Mojave Desert in California in order to send it by pipeline to southern Orange County -- a move threatening the Mojave National Preserve, the third-largest NPS unit outside Alaska.
  • The Trump administration's proposed repeal of the Clean Water Rule adopted during the Obama administration, which gives EPA and the Corps of Engineers clear administrative control over certain wetlands across the country. Repealing the rule, according to NPCA, would put parks at "serious risk," as more than half of the existing 417 units in the national park system have impaired water quality and could be affected by wetlands deregulation outside their boundaries.
  • The recent action of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another agency under the Interior Department, to take the grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park off the "threatened" list under the Endangered Species Act – possibly opening the way to future big game hunting of bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
  • Another recent decision by Park Service top management, under Zinke's oversight, to reopen hunting regulations in national parks in Alaska in ways that could allow sports hunters to kill hibernating bears and their cubs in their winter dens -- a change that NPCA is denouncing.
  • A recent permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowing Dominion Energy to build 17 huge transmission towers, some of them up to 295 feet high, near historic Jamestown, Va., to support a high-powered electric transmission line carrying electricity across the James River. NPCA has announced its intention to file a lawsuit against the project, which historic preservationists say could degrade historic Jamestown itself, the Colonial National Historical Park, the Colonial Parkway and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
  • A proposed "Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act" recently reviewed by a House subcommittee that would eliminate the Park Service's responsibility to set reasonable limits on fishing in 88 coastal units in the park system.

Despite these and other threats outlined on the NPCA web site and that of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, the national park idea remains wildly popular among the people of the United States. Last year saw a record 331 million visits to units of the National Park System.

But to protect the national parks from the Trump administration's eagerness to promote oil and gas development, as well as from the budget-cutting zeal of free-market conservatives who believe government has no useful role in promoting the public interest, park supporters and visitors urgently need to give NPCA and allied park conservation organizations our political and financial support.

Beyond that, we will need to keep up to date with their warnings, as threats to the park system and domestic government programs could undergo kaleidoscopic changes in the months and years ahead.

While we're at it, we might want to see if we can persuade advocates for the parks to focus some of their energies on defeating Republican tax cuts for the rich, and conservative support for ever-growing military interventions, that can only add to the federal government's budget deficits and provide neoliberals of both major parties with excuses for cutting domestic spending on the park system, along with other social priorities.

To keep track of press releases and reports from NPCA on potential threats to the park system in the age of Trump and Zinke, please go to https://www.npca.org . To follow the warnings issued by the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, go to http://protectnps.org/ .

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