Who Should Pay for America’s Jewels?

National parks are one of the most popular programs of the federal government. Yet the National Park Service is also an increasing burden on taxpayers. Appropriations to the agency have doubled since 1991, and even after adjusting for inflation they have grown by a third.

What have taxpayers received for this money? One of the most important outputs of the parks is recreation, but national park recreation use peaked in 1987 and has stagnated or declined since then. Visitors spent 11 percent fewer days in national parks in 2010 than in 1987.

By coincidence, 1987 was also the year Alston Chase released his book, Playing God in Yellowstone, which for many people (including the Antiplanner) was the first signal that all was not well within the National Park System. Ironically, Chase started working on the book at the request of the Yellowstone Park Foundation, which wanted him to write a puff-piece that it could sell in its stores in park visitor centers.

What Chase found was that, judged by the Park Service’s own criteria of managing the parks to be “vignettes of pre-Columbian American,” Yellowstone was being very poorly cared for. Instead of protecting the park in its natural condition, the Park Service had allowed a few “charismatic megafauna”–namely elk and bison–to overrun the park. The elk ate all the willows along park streams, which led the beaver to disappear. Since the beaver weren’t building any dams, wetlands disappeared. Pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bear were only a few of the species that largely disappeared from the park as a result.

Playing God was published, former Park Service director George Hartzog published his memoirs, Battling for the National Parks. He noted that in the 1960s the Park Service had a policy of shooting elk to prevent an overpopulation. But local hunters were upset because they weren’t allowed to hunt in the park, so the elk were shot by Park Service personnel.

In 1967, Wyoming Senator Gale McGee held a hearing on the controversy. The night before the hearing, Hartzog had dinner with McGee and promised to temporarily stop shooting the elk. But instead of making the halt temporary, the Park Service came up with a wacky theory called “natural regulation” that held that whatever happened inside the park was “natural” so the best thing the agency could do would be to keep its hands off. In 1948, this natural regulation policy had been applied to national parks in Kenya, leading them to become “moonscapes” as elephants denuded the parks of vegetation and eliminated the habitat for almost any other major animals.

Chase’s book was at once brilliant and naive. It probably owed much of its brilliance to Charles Kay, a scrappy ecologist from Utah who did great work but who managed to alienate Park Service scientists and many academic researchers by writing papers with titles like Predation: Lies, Myth, and Scientific Fraud.

Chase’s naivete showed through when he went beyond the science. Even though about two-thirds of his book was a diatribe against park scientists who had gone along with this devastation, he thought the problems could be solved with “better science.” He also used the last third of the book to rail against environmental groups who otherwise might have been his biggest supporters.

In any case, later books, such as my friend Karl Hess’ Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park, showed that Kay and Chase were right on the science. If the goal of the Park Service is to provide zoos to please tourists, it may be succeeding. But if it is to manage natural areas in their pre-Columbian state, it is a dismal failure.

Many people hoped that introduction of wolves into Yellowstone would bring down elk populations and allow ecosystem restoration. While the wolves have changed park dynamics (to the detriment of coyotes but in favor of foxes), they haven’t made much of a dent in elk numbers. As Kay’s research showed, it was Native Americans, not wolves, who kept elk populations low in pre-Columbian times.

Although Yellowstone visitation is increasing, declining park visitation nationally suggests that the Park Service might not even be succeeding as a tourist pleaser. Less than a third of Americas visit one or more of the 394 units of the National Park System in any given year, yet all taxpayers have to pay to support them. In 2010, the Park Service’s budget reached $2.75 billion, its highest level ever except in 2009, when it received a large supplement as a part of the economic stimulus package.

Why is Congress willing to spend more of your money on a system that is doing less? One reason is that giving money to the national parks is non-controversial, as almost everyone who visits a park comes away happy. But another reason is that the Park Service has a very effective lobby behind it: the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

When Congress was considering the 2009 stimulus bill, the NPCA persuaded the House to include $2 billion for the Park Service, which would have almost doubled its budget for the year. This turned out to be easy to do, as NPCA’s chief lobbyist, Craig Obey, happened to be the son of the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey (D-WI). This turned out to bite the Park Service in the end: when House Republicans charged that Craig Obey had violated several lobbying rules, Congress cut the Park Service’s share of the stimulus bill to “only” $750 million. But observers agreed that Craig Obey’s work is a major reason why Park Service budgets have increased so much in the past couple of decades.

Interestingly, although the National Park Service’s total budget was more than $3 billion (including about $400 million in recreation fees kept by the Park Service) in 2010, only about half of that was actually spent managing national parks. The rest of it went for administrative overhead or for various slush funds that may or may not have helped the parks.

For example, the Park Service spends about $300 million a year on construction, but much of the construction work it does is needless. In 2010, it spent $30 million on new employee housing in Grand Teton and Grand Canyon national parks, even though those parks are no more remote from towns than nearby national forests, which do not offer their employees housing. One reason why the Park Service likes to spend on construction is that it rakes off about 30 percent of construction funds for administrative overhead.

Fundamentally, the parks are recreation areas, and they should be managed as such. That means they should be funded out of recreation user fees and not tax dollars. The Antiplanner recommends turning parks into fiduciary trusts that can collect user fees and solicit donations to run the parks.

If tourists want Yellowstone to be overrun with elk and bison, then maybe that’s how it ought to be managed. On the other hand, if hunters want to shoot elk, and are willing to pay to do so (preferably in the backcountry out of the view of the tourists), then maybe the Park Service can use their energy to cull the herds and their fees to improve park ecosystems.

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50 thoughts on “Who Should Pay for America’s Jewels?

  1. Dan

    But if it is to manage natural areas in their pre-Columbian state, it is a dismal failure.

    Many people hoped that introduction of wolves into Yellowstone would bring down elk populations and allow ecosystem restoration. While the wolves have changed park dynamics (to the detriment of coyotes but in favor of foxes), they haven’t made much of a dent in elk numbers. As Kay’s research showed, it was Native Americans, not wolves, who kept elk populations low in pre-Columbian times.

    Yes, the European human invasives have changed most of the stocks and flows in almost every ecosystem on the North American continent, by hunting, grazing, farming. The elk certainly have been kept down by wolves, however, and as we know, has allowed willow to re-grow, a top-down control that is well documented and understood. And it is clear we are just now starting to understand that we are just learning how to “manage” these lands.

    And I think it is clear that taxpayers value our jewels more than simply by use value – existence value is strongly held as well. That is: just because Americans don’t visit them every year isn’t evidence that they don’t care about Nat’l Parks.

    DS

  2. Frank

    Excellent piece. I’ve already outlined Hess’s suggestions for who should manage and pay for national parks in another post.

    Mountains of evidence show that the NPS has failed in its management and that politics are destroying national parks.

    An interesting side note about visitation. Foreign visitors make up perhaps a third of park visitation and do not pay income taxes to support American national parks, and according to the NPS, foreign visitation could increase by 98% by 2020. These visitors patronize concessions when they stay and eat at lodges; unfortunately, little of this money stays in the park. Additionally, foreign visitors typically buy annual passes that grant access to all ~400 parks plus other agencies’ rec areas for only $80. (And that’s not per-person; it’s per vehicle, including RVs that can haul in 6-8 visitors. While passes are officially non-transferable, some visitors sell them or give them away before departing the country.)

    Conservation trusts could tap into this large and typically wealthy demographic, which American taxpayers currently subsidize for the benefit of large corporations. Money foreign visitors spend on entrance fees and services would stay in the parks they visit, and these visitors would have the opportunity for membership in the trusts, enabling them to become long-distance stewards of national parks they’ve visited.

  3. Jardinero1

    I think slightly less than a third of Americans visiting a national park is a pretty good number. That is a much larger proportion than I would have guessed. I would have guessed something like one in ten on the high side. Not all the people can visit all the parks all the time.

    I take issue with the entire concept of managing a natural ecosystem. You can’t manage an ecosystem. Ecosystems are not like Schroedinger’s cat, they can’t be both managed and natural at the same time. Also, ecosystems are dynamic not static, the only constant in an ecosystem is a continuous state of change.

  4. bennett

    Informative post today. Although the two are undeniably linked, the issue seems to be one of operations and management more so than funding. I also wonder if hunting were allowed during the typical hunting season at Yellowstone if there would really be any substantial mingling of tourist and hunters. Northern WY just isn’t that pleasant in November, at least not to most.

    Also, while I do agree that “the only constant in an ecosystem is a continuous state of change,” I don’t share the sentiment that “You can’t manage an ecosystem.” The crux of that argument lies in how “natural ecosystem” is defined. I know I mention it a lot here, but William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness,” comes to mind.

    http://www.warren-wilson.edu/~ghawkins/radical/docs/Cronon_Trouble_w_Wilderness.pdf

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    Why is it that some U.S. national parks that I have visited, such as Shenandoah and Joshua Tree, and the recreation areas near the Great Falls of the Potomac River, charge a per-vehicle entrance fee, while others charge nothing of their many users?

    It’s probably not practical for the National Park Service to charge admission fees at some of its sites (such as the National Mall), but it could be collecting a lot more revenue than it currently does.

    And don’t get me started on the (apparently) screwy way that concession services are granted by the Park Service.

  6. Dan

    I take issue with the entire concept of managing a natural ecosystem. You can’t manage an ecosystem. Ecosystems are not like Schroedinger’s cat, they can’t be both managed and natural at the same time. Also, ecosystems are dynamic not static, the only constant in an ecosystem is a continuous state of change.

    Most ecologists (including me) think the evidence is good enough that there are very few ‘natural’ ecosystems any more, as Homo sapiens’ reach is such that there are few areas whose energy flows and stocks haven’t been altered by man. So like it or not, we are ‘managing’ them, in one way or another, to one degree or another. I was just at an international ecological conference for academics and I’d say 95% of the attendees treated this as a given.

