Sunday July 21st 2024


Trouble In Paradise: After Decades of Neglect,
America's National Parks Are Struggling For Survival

By Neal Lawrence

Where do you go when you want to get away? 300 million Americans retreat to one of our
National Parks, to explore some of the last vestages of the natural environment left
amidst the urban sprawl. But decades of neglect and underfunding have left our parks in
desperate straits. Infrastructure is crumbling, budget cutbacks have reduced staff, and
privatization has been a disaster. Drug smugglers, poachers, criminal thugs and illegal
immigrants have invaded our formerly pristine wilderness, threatening visitors and
Rangers and leaving behind debris and human waste.

From Yellowstone to the Smoky Mountains, our parks are suffering from increased pollution
and destructive uses, and the promotion of private interests at the expense of our
treasured public heritage.

By law, our National Parks have been granted a status above the rest: America’s most
special places, where natural beauty and all its attendant pleasures — quiet waters, the
scents of fir and balsam, the splendor of colorful wildflowers, the songs of myriad
birds, and the dark of a night sky unsullied by city lights — are sacrosanct.
Historically, conservation has always been the top priority, trumping any suggested use
that might degrade them. But the Bush administration has a different view.

The Bureau of Land Management, charged with the oversight of public land, has been told
that issuing new leases for oil and gas exploration is its highest — often its only
— priority. Millions of acres — including some of the nation’s most environmentally
sensitive public lands — are being opened up to logging, mining, and oil and gas
drilling. Under one plan, loggers could take 10% of the trees in California’s Giant
Sequoia National Mon-ument, including old-growth sequoias that pre-date Christ, and are
up to 4,000 years old. Imagine these stately trees felled to make roof shingles.

The coal industry has been given leave to scalp the tops off the Appalachian Mountains —
historic landscapes where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett roamed, and that are the source
of our values and culture. Giant machines called drag lines that are 22 stories high and
cost half a billion dollars are extracting coal and scarring the terrain. The residue is
being dumped into valleys, obstructing streams, killing aquatic life, and occasionally
triggering mudslides and floods.

In the west, ranchers have had their gates bulldozed away by oil drillers for
corporations that own surface mining rights and now feel free to take their heavy
equipment into privately operated ranches without permission or notification.
With little public debate, the Admin-istration has approved a plan to drill 66,000
coalbed methane gas wells in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana — a massive
project that will result in 26,000 miles of new roads, 48,000 miles of new pipelines, and
discharges of 2 trillion gallons of contaminated water, disfiguring for years the rolling
hills of that landscape.

Despite all his pious political rhetoric and entreaties to the so-called “religious
right,” Mr. Bush has defied Bib-lical injunctions about good stewardship of the land, and
become the first President in our history to ignore a broad national consensus that the
quality of our lives in inextricably linked to the preservation of our natural habitat.
He has pursued a furtive campaign to place the interests of corporate Am-erica ahead of
the public good, and in so doing irreversibly squandered some of our most precious
natural resources.

His actions have drawn over 50,000 public comments and concerns from former Park Service
employees, lawmakers of both parties, many outdoor businesses, and the National Council
of Churches.

In the first three years of his Presidency, Mr. Bush initiated more than 200 major
rollbacks of America’s environmental laws, weakening the protection of our country’s air,
water, public lands and wildlife. Under the guidance of Republican pollster Frank Luntz,
the Bush White House has disingenuously hidden its anti-environmental program behind
deceptive, Orwellian rhetoric, telegenic spokespeople, sec-recy and the intimidation of
scientists and Park rangers, who are afraid of being fired and losing their pensions if
they speak out.

Nowhere are the results of this assault on our natural resources more manifest than in
our National Parks.

Even before the current President assumed office, funding for our parks had failed to
keep pace with needs. Now, new rules that emphasize recreation over preservation have
resulted in off-road vehicles harming archeological sites at the Grand Canyon; tearing up
hiking and horseback trails in Olympic National Park; crushing animal burrows in the
Canyonlands Na-tional Park; and facilitating fossil poaching at Badlands National Park in
South Dakota. Park managers at the Appalachian Trail say that off-road vehicles are the
Trail’s “most pernicious” problem. But there are other issues:

• At Yellowstone, 150 miles of roads have not been repaired in years, and many of the
park’s several hundred buildings are in poor condition.

