Above the Waterline: Selling America’s natural heritage?

Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1903.

During this season of giving thanks, the natural beauty, history and cultural resources preserved in our national parks have been on my mind – inspired by recent visits to a dozen exceptional parks from Georgia and North Carolina to Utah, California and Hawaii.

I am so thankful for the leadership of people like naturalist and author John Muir and President Teddy Roosevelt, both eloquent and persistent advocates for public land. One hundred years ago, Roosevelt knew that protecting forests and wild places was as important to the future of our country as having a strong military. He acted on that vision by setting aside hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest lands and spectacular landscapes.

A few months ago, I stood on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park where, in 1903, Muir and Roosevelt gazed down into the valley, observing a scene that I could still see today: the Merced River flowing through meadows after plunging down Nevada and Vernal Falls. During the four days that the men spent together, they discussed how to preserve iconic landscapes, like Yosemite, from development and for the enjoyment of everyone, not just a wealthy few.

Their conversations and actions, and those of other visionaries, led to what has been called “America’s best idea”: a system of national parks, monuments, seashores, recreation areas, historic battlefields and other places now totaling more than 80 million acres. Last year, millions of people across the country celebrated the Centennial of the National Park Service, the agency within the U.S. Department of Interior that is charged with protecting and promoting the 417 units in the park system.

This year has presented a very different attitude from our national government. Celebration has given way to real and justifiable fear that the current administration in Washington wants to sell pieces of our natural heritage to the highest bidder, really any bidder. Harmful proposals have been put forth: to significantly reduce the Park Service’s already meager budget and make bone-deep staffing cuts; to reduce the size of some national monuments; and to make our parks less accessible for the average American by tripling entrance fees.

Appointed by President Trump last spring, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke calls himself a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist, a laughable comparison, although Zinke does dress like TR in his outdoor apparel.

In April, Zinke ordered a sweeping review of 27 national monuments that were designated or expanded using Teddy Roosevelt’s 1906 Antiquities Act. His stated goal: to identify federal lands to open up for drilling, mining and grazing – lands legally protected as part of our country’s heritage. Despite receiving nearly three million letters from citizens opposed to reducing protections for national parks, Zinke recommended, in September, that the administration significantly shrink four national monuments and modify half a dozen others.

More recently, Zinke proposed to raise entrance fees at 17 of the most-visited national parks from $25 to $70 per vehicle during peak, summer months: places like Grand Teton, Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Shenandoah and Acadia national parks. The Secretary said that the fee hike would help fix the Park Service’s $12 billion maintenance backlog. However, the Interior Department estimates that the increases would boost revenue by just $70 million per year, while President Trump has proposed slashing the Park Service budget by $400 million next year.

Undoubtedly, the increasing dependence on higher user fees will price out working class people, young people and others from America’s public lands, while failing to provide sufficient funding to fix the maintenance backlog problem.

Are these proposed actions the initial steps to a larger dismantling of Roosevelt’s public lands legacy? Is the real goal to shift responsibility for park and forest financing away from the public to private entities and commercial enterprises? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, get outside and enjoy our national treasures while you can and support the national park system by volunteering, joining park friends groups and taking action.

Visit the National Parks Conservation Association website at www.npca.org to take action on the proposed park fee increase by the Dec. 22 comment deadline. Help the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, one of three national park units in metro Atlanta, by supporting its friends group, Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy, at www.chattahoocheeparks.org.

Give thanks. Show your park love.


Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

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