    Nonetheless, in an interesting aside but germane overall, bennet mentions Cronon above. He’s being given the strong-arm treatment by Walker’s goons in Wisconsin. Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose.

    DS

  7. Borealis

    Visitors spent 11 percent fewer days in national parks in 2010 than in 1987.

    This statistic should greatly worry conservationists. The long-term support for natural areas is threatened by this more than anything else. It is unfortunate that these books focus on other things.

  8. Frank

    Visitors spent 11 percent fewer days in national parks in 2010 than in 1987.

    This statistic should greatly worry conservationists.

    Too hot or too cold. Never just right. Conservationists need to make up their minds what it is they really want.

  9. bennett

    It’s context specific too. Some national parks herd all tourist into one area on the masses. Some parks are visited less than others. Are they less valuable? I would be inclined to say no. I haven’t read/discussed much about “existence value,” but it sounds like something I can get behind. I suppose some might leave it up to markets to decide what exists and what doesn’t… I don’t know…

  10. Dan

    I suppose some might leave it up to markets to decide what exists and what doesn’t… I don’t know…

    Markets can’t provision nonrival or nonexcludable goods, therefore can’t decide such issues. Only those who see the value in keeping such places free from extraction and exploitation.

    DS

  11. Frank

    “Are they less valuable? I would be inclined to say no.”

    The NPS spends $321 per visitor at Lake Clark NP&Pres, $315 per visitor at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, $184 per visitor operating Eugene S. O’Neil NHS, $99 per visitor at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, $90 per visitor at Steamtown NHS, $77 per visitor at Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS, $76 per visitor at Women’s Rights NHP, $69 per visitor at Clara Barton NHS, $47 per visitor at Cane River Creole NHP, $45 per visitor for Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural NHS.

    Theses are just a few examples. There are many more. How many of these NPS sites have you heard of?

    These are operating costs and do not include maintenance backlogs. These are per visitor. Quadruple the cost for a family of four. Would you be willing to pay $1284 entrance fee for a family of four to Lake Clark? How about $736 for a family of four to Eugene S. O’Neil?

    These parks are PORK, PORK, PORK and subsidies for the rich. They’re a drain on the system. This doesn’t include their share of the hundreds and hundreds of millions for regional and national offices.

    Waste. WASTE. For what? So some federal rep can get reelected. See what I did? I brought a national park to your district!

    Time for a change.

  12. Frank

    Speaking of extraction and exploitation. You can’t drink the ground water in some SW national parks. Why? Uranium mining by federal government corporations at the Old Orphan Mine. The federal government continues to allow uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

    Guess who is the largest polluter? That’s right! The federal government. Handford is the biggest superfund site, and because of the federal government, the Columbia is the most radioactive river in the world.

    Let’s keep on trusting the federal government to protect our treasures. It does such a wonderful job of stewardship!

    Conservation trusts can do the job the federal government was supposed to do.

  13. Borealis

    Those are good points, Frank and bennett.

    Frank put his finger on big problem in the conservation movement. Interestingly, early conservationists wanted parks so that they would draw many visitors and increase support for conservation.

    Many national parks face issues that bennett described. Why go visit an archeological or historic site if you aren’t allowed to see or touch anything? Creative programs can help the visitor experience. But let’s not ignore the fact that many purists would rather not have anyone (except professors and enviros) visit a park.

  14. Dan

    Yes. Let them pay. Directly.

    Feel free to introduce a bill and see if you can get it out of committee and voted on. Let us know if you even get a sponsor. Even in this brief time of the Wrecking Crew. Maybe in 75 years if we still have the population to be so desperate.

    But let’s not ignore the fact that many purists would rather not have anyone (except professors and enviros) visit a park.

    How many people are these “purists”? 50? 100? Why bother mentioning them?

    DS

  15. Borealis

    Frank,

    You have some good criticism of the National Park Service. But the National Parks in Alaska are two-thirds of the acreage of National Parks, but only a few tourists ever set foot on them. Lake Clark National Park is hundreds of miles from a road, so it costs $500 or more just to fly in and out. The Park Service has to pay twice that send employees and equipment there.

    Few even know the largest National Park, and fewer still ever set foot there. The two roads there are not paved, only access 1% of the Park, and the biggest attraction is touring an old mine.

  16. Frank

    “Maybe in 75 years if we still have the population to be so desperate.”

    I’m not sure why you’re so anti-NGO when you served as a volunteer naturalist for a non-profit.

    As for getting government to act on what is needed, time will tell. 75 years? Right. The country is bankrupt now. I’d rather see the transfer to non-profit trusts happen peacefully sooner rather than have a fire sale later to the highest bidder. Whether or not the leviathan will retract its claws from our treasures remains to be seen.

    Until then, please keep selectively reading my comments.

  17. Frank

    Borealis,

    Thank you. And yes, Alaskan national parks are different than those in the lower 48. The few tourists who step foot into the more remote national parks are generally more wealthy. They can afford trips from the lower 48 to Alaska and charter flights to these remote areas. They have money for the gear needed.

    Yet the NPS condones and subsidizes this behavior. If the rich are going to act like this, they should pay out the nose not to private companies but to the owners of the land and wildlife. I sure as hell don’t want to subsidize this reprehensible behavior for people who make more in a year than I will in a decade.

    And yes, Wrangell spends $77 per visitor even with its two roads. How does that happen? How much cheaper could non-profit conservation trusts preserve Wrangell’s 13 million acres? Maybe we’ll find out. Hopefully we do so before Disney or Exxon get to it.

    Leaving aside the case of Alaska, I still wonder if anyone is willing to pay the actual cost to visiting the other places I listed.

  18. Dan

    Frank, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than use value or exchange value. The vast majority has spoken and continues to speak on existence value. Introduce a bill. Tell us how far you get.

    And there is no need to grasp and falsely claim I’m anti-NGO. No rational reason to claim we are bankrupt now either, as we have vast natural resources. No need to wreck things just because there is a brief window of opportunity.

    DS

  19. Frank

    I think it’s important to build a coalition of people who want to directly pay for the preservation of national parks. You seem to want to go with the status quo of political (mis)management. Let’s just agree to disagree then.

    Not sure there is a “vast majority” when it comes to the preservation of parks, though, since the vast majority of Americans don’t know the difference between the USFS and the NPS. What you describe seems more like a small minority to me; this small minority is doing a lot of hand-wringing (even in the comments on this post) about how a small minority will convince a vast majority to keep funding the aforementioned (mis)management of national parks.

    As for bankruptcy, or the “status of a person or an organization that cannot repay the debts it owes to its creditors”, guess we’ll be handing over our resources to the Chinese and other foreign entities when the bill finally comes due. Decoupling is already happening. Japan’s trying to cash in, but we’re pressuring them to inflate instead. We’ll see how long that lasts. Or we can just continue printing money to service the debt and hope we never have to pay up. We’ll see how long that lasts.

    This isn’t about wrecking. That’s already happened.

    (If you travel to western park in the near future, let me know. I’ll direct you to the wrecking. Do you want toxic waste dumps, sewage ponds, gravel pits, sequoia stumps, irrigation pipes contorted around deformed cottonwoods, clogged geysers, channelized rivers, bulldozer lines through ancient moss beds, oil spills, sewage spills, blasted basalt, 300-year-old red firs stripped by snowplows, abandoned radioactive mines, or just plain old sprawling parking lots? Let me know and I’ll provide you with GPS coordinates.)

    No. This is about salvaging.

    Thank you for your response.

  20. Dan

    You seem to want to go with the status quo of political (mis)management. Let’s just agree to disagree then.

    No need to make false accusations about what I want. Unless you are…how is it put upthread…oh, yes: selectively reading my comments.

    Thaaaanks!!!!

    DS

  21. Frank

    Bennett,

    I don’t think entrenched special interests will allow the level of reform needed, and any efforts would be symbolic. What’s needed is the total removal of national parks from the reform-stifling political morass that actively causes environmental degradation and fragmentation. But as others have indicated, those in power may not be receptive.

    For a riotously funny treatment of the sad bureaucratic state of affairs in the NPS, see beamis’s The Park Circus.

  22. Craigh

    I think slightly less than a third of Americans visiting a national park is a pretty good number.

    I think it’s a preposterous number. A figure that large should cause us to wonder about the process in place to count visitors. I’d be surprised if 1/3 of Americans had ever been to a national park, let alone every year.

  23. Borealis

    I will be contrarian here and opine that the National Park Service bends far too much toward the enviro purists and does a poor job of hosting visitors. The loss of visitors at time when the nation is growing and population and traveling more often is a terrible sign for the future of conservation.

    Far too often the Park Service fights against visitors want because it goes against the way that purists want to force people to experience a Park. As a result, the free market fills the ignored niche and builds IMAX theatres, reasonably priced hotels, and other attractions just outside the parks.

    Meanwhile, inside the Parks, the purists will grudgingly accept only the 1930 era developments of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and fight any additional modern visitor services. Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Mt Ranier, etc. can easily be seen as museums to the 1930s style of tourism.

  24. bennett

    Borealis,

    The only thing I would say, having been to all of the parks you mention is that when I went they were very crowded, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone in particular. It seems that part of the problem in these parks is not lack of visitors but the herding of all visitors into one location in the park.

    Are you suggesting that the Ritz should open up a resort/amusement park at the Grand Canyon to help draw more crowds? Seem to defeat the purpose to me.