• Yosemite National Park needs more than $40 million for backlogged projects, including
trail and campground maintenance.

• Hikers cannot reach backcountry cabins at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington
State because bridges and trails need repair.

• Four out of ten historic buildings at Gettysburg’s hallowed battlefields in Pennsylvania
and the neighboring Eisenhower National Historic Site are in poor or serious condition.

• Large sections of a historic lighthouse and Fort Jefferson at Dry Tor-tugas National
Park in South Florida are unsafe.

• Ancient stone structures are collapsing at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New

• Researchers believe anglers have introduced non-native earthworms in-to Voyageurs
National Park in Minn-esota. The earthworms change the soil, which changes the trees,
which affects water that flows into lakes.

• In Florida, the fast-draining Ever-glades are affected by an average of 900 new Florida
residents a day who create a daily new demand for 200,000 gallons of water.

• Shamefully, even the visitor center at the u.s.s. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Har-bor in
Hawaii is being allowed to sink.

Crime Overtaking the Parks

Drug smugglers and illegal immigrants have invaded our National Parks. According to the
Department of Justice, park rangers are the most assaulted of all federal law enforcement

•In Texas, at the Padre Island National Seashore, drug smuggling, illegal immigrants, the
poaching of endangered turtles and their eggs, and un-lawful commercial fishing pose a
threat to the park’s resources, its visitors and the rangers themselves. The lack of
timely backup for officers in trouble, and sometimes erratic radio communications, are
issues at this location.

• Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona was listed as the most dangerous National
Park for the second year in a row. This was due to numerous incidents involving
international drug trafficking, the inflow of illegal immigrants, and a workforce that is
understaffed to safely manage the problem. The park also reported that criminals had
created miles of illegal roads in the park. As many as 1,000 aliens and drug smugglers
pour into Arizona’s Organ Pipe daily, diverting 75% of rangers’ time to the problem,
superintendent Kathy Billings says.
The crush of human traffic has left a trail of ravaged vegetation and human excrement.
“Some areas, the smell of the human waste just hits you,” Billings said recently. “It’s
overwhelming right now and it’s not safe for our staff to go out and start a cleanup.”

• The Lake Mead National Recrea-tion Area in Nevada and Arizona has ongoing gang activity,
and vast areas of backcountry have only cursory patrols. There are fewer park rangers
working this year than last, and some of those that remain have been rotated out to
provide security at the dams.

Pollution is Overwhelming

Pollution that has drifted scores of miles into parks is affecting visitors, plant life and wildlife.
Last year, the air breathed by park visitors exceeded eight-hour safe levels of ozone
150 times in 13 parks, from California to Virginia. Overall, air at one-third
of parks monitored by the Park Service continues to worsen even as the
government puts in place pollution controls aimed at clearing the air by 2064.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, the most frequently
visited park, has air quality similar to that of Los Angeles.
Many others, including Shenandoah in Virginia, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Sequoia and
Kings Canyon in California and Acadia in Maine also suffer reduced views and damage to
natural resources, mostly from pollutants from coal-fired power plants.

Pollution has diminished the average daytime visibility from 90 miles to less than 25
miles at Eastern parks, and in the West from 140 miles to between 35 miles and 90 miles,
the Environmental Protection Agency said.

Even global warming is harming our parks, putting 12 of the most famous u.s. National
Parks at risk. This conjures up visions of Glacier National Park without glaciers and
Yellowstone Park without grizzly bears. All 12 parks are located in the American West,
where temperatures have risen twice as fast as in the rest of the United States over the
last 50 years, said Theo Spencer of the Natural Re-sources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Rising temperatures, drought, wildfires and diminished snowfalls endanger wildlife and
threaten hiking, fishing and other recreational activities” in the parks, Spencer said.

Commercial Development Threatens

Since 1916, the National Park Service has had a mandate “to protect and preserve
unimpaired the resources and values of the National Park system.” This means clean air,
wilderness protection, unspoiled vistas, and wildlife conservation.
But as the Associated Press reports, “in an age when many Americans expect homelike
amenities while they’re enjoying nature, when they prefer the option of sightseeing from
low-flying aircraft or snowmobiles, and demand constant cell phone service, this is not
an easy charter to fulfill. Especially since the u.s. population has grown more than 200%
since 1916, and budget cuts have left many parks strapped for funds.”

