As I write this column, the federal government shutdown is moving into its second month and the National Park Service is bracing for yet-another challenge: the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, when parks receive more visitation than usual.
Thanks to a grant from Delta Air Lines, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Downtown will open for the holiday that celebrates the birth of its namesake and remain open through Feb. 3, when Atlanta will host the Super Bowl.
Ten miles away, in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA), a local general contracting company, Ruby-Collins, Inc., is responsible for voluntarily placing four Johnny-on-the-Spot toilets in the popular Cochran Shoals Unit of the national recreation area and having them serviced. CEO David Westrick says that he saw a need and decided to help out.
A bare-bones park staff is attempting to handle law enforcement and other responsibilities in the 15 units in our river park, found along 48 miles of the Chattahoochee and occupying nearly 7,000 acres of land. Volunteers with the park’s friends’ group – Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy – are emptying trash and dog poop bins and park visitors are stepping up their efforts to “leave no trace.” At the same time, visitor fees are going uncollected and important maintenance projects are being delayed.
Increased park volunteerism may be a silver lining of the government shutdown, but it is inadequate to ensure visitor safety and protection of the natural and cultural resources that have been set aside over a century by the U.S. Congress to constitute our national park system. Why have the doors been left wide open at these hundreds of special places with only skeletal park staff – mostly unpaid and certainly overworked – to manage them?
Despite helpful volunteers and private subsidies for our national parks, too many are dealing with vandalism, human waste, trash piles, lost hikers and even deaths.
On New Year’s Day, I flew to San Diego to visit my younger son and his wife. I was looking forward to a long-anticipated, first-time visit to Joshua Tree National Park, but worried that the park might be closed. We were fortunate and got to spend a glorious day hiking in the high-desert and learning about the fascinating Joshua trees. Fully intending to pick up any trash we saw, we were impressed that the areas we visited were clean, the trash cans empty, and the bathrooms spotless. Local volunteers were clearly working overtime.
We did see a guy illegally flying a drone and my son, the wannabe park ranger, notified him of his error. It wasn’t until a few days later that we learned the park’s backcountry, which we did not visit, was being seriously harmed by vandals who were off-roading through the fragile desert, creating new roads and cutting down Joshua trees in their way.
If the U.S. government is going to shut down and not provide the full complement of staff and maintenance people needed to protect our national parks and visitors, the parks should be closed, as they typically have been during similar situations in the past. Yes, I would have been very disappointed not to have been able to visit Joshua Tree National Park, long on my bucket list. But, at what price? The possible destruction of the very things that makes this park and all the others so special? Of course not.
Like others, I believe that the decision to keep the parks open is nothing more than a PR stunt by the current administration.
Various schemes are being proposed to pay park employees to return to work. One terrible plan would raid the parks’ visitor fee revenue; however, those dollars are dedicated to reducing the backlog of deferred maintenance expenses, now approaching $12 billion system-wide. Our national parks have not been adequately funded for many years and this government shutdown only further cripples them.
Over long weekends, like the MLK holiday, national parks typically raise significant additional revenue – as much as $100,000 at Joshua Tree National Park, according to that park’s friends group. These missed opportunities cannot be recovered. In 2013, national parks lost $7 million in revenue during a much shorter, 16-day shutdown.
Decades ago, author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best, rather than our worst.”
Keeping our national parks open for weeks, and possibly months, without sufficient staffing is reckless and does not reflect our country at its best; instead, it allows people, wildlife and natural resources to be placed in harm’s way. If you are concerned about the crisis in our national parks, contact your Congressional representatives. You can find your elected officials at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.
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. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards.