I’ve been watching the news of the government shutdown closely for the past few weeks. I’ve been particularly intrigued by the response I’ve seen in the media to closures of national parks. Nearly every article I’ve read lists the closure of national parks and public museums first among all of the non-essential government closures. There has been a lot of outcry over the lack of access to these public places.
In a way, it’s a bit of a relief. I love national parks, and I try to teach other people about them so they will care about them too. National parks were hit hard by the sequester, it’s reassuring to see that people really do value them and are upset to see them closed.
On the other hand, the government shutdown has affected other “non-essential” programs that even I consider to be more critical than National Parks. It would be nice to hear more concern over the lack of funds for nutritional assistance like WIC and Meals on Wheels, or the health and safety services that are provided by the CDC, OSHA, and the EPA. The shutdown is also having a huge impact on veterans and their families. The thought of a person going hungry or getting sick or injured because someone thought these services weren’t important is far more worrisome than my inability to take a hike or see a national monument.
I’ve been equally alarmed by another response I’ve seen. It’s essentially, “the government can’t tell me not to enjoy this national park!”, or “why do we even need the government to run this monument?” There have been a bunch of people in the media, and people that I actually know, who have been flouting the closures and going into parks anyway. It’s not really difficult as many parks are vast in size, and park staff is at a bare bones minimum. This is most often painted as a harmless (or maybe even noble) act of civil disobedience.
Here’s why it concerns me: The whole idea behind placing these places under the care of the National Park Service was to preserve and protect them. It’s hard to imagine a few people on a day hike causing a lot of damage, but the longer the shutdown goes on, the bigger the impact these stealth visitors are going to have.
Yosemite was recently impacted by a forest fire that was started by an illegal campfire in the backcountry. Without backcountry rangers patrolling to enforce rules intended to protect wilderness areas the greater the impact from careless users will be. Yosemite rangers also spend a lot of time educating visitors about how to best protect Yosemite’s bears. Not many visitors realize that you can’t leave food in your car and you have to use bear canisters in the back country. Without this education it’s more likely that bears are going to find human food, and learn to associate humans with food. This is bad for the bears, and it can lead to bears being killed because they start looking for food by breaking into houses and cars. Of course, all of this assumes that every visitor has the best intentions and isn’t sneaking onto park lands to break into buildings or commit acts of vandalism. Plus, if anyone gets hurt hiking on closed trails it puts an additional strain on already tight resources to conduct rescue operations, leaving fewer people to protect the parks.
Photo shamelessly plundered from NatureBridge
If you are angry about the government being shutdown, you have every right to be. No park ranger wants to keep people out of the park, so please, don’t take your anger out on the few park rangers left who have to enforce this madness, (particularly if you are a member of the House of Representatives.) The National Parks do belong to the people of the United States, but we need to use them responsibly and take care of them, not use the shutdown as an invitation to do whatever we want in them.
P.S. While I’m on my soapbox let me just say that I don’t work for the National Park Service. A few people have told me not to worry about the shutdown because I will be “back-paid.” Although it seems likely that Congress will appropriate money for the federal workers who are temporarily out of a job, it is far less likely that there will be any relief for us; the workers who rely on a functioning government to do our jobs.
P.P.S. If you are the type who loves signing petitions there are about a zillion out there related to the shutdown. Here is one from NatureBridge.
P.P.P.S. Editing to add a link to this New York Times article. It’s a great article even though it pretty much advocates the opposite of what I’m preaching.