Parks are being opened up to more commercial activities, livestock grazing, and motorized
recreation. Housing de-velopments and strip malls are springing up just outside of parks.

There already are 30 cell phone towers inside the 390 national park units, one within
sight of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. Tourist-filled helicopters and airplanes buzz
around the Grand Can-yon. The sounds of snowmobiles and personal watercraft still break
the pristine silence in some parks.

In 2007, as many as 720 snowmobiles a day will be allowed in Yellowstone, and 140 in
neighboring Grand Teton National Park.

Vacation homes now dot the shores lining Acadia and the mountains that border the Great
Smoky Mountains National Park. Subdivisions have sprouted up around hallowed Civil War
sites such as Manassas Battlefield Park in Virginia.

A casino is proposed within cannon range of a Gettysburg battlefield. Several hundred new
homes are approved for construction along the scenic New River Gorge National River in
West Virginia.

Convenience stores, strip malls and shopping centers line the roads to many parks.
Traffic piles up, aggravating visitors and residents alike.

Even the parks’ famed views of starry skies are in jeopardy. Nighttime lights, beaming
from cities and towns 200 miles away from parks such as Mount Rainier in Washington state
and Yosemite in California, reduce star visibility and can affect nocturnal wildlife.

In urban regions like the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California,
visitors can only see a few hundred stars instead of the 8,000 that would be visible in
pristine conditions.

“If there’s no place that is clear and clean, if there’s no place that is dark and
starry, where does that leave us?” asks Chad Moore, program manager for the National Park
Service’s Night Sky Team. “If we can’t protect the best parts of Am-erica in national
parks, then we’re certainly not going to be able to protect them anywhere else.”

Broken Promises to Fix Our Parks

For decades, the National Park Service has not received sufficient funding for the
day-to-day maintenance of visitor centers, historic buildings, admin istrative offices,
restrooms, trails, signs, and other essential facilities. While Congress has increased
parks funding in recent years, there is still a $600 million deficit in operating funds
and a maintenance backlog of up to $7 billion.

During the 2000 Presidential campaign, candidate George W. Bush pledged to eliminate the
maintenance back- log. But now he wants the government to cover just 70% of the parks’
payroll and utility costs in 2007. He plans $100 million in cuts next year. Some parks
already report daily operating budget shortfalls in excess of 50%. That has left them
scrambling for charitable donations.

Bush and Cheney received more than $44 million in campaign contributions from such
industries as mining, oil and gas, timber, coal, chemicals, and various other major
sectors that harm the environment in 2000. According to a report published in Newsweek in
2000, the Bush campaign even promised contributors that their donations would receive
tracking codes, so they could later be correctly identified and compensated through
political decisions.

Robert f. Kennedy, Jr., who has been a dedicated environmental lawyer for more than 22
years, points out that “President Bush appointed as head of the Forest Service a timber
industry lobbyist, Mark Rey — probably the most rapacious in history. He put in charge of
public lands a mining industry lobbyist, Steven Griles, who believes that public lands
are unconstitutional. He put in charge of the air division of the epa, Jeffrey Holmstead,
a utility lobbyist who has represented nothing but the worst air polluters in America. As
head of Super-fund, a woman whose last job was teaching corporate polluters how to evade
Superfund. The second in command of epa is a Monsanto lobbyist.”

Kennedy notes that to advise him on environmental policy, Bush “put a lobbyist of the
American Petroleum Institute whose only job was to read all of the science from all the
different federal agencies to make sure they didn’t say anything critical, to excise any
critical statements about the oil industry.”

It is indisputable that the White House has used stealth tactics, such as encouraging
states and private groups to file lawsuits against the federal government, and then
agreeing to negotiated settlements that bypass environmental laws without any oversight
from Congress or input from the public.

As environmental writer Chip Ward observes, “Everywhere you look, the Bush war on the
environment defies public opinion. Under cover of the weekend in March, 2003 when he
invaded Iraq, Bush’s Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton signed a Memorandum of
U-derstanding with Utah’s then-Governor Mike Leavitt (who went on to head the epa and is
now Secretary of Health). It allowed the state to absurdly claim that thousands of dirt
tracks and paths through public lands were actually ‘highways’ under an obscure law
designed in the 19th century to allow prospectors ac-cess to mining claims.”