  25. virgil xenophon

    Borealis/

    Sometimes the 30s architecture is more in keeping with the lay of the land, however, IMHO. I would cite the replacement of the 30s style wood and floor-to-ceiling glass structure at Mt. Rushmore which provided a wonderful view of the mountain from the cafeteria while yet blending with the terrain, with an abomination of a fascist-style stone and class monstrosity which dominates the area and detracts greatly from the natural setting and the total experience. Like-wise for the visitors center at Hoover/Boulder Dam. Granted it provides a dramatic view to many not previously available, but it also totally destroys the visual symmetry of the overall site setting vista.

    I should hasten to state that I am not against ALL major modernization improvements, but as a denizen of New Orleans we here are highly sensitive to “modernization” movements that tend to throw the baby out with the bath-water, having long memories of the 70s “modernization”/”improvements” that were almost rammed thru in the form of a proposed Riverfront Expressway running right along the French Quarter with all the attendant noise and pollution–not to mention cutting the City /Quarter off from the river and threatening vibration damage to some of the oldest buildings in America–both on the Historical Register and otherwise. Today in hindsight even most of the projects most ardent original backers–to include Mayor-at-the-time Moon Landrieu (father of the current Mayor Mitch)–readily admit the project would have been a major mistake. “Modernization” is not always synonymous with “progress”/”improvement.” Often “progress” consists on making “improvements” to older systems/structures that allow either for a) their continued existence in their present form, or, b) more efficient utilization of existing systems such that it does not destroy/negatively alter their original state and/or effectiveness.

  26. Borealis

    bennett,

    Yes, those Parks are very crowded in the summer. But that is my point. Tourism is a very seasonal business. You grow by increasing capacity at the peak times or by growing off-season use.

    The Grand Canyon NP is 2,000 sq miles, larger than Rhode Island. The attraction is to look into a canyon along a 1,000+ mile rim.

    The overwhelming number of people look at it along the South Rim, mostly along the 8 mile West Rim Drive. The road and the lookouts were built in the 1930 era. The only real update done by the NPS is, predictably, to force people to take public transit during peak season. It is very uncomfortable, overcrowded at peak times, and takes a long time to travel those 8 miles.

    No wonder visitation is down.

    As noted by the Antiplanner, the priority of the Grand Canyon is new housing for workers and trying to move everything outside the Park boundary, even though the Park Boundary is 6 miles from the canyon.

    The only modern adaptation for visitors in the area is on the Hualapai Indian Reservation (not the NPS). They built a skywalk where visitors can walk out 70 feet past the rim and look down through a glass floor. The Park Service purists hated the idea, even saying the Native Americans were despoiling the white man’s National Park. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Canyon_Skywalk#Environmentalists_and_others

  27. Borealis

    virgil,

    I agree with you that new is not necessarily better. But all the 1930 style infrastructure at National Parks is because the Park purists oppose any modernization, and the easy compromise has been to keep what is there and not modernize.

    Some of the old 1930 lodges and developments are beautiful and iconic. But not all of them, and not everywhere. It really says more about Park Service and environmental politics than it says about a choice of what is appropriate.

    Once again, my point is that recent decades have demonstrated that Americans are not travelling to National Parks, and that should be huge warning and crisis to real conservationists.

  28. Frank

    “Far too often the Park Service fights against visitors[‘]want because it goes against the way that purists want to force people to experience a Park.”

    Please provide concrete evidence, preferably in the form of official policy, especially of the “far too often” part. Especially helpful would be direct evidence that the NPS bends to “purists”. Thank you.

    Additionally, your claim that “Park Service purists hated the idea” is not substantiated. The Wiki articles cites a LA Times article that quotes a “former superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park who was born near the canyon’s South Rim”. This one person is not evidence of “Park Service purists” (plural), just one former NPS employee. Nor in the LA times article can I find such biased language as “despoiling the white man’s National Park”, so I can only assume that is bias you’ve added, which makes me question many of your other assertions.

    While Grand Canyon visitation has fluctuated, more than four million people a year have visited the park every year since 1992. Gas prices and the state of the economy are more closely correlated to visitation fluctuations than an imagined NPS conspiracy to limit visitation.

    As for updating national parks to modern standards, that is a very complex issue. The National Historic Preservation Act limits the ability to alter or remove buildings, structures, roads, bridges, etc. that are more than 50 years old. Additionally, the NPS has an enormous maintenance backlog and can hardly afford to maintain what it has, let alone replace old infra with new. Why? Because the NPS is funded through political means, and allocating $10 billion for maintenance is not politically popular.

    Plus you’re ignoring all the evidence that the NPS has bent to industrial tourism and favored its “provide for the enjoyment” mandate over its directive to leave parks.

  29. Borealis

    Frank,

    As I said, I have a contrary view. The post is about three purist books, and I am not going to spend my time refuting their 1452+ pages here.

    The Grand Canyon sky bridge is a very interesting contrast in styles of natural area visitation. Learn from the contrast if you want to, or not.

