Let’s defend our public treasures: ‘America’s best idea’ is under attack

Oglala Lakota children standing at the Red Shirt Table overlook surveying Badlands National Park

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In his 2012 presidential escapade, Mitt Romney cast himself as just a regular fella, but his inner son-of-privilege kept coming out, exposing him as completely out of touch with regular Janes and Joes. Meeting with Nevada newspaper editors in February 2012, for example, Romney confided his concern for a problem of rising importance: America’s national parks.

Great! Parks really matter to the Janes and Joes, too. They’d be excited by any presidential contender making an issue of our parks’ dilapidated facilities, shortened hours, closed-off sections, locked visitor centers, cancelled programs, ranger shortages, etc. Folks are angry that politicians subsidize rich peoples’ private jets, yachts, and multiple vacation homes while constantly and callously cutting funds for public parklands. So was Mitt their guy–who’d fully fund, restore, and expand these neglected jewels of our common wealth?

Get real. This multimillionaire’s concern was not the parks’ deterioration, but their very existence. Noting that millions of US acres are tied up in public parks, forests, seashores, wilderness areas, historic lands, and preserves, a baffled Romney told the editors: “I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land… what the purpose is.”

Really, Mitt? Any Jane or Joe could tell you “the purpose” of our 84 million acres of public lands. From the Everglades National Park down in Florida to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, from Yosemite’s giant sequoia trees out west to the wild horses back east on Assateague Island, their purpose is plain: Just be there.Let's defend our public treasures: 'America's best idea' is under attack

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First, be there for their own sake, for their unique natural beauty, history, ecological importance, or simply for their survival. Second, be there as proof that not every acre in our land has to be a theme park, a strip mine, a mall, an oilfield, or anything that produces even a dime in profit for some rapacious group of humans. And third, be there for us– for the millions of workaday families who don’t summer in the south of France or have a getaway ski mansion overlooking Aspen.

We have so many public spaces because we have so many un-rich people who count on, enjoy, and love them. Far from having too many, we need more. Last year, our national parks had 292 million visitors, 19 million more than the year before. This year is expected to be the busiest summer yet, and next year–the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS)–even busier.

Ironically, this expansive network of public lands was launched by the conservatives of Romney’s own party. Before today’s daffy Koch-headedness, “conserving” was a core principle of Republican conservatism, and preservation of the people’s natural treasures in public parks was touted as a party goal.

HISTORICAL TIDBIT I. The GOP’s own Abraham Lincoln started this national set-aside of park land in 1864 when he designated California’s Yosemite Valley as a state park expressly “held for public use, resort, and recreation.”

HISTORICAL TIDBIT II. Which president created a system of national parks and made their maintenance a core responsibility of the federal government? Roosevelt. The Republican one, Teddy, who with vim and vigor reserved 280,000 square miles–an area the size of Texas–for future generations of the public.

These places are available to us only because they belong to us.TR’s initial network–five parks, 150 forests, the US Forest Service, four game preserves, 51 bird sanctuaries, the Antiquities Act, and 18 monuments– provided the foundation for the NPS, which President Wilson established as a federal agency in 1916. Every president since has added treasures to America’s unparalleled and universally admired trove of protected public lands, rivers, sites, structures, and other spaces. So today–whether for a two-week camp-out, a lunch hour stress break, a cross-country road trip, or a dip into America’s rich history and diverse cultures–there’s an affordable, accessible place for us.

When Romney–aspiring to sit in the chair of Lincoln and Roosevelt–revealed his cluelessness, Ed Schultz, the plain-spoken populist host of the The Ed Show, was blunt: “Our public lands make everyone rich. Not Mitt Romney-rich, but… you can drive a couple of hours into the wilderness, and all of sudden, you have more than Romney ever will.”

Year after year, polls make clear that these public resources are not merely supported, but cherished. A 2012 survey is typical: 88 percent of registered voters–and 81 percent of Republicans–consider it “extremely important” (59 percent) or “quite important” (29 percent) for the federal government to protect and support these public places, with zero percent considering them “not at all important.” Meanwhile, 80 percent of voters complained that officials are not funding the essential upkeep of the parks.

A thousand cuts

An unfortunate recent trend is for presidents to praise parks but fail to pay for them. Bill Clinton-the-candidate spoke of how lucky he was to have Hot Springs National Park as a childhood playground. Yet Clinton-the-president sat idle as natural wonders crumbled, facilities deteriorated, and the NPS maintenance backlog soared to $5 billion.

In his 2000 campaign, a khaki-clad George W posed in the majestic Cascade Mountain Range, wailed that parks were “at the breaking point,” and vowed to eliminate Clinton’s backlog. Instead he slashed the NPS budget (including a 40 percent cut in repair funds for the Cascade parklands he’d used as a political prop). The maintenance backlog ballooned to nearly $9 billion.

Ranger George did make one fix, however–a PR fix. Bush operatives instructed park superintendents to make budget cuts in “areas that won’t cause public or political controversy.” When discussing park deterioration they were to avoid the phrase “budget cutbacks” and say instead that parks were undergoing “service level adjustments.”

Under Obama, who speaks movingly of a childhood Greyhound bus trip with his family to see some of our parks, another 12 percent has been chopped from the NPS budget–bumping the deferred maintenance bill to a staggering $11.5 billion!

To his credit, Obama has proposed a 2016 “Centennial Budget” for NPS, mitigating years of destructive underfunding and calling for $1 billion to address the backlog. Good for him. But the sour duo of Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner, with Mitt-like cluelessness about “what the purpose is,” will oppose even a dime increase. Hidebound by their twisted corporate ideology, they dismiss public parks as government intrusion into the private realms of Disneyland and Sea World.

Washington is literally stripping “service” out of the National Park Service. And, by refusing essential upkeep year after year, America’s so-called “leaders” are guaranteeing that this invaluable national asset–deemed America’s “best idea” by novelist and historian Wallace Stegner–will fall into acute disrepair. The only solution, they say, is to commercialize, industrialize, and privatize, converting our common good into just another corporate cash cow.

PROUD PARTNERS. Step one in the corporatization process was “co-branding” agreements, rationalized by NPS as “aligning the economic and historical legacies” of public parks with crassly commercial advertisers. They are selling the Park Service’s proud public brand… as well as its soul.

First in line was Coca-Cola. In 2010, the multibillion-dollar colossus donated a mere $2.5 million (tax-deductible, meaning we taxpayers subsidized the deal) to the NPS fundraising arm. In return, not only did Coke get exclusive rights to use park logos in its ads, but it was effectively allowed to veto a scheduled NPS ban on selling bottled water in the Grand Canyon park. Disposable plastic bottles are the park’s biggest source of trash, but Coke’s Dasani is the top-selling water, so bye-bye ban. Public outrage forced the ban to be reinstated, but NPS’ integrity has yet to recover.

Then this April, the park service abandoned its longstanding policy of disallowing links to alcohol or tobacco products. Anheuser-Busch became a “Proud Partner” with NPS by making a $2.5 million tax-deductible “gift.” In turn, its Budweiser brand was given the Statue of Liberty. Not literally, but symbolically, authorized to roll out “patriotic packaging” featuring Lady Liberty, the iconic symbol of the USA.

Never mind that Busch is now Belgian-owned, the real hypocrisy is the claim that such co-branding is a philanthropic service to the commons. Indeed, creeping commercialization no longer creeps but runs rampant, with brands such as Disney, L.L. Bean, and Subaru buying their pieces of NPS integrity. And take a whiff of this: Air Wick is being allowed to market a fragrance collection “uniquely inspired by America’s national parks.”

DRILLERS, MINERS, DEVELOPERS. A rash of corporate exploiters is all over our pristine lands, cashing in on the public’s wealth. Oil and gas giants, for example, have drilling leases on 38 million acres (45 percent of the people’s parkland), where they are producing record levels of fossil fuels, especially natural gas. They get the profits, foreign countries get much of the energy, and everyone gets more global climate change. Annual gas production on public lands and waters produces as much global warming methane pollution as 42 million cars.

Now comes uranium mining to the very edge of the Grand Canyon. Energy Fuels, Inc. intends to re-open Canyon Mine, a uranium venture that failed in 1992. Located in the Kaibab National Forest, just six miles from the majestic park, the mine perches atop an aquifer that supplies water to locals and discharges into creeks along the South Rim, as well as into Havasu Falls in the park itself. Levels of cancer-causing uranium in excess of EPA drinking water standards have already been found. Full-scale mining threatens to contaminate the Colorado River, a major water source for cities in Arizona and California.

On April 7, American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, named the Colorado the “Most Endangered River” of 2015. That very same day, a federal judge in Arizona okayed Energy Fuel’s plan to restart Canyon Mine–without even requiring an update of an obsolete 1986 environmental review. Wasting no time, the corporation has begun refurbishing the site in preparation for mining. But the battle continues: The Havasupai tribe that lives on the Canyon floor and Sierra Club, which sued to stop the mine, have filed an appeal.