    As all the federal employees know, a 49-year old trash site is a CERCLA hazardous waste site, while a 51-year old trash site is a protected National Historic Preservation Act site.

    My point was narrow. The National Park Service avoids modernization, its sites are 1930s era, and visitation is dropping like a rock.

    Conservationists can draw their own conclusions.

  30. Frank

    “The post is about three purist books…”

    Have you read these books? To make a judgement without so doing is rash.

    I’d hardly call Hess’s writing “purist”:

    …Rocky Mountain’s crisis is one of mismanagement and bureaucratic ineptitude–a crisis connected with a laissez-faire approach to elk population control and a long history of fire suppression. In the final analysis, the crisis is caused by the failure of public policy and the distortions imposed on land management by political and bureaucratic considerations.

    It’s not the visitation per se that is the problem; it’s the management that focuses on visitation above the health of the ecosystem. A purist view would be to lock up the park and let natural processes sort things out, but that’s not what Hess advocates. Hess advocates for a return to scientific management. (In 1991, the superintendent “eliminated the park’s science staff”). He shows that the state of this and other parks is a “direct consequence of park managers…ignoring or overruling scientists in the management of the park.” As more evidence that Hess is not a purist, he writes that “evidence of the failure of natural regulation is overwhelming.” He goes on to state that “concepts like ‘natural’ and ‘natural process'” are not helpful. A purist would argue differently.

    Ultimately, Hess finds that “mass transit systems are not the ultimate answer, or is overcrowding the major problem” and that these are “mere irritants compared to the degradation of winter range and the deterioration of the park’s forests.”

    Purist? No.

    I’ve already outlined the model of a conservation trust for which Hess advocates, and there is no evidence of purism in that model.

    “My point was narrow. The National Park Service avoids modernization, its sites are 1930s era, and visitation is dropping like a rock.”

    Your points are wrong. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

    If the NPS were avoiding modernization and its sites are 1930s era, it wouldn’t build a new “green” visitor center in Zion along with a transit center. If the NPS were avoiding modernization, it wouldn’t replace Rainier’s 1960s inefficient VC at Paradise with a sleek and more efficient VC. The list goes on.

    Your claim that “its sites are 1930s era” overlooks the significant impact of Mission 66, which spent the equivalent of $8 billion in 2011 dollars to “modernize” the parks. It also overlooks the fact that only 23 of the 58 national parks (by name) were established during or before the 1930s. Most national monuments, historic sites, etc. were established after the 1930s.

    From 2000 to 2010, park visitation dropped a paltry 1.6%. Your use of hyperbole cannot hide the fact that visitation in the last decade has declined only slightly.

  31. Borealis

    OK Frank, I understand and respect your view. I made my point, and you can consider it or not. Your point of view has huge influence on the management of National Parks — much more than my view does.

    But I have to comment that pure science has zero, nada, and zilch to say about how National Parks should be managed. Lots of scientists express their non-scientific opinion, but science is not what scientists say.

    These books show how the “belief” in “science” skews the environmental movement in a way that has no logical foundation. “Science” is a brutal, amoral philosophy that by design makes many, many, many mistakes. Every time I see political letters signed by “scientists” in their professional capacity, I realize how much politics infects science, and why politics is rightly skeptical of science.

    If you take science seriously, you will understand what I am saying. If you don’t see my point, it is OK to just run off and imply that scientists and Ivy League graduates are smarter than everyone else.

  32. Borealis

    Frank, I think our different views are easily illustrated by the Grand Canyon Sky Bridge. There is lots written on the subject, especially by many prominent environmentalists.

    It affects an extremely trivial amount of land, has nearly zero ecological impact, but is a huge philosophical conundrum. It is controversial when built on a sovereign Native American land. But as a thought experiment, why isn’t it built on National Park Service system lands? What does “science” have to say about it?

  33. Dan

    OK, look: obviously there are many dim-bulb usual suspects on this site who literally require to be ignored or advised on their dosage. But Borealis is not one of them, and he has an excellent point despite our almost constant disagreements: why is the sky bridge on native land? I highly doubt science can answer this question, as it is in the realm of policy and political economy. I’m not sure I’d waste a day on the north rim but many obviously do. Why?

    Nonetheless, the iconic buildings built by the Depression-era labor (oohhh…’labor’…is that a bad word here?!) are what draw people. For a reason. I can’t imagine a cr*ptacular Gehry or Liebeskind on NPS land. They’d ruin it. What is it about that period when Americans explored, found nature, and took their self-identity with it (hence the power of ‘existence value’)? Why are ‘wild’ lands part of our identity? Why do we cede control to political directives to protect these jewels (Randal’s important question that is danced around)?

    DS

  34. Andrew

    All:

    The NPS reports there were 281 million visitors to the park system in 2010.

    http://www.nps.gov/faqs.htm

    That of course is not unique visitors, but the aggregate total.

    The counting is quite plainly stated to be via inductive loops at the park entrances multiplied by an assumed average number of visitors per car. In locations such as the Lincoln Memorial, it is done by regular full count statistical sampling every day.

    The arguments being made here for privatizing the parks or increasing fees are frankly ridiculous. The NPS exists to provide all Americans affordable access to our national and scenic heritage. Its mission is not to charge what the market will bear. Where this is done at private sites like Meteor Crater in Arizona or Natural Bridge in Virginia, they are plainly unaffordable to people of modest means and orders of magnitude more expensive than the NPS.

    As the NPS only costs $10 per American, I think most people would gladly pay that to ensure it exists. Where American’s start looking at you “like you have three eyes” to quote Senator Rand Paul, is when you explain you are going to borrow money from China so that we can give money to various tinpot dictators overseas, subsidize farmers not to farm, send welfare and social security checks to illegal aliens, subsidize foreign defense budgets, give tax breaks to GE, and similar nonsense.

  35. Andrew

    Dan:

    why is the sky bridge on native land?

    Because they can charge $75 per person to go on it, and Indian casino’s obviously aren’t going to work so near to Vegas.

    Nonetheless, the iconic buildings built by the Depression-era labor are what draw people. For a reason.

    Because they harken back to a time when things could be done in this country with taste and sensitivity to the natural environment by a united people who felt themselves to be one nation. That is no longer the case in this country, which is now riven by sectional and racial mistrust between the polyglot urbanized coasts and the middle and rural areas. They are something which could simply never be done again because American’s as a whole right now and in the forseeable future could never agree to it as a political program.

    What is it about that period when Americans explored, found nature, and took their self-identity with it (hence the power of ‘existence value’)?

    Because so many Americans hearken back to this time as when their ancestors colonized America and identify with the values they held of freedom and self sufficiency and communal spirit addressed to the common purpose of settlement and religion, which are quite foreign to many moderns, and very foreign to many recent immigrants, especially those who come here and proclaim their oppression by us.

    Why are ‘wild’ lands part of our identity?

    Because for many of us, our ancestors physically tamed the wilderness left by the decimation of the Indian population in the wake of the advent of white men in the hemisphere and their microbes. This is not a part of the heritage of Americans of the Ellis Island era and later, and it is why Ellis Island worship appears so puzzling to many of us descended from the early American colonists.

    Why do we cede control to political directives to protect these jewels (Randal’s important question that is danced around)?

    Because they are reminders of this part of our heritage.

  36. Frank

    “OK Frank, I understand and respect your view. I made my point, and you can consider it or not. Your point of view has huge influence on the management of National Parks — much more than my view does.”

    Thank you. I see your point, but I feel it is not supported by the facts or situation on the ground. Please feel free to dispute the interpretations and facts in #32. I don’t mean to be mean, but in the last twenty years, I have heard all emotional talking points when it comes to national parks. With the people who use these common talking points I share something in common: the love of nature and the desire to see our nation parks preserved.

    As for the claim that “buildings built by the Depression-era labor…are what draw people”, that is an enormous unsupported assertion. It’s true that a subset of the elite population that can afford thousands a week on lodges that were built in many different eras, not just the Depression:

    YELL-1904
    ZION-1926, rebuilt in ’66
    CRLA-1915, rebuilt in 1991-94 ($17 mil, subsidized by taxpayers)
    YOSE-1927-Ahwahnee Hotel
    GRCA-1927-28-Grand Canyon Lodge, rebuilt in 1936-37

    I can tell you that of the many national parks at which I have worked for more than a decade, in the hundreds of thousands visitors with whom I interacted, NEVER, not once has a visitor ever told me that they were there to see Depression-era architecture. Not the CCC benches at the wayside, not the CCC lookout in which I worked, not the CCC houses where I lived. In the dozens and dozens and dozens of programs I presented, the least popular was a tour of an NPS village. Over the course of one summer, not a single person ever showed up for that hike. Not one. Why not? Who gives a rip about the buildings when you can look at the wonder of the world next to them?

    As for the Sky Bridge, that’s up for the Navajo to decide. It’s their land and they as a sovereign nation are entitled to do with it what they will. As for US national parks, in 1916 our ancestors enacted a law that which mandated parks be kept unimpaired for our enjoyment today. They failed. Utterly. The century-old agency this act created is a relic of non-scientific times and a pawn of politicians. It’s time for something new. It’s time for conservation trusts.

  37. Dan

    The arguments being made here for privatizing the parks or increasing fees are frankly ridiculous. The NPS exists to provide all Americans affordable access to our national and scenic heritage.

    [golf clap]

    DS

  38. Borealis

    Frank,

    Thanks for the good discussion. You have convinced me that the Conservation Trusts are an idea worth trying. I would support a trial but not transforming all the Parks at once. I think it would be easy to run a Trust for the crown jewel national parks, nearly impossible to run a trust for the small historic properties, and a challenge to run a trust for the medium Parks. It would be a grand experiment.