Piling insanity on insanity, the US Forest Service is now considering a crass scheme of plunder by Italian consortium Grupo Stilo, which is hot to build a grandiose mega-mall at the park’s south entrance. Bigger than Mall of America, it includes plans for a shopping mall, a dude ranch, resort hotels, high-end restaurants, and 2,100 housing units. Rather than allowing Grupo to bring the traffic, pollution, noise, artificial light, and sprawl of Everyplace USA into the mystical ambience of the Canyon’s natural wonder, the Forest Service should simply heed the timeless advice of Teddy Roosevelt: “Leave [the Grand Canyon] it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

RIGHT-WING LANDGRABBERS. After de-funding and commercialization, the next step is obvious: Privatization. For that job, bring in the clowns. And here they come–a gaggle of GOP congress critters, ALEC-trained state legislators, tea-party-infused presidential candidates, and corporate front groups–all with pockets stuffed with cash from the Koch brothers, Big Oil, and other plutocratic interests that combine ideological disdain for anything “public” with selfish coveting of our public assets.

This clique is riding in from the right-wing fringe on a tired old horse named “states’ rights,” shouting that the Western territories were induced to join the Union with a pledge that all federally owned lands within their boundaries would be transferred back to them. This “take-back” campaign panders to and energizes far-right extremists who hate the national government. The attack is orchestrated by two Koch-funded groups: ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and Americans for Prosperity.

Legislators in several Western states, as well as a swarm of DC Republicans and such presidential wannabes as Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, have been hawking cookie-cutter versions of a model take-back bill dubbed the “Sagebrush Rebellion Act.” It was written and distributed by ALEC, based on legal fantasies concocted by corporate lawyers.

There are, however, four large hickies on the GOP’s scheme. First, none of the “sagebrush” states could begin to afford man-aging these lands–wildfire control alone costs $4 billion a year. Second, lawmakers pushing for federal disinvestments brag that state control would allow them to privatize the lands and raise big bucks for the states. But privatization would mean locking out millions of people with signs reading “Private Property–No camping, swimming, hunting, fishing, or trespassing.”

Third, their pipedream is enormously unpopular with normal people who don’t wear tri-cornered hats with teabags dangling from them. A 2012 bipartisan survey of voters found that 95 percent (!) agree that protecting and supporting national parklands is “an appropriate role for the federal government.” Nine out of 10 Republican voters agreed. Moreover, in two recent polls of Western-state voters, big majorities say “too much public land” is not a problem; 80 percent want our presidents to continue protecting public lands; six out of 10 disapprove of their states taking over management; and 96 percent want to ensure universal access to public lands.

Fourth, the states’ rights claim is pure hokum. When they joined the US, all the Western states signed standard agreements specifically renouncing claims to the public properties. Utah’s agreement, which is typical, states that “the people inhabiting said proposed state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.”

Keep public parks in public hands

The political attack on America’s public lands is the work of a tiny but powerful minority of elitists, ideologues, and profiteers. They have only the most shriveled, narcissistic sense of America–so shriveled that they are selfishly rejecting the essential, democratic maxim that we’re all in this together. They’d gladly reduce National Parks to the spiritless level of property transactions and profit.

In fact, much more than acreage and sites, our parks embody the core idea of America itself–the Big Idea of egalitarianism. These treasures belong to all of us. For a self-absorbed few to think that they’re entitled to take them for personal gain is a shameful affront to our shared heritage, democratic ideals, and future generations. Keeping public parks in public hands is not only logical, but necessary–a continuum of the historic struggle of us commoners against would-be royals. It’s nothing less than a battle for America’s soul.

Do something!

This summer, many people will visit our national parks, but may not be aware of the history of the system or the threats it faces. Share this issue with friends, family, and colleagues. Even those who don’t agree with Lowdowners on other issues are very likely to agree that we need our parks, and they need us. (And to those unpersuaded by the pure public good of national parks, it’s worth noting that parks add billions of dollars to regional economies and support hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs.) And with the upcoming 2016 centennial, now is the time for our public officials to hear from us about the importance of our national parks. Here are some groups leading the fight to save our public parklands and national monuments:

Center for Western Priorities: http://westernpriorities.org
National Parks Conservation Association: http://npca.org
Our American Public Lands: http://americanpubliclands.com
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: http://peer.org

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