  39. Frank

    “The NPS exists to provide all Americans affordable access to our national and scenic heritage.”

    Can’t find anything about “affordable access” to national parks in the Organic Act, the NPS charter.

    Even big-government advocates like FDR thought wanted national parks to be self-supporting through fees.

  40. metrosucks

    Facts don’t matter Frank, libs just want to do whatever “feels good”. I would also be willing to try the trusts to preserve these areas. It’s not as if the NPS is doing a great job of preserving these parks, after all.

  41. Andrew

    Frank:

    Can’t find anything about “affordable access” to national parks in the Organic Act, the NPS charter.

    “The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

    Also:

    “That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

    I think I paraphrased the stated purpose perfectly well. There is nothing there about even charging for access, or that the parks are only for the benefit of those able to pay an exhorbitant entry fee. And I really don’t care what President Big Government FDR thought about one of the great legacies of the party of his political enemies which I proudly belong to, nor do I care for the ridiculous schemes of privatizing the parks under the control of some small unaccountable elitist group.

  42. Dan

    Andrew, non-reality-based “solutions” won’t happen. The entire human world wants to come to America and see our jewels. Most of my friends in Europe dreamt of one day visting Yosemite and Grand Canyon, and the Daner girls we had a fun time with in backcountry Yosemite were writing things down for their friends’ future trips, as do most furriners who visit our famed and beloved National Parks.

    Clownish privatization dreams don’t flourish in the light of day. Have no fear, even with these goons in office right now. They’ll be gone soon. Not gonna happen until desperate times, maybe not even then if there are still sane people around.

    DS

  43. Frank

    “There is nothing there about even charging for access, or that the parks are only for the benefit of those able to pay an exhorbitant [sic] entry fee.”

    Nor is there anything in there saying that the park is to provide “affordable access.” Nor is there a prohibition of charging user fees.

    The NPS spend about $10 per person for ops at Yosemite and charges $20 a car. Paying an individual fee for a family of four would be about $40 bucks. Gas alone for a round trip from SF for a family of four would cost about a hundred bucks. Add on food, lodging, and entrance fees are not prohibitive to people who can afford to travel to begin with. I would not call either of these two fees ($10 a person or $20 a car) “exorbitant”.

    Also consider that the park could subsidize entrance fees with proceeds from lodging, the gift shop, campgrounds, the restaurant; it is possible to make the entrance fee very low or essentially free. (I’ve explained this before.) You could ask for a suggested donation at the gate, but entrance fees might be unnecessary in this scenario.

    Conservation trusts are better positioned to provide free access than is the federal government. I’m surprised you’re not outraged at the corporatist arrangement between the NPS and multinationals like Xanterra that profit from parks by mining for their financial resources and then ship those resources abroad.

  44. Andrew

    Frank:

    Modest entry fees are fine with me to help defray costs. The current fees are, as was stated above, $80 annual pass for a family, $10-25 per car for single entry, $5-12 for single persons on foot or bike, and of course free to many uncontrolled sites.

    I thought it was stated above that these fees were ridiculously low and should be raised.

    I agree that Xanterra’s deal to suck money out of the parks is outrageous.

  45. Frank

    Here’s even more evidence that national parks need to be freed from political management:

    “With little more than 48 hours remaining before the current funding resolution expires, federal agency heads, workers, and untold numbers of tourists and Washington-area residents were forced to focus on what life would be like if the government halts non-essential services. National parks and Smithsonian museums would close.”

    According to the federal government, preserving national parks is a non-essential service. Parks operated by conservation trusts would be open this spring break. Now, the gates will be closed.

    What do you think will happen to parks if the federal government defaults on its debt?

  46. Frank

    And here’s the second wake-up call for anyone who cares about national parks:

    New York (CNN) — An average of $32 million a day in national parks revenue could be shut off if the Beltway showdown results in a government shutdown, officials say.

    The measure would be the first shutdown in more than 15 years, shuttering national parks, seashores and historic sites, and barring some 800,000 daily visitors, according to David Barna, a spokesman for the National Parks Service.

    Not sure how the $32 mil a day in “national parks revenue” is calculated as $32M*365D=$11.7B/Y and the NPS budget is under half that. Perhaps it includes money spent in parks on concessions. If so, that’s a travesty.

  47. Frank

    Here’s a third wake-up call for anyone who cares about parks. Governments are bankrupt and shutting parks. Won’t be long until this happens at the national level. Conservation trusts provide a reasonable alternative to political management and the vagaries of funding and the whims of politicians.

    Seventy state parks across California, including the governor’s mansion and at least 14 sites within an hour of San Francisco, will close starting in September, state parks officials announced Friday.

    Redwood forests, beaches, coastal woodlands and some of the state’s most important cultural and historic sites will be closed, and as many as 220 jobs will be eliminated as a result of the state budget cuts recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/05/13/BAL61JG0QO.DTL#ixzz1MLe59kfL

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