The out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit, signed that same weekend by Norton and Leavitt,
stripped millions of acres of public lands throughout the West of safeguards that helped
maintain their pristine character. In Utah alone, 6 million acres of land that meet all
the criteria for wilderness designation and protection can no longer be managed that way.
Established by the Wilderness Act of 1964, the very concept of “wilderness,” the most
popular and important conservation tool ever created, has now been stripped of its
meaning and power.

Bush’s “leave no road-builder behind” policy is especially evident in the Forest
Service’s 2005 rescission of its “roadless rule,” a Clinton-era regulation that protected
federally owned forests not — like most of our public forests — already crisscrossed by
more miles of roads than are included in the Interstate highway system. When enacted by
Clinton, the roadless rule got more public support — over a million supportive messages
came in to the Forest Service — than any regulation in history. Now it’s gone and,
million acres of roadless forest are open to road-building, clearing the way for lumber,
energy, and mining corporations to get in and take what they want. The impact is even
greater in the wilds of the North-west where new roads are sure to aggravate the silting
up of streams and rivers in which depleted stocks of salmon are struggling to hang on.

The acts of Norton and Leavitt proved typical of Bush-era strategies meant to implement
otherwise unpopular decisions that could not stand up to public scrutiny or involvement —
or survive legal challenges, even in courts packed with Bush-friendly judges.

In another bold move, the Bush administration pandered to corporate tim-ber barons and
authored a new, radically bad forest plan, titled the “Healthy For-ests Initiative.”
Language that former Democrat Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota slipped into a bill in
the Summer of 2002 has allowed logging on Native Americans’ land without having to abide
by environmental restraints or lawsuits. These very holy lands were once visionary refuge
for Lakota Sioux elders including Crazy Horse and Black Elk.

As environmental writer Jeffrey St. Clair wrote at the time, “The logging plan was
consecrated in the name of fire prevention. The goal of the bill, Daschle said, ‘is to
reduce the risk of forest fire by getting [logging] crews on the ground as quickly as
possible to start thinning.’ It’s long been the self-serving contention of the timber
lobby that the only way to prevent forest fires is to log them first.’

“The legislation however, accomplishes no such thing, and instead sanctions the pillage
of over 2.5 million acres of federal forest land by 2012.”

Privatization Run Amok

The Bush credo is to “outsource” many of the Park Service’s critical functions, including
biological science and archaeological survey and assessment activities, which would
replace Park Ser-vice workers with low-bid private contractors. But outsourcing fails to
place any value on the expertise and institutional knowledge of Park Service
professionals, such as archaeologists who are responsible for preserving civil war
battlefields, prehistoric ruins and artifacts, dinosaur bones, fossils and other relics
of American history. As a result, shifting worker duties to private industry can actually
increase costs over retaining Park employees because of the loss in productivity and
training time, not to mention the loss of educational benefits to visitors. Privatization
also further opens National Park management to private influence, rather than retaining
direct government oversight and at least the veneer of objectivity when weighing the
public interest.

“The Bush administration’s outsour-ing venture has been a bust, costing taxpayers
millions of dollars and hurting employee morale to determine that, by and large, the
government workforce does a fine job at a fraction of the cost of private corporations,"
said Greg Wetstone, of the nrdc. “In the case of the Forest Service, in particular, it’s
not a good idea to eliminate civil servants whose job it is to serve the public and tell
the truth with a pr firm paid to spin the Administration’s story.”

A Backlash to Radical Policies

Where is all this heading? The Bush policies are meeting increasing opposition from
within his own ranks. Republicans for Environmental Protection, (REP) was founded to
counter the party’s ideological departure from its conservation heritage of Theodore
Roosevelt and restore its traditional ethic of environmental stewardship.

And although evangelicals have as a whole supported Bush’s industry-friend-ly polices
toward the National Parks, some are seeing the light. Rev. Tri Rob-inson, a pastor at a
dynamic conservative church in Boise, Idaho, has attracted national attention by
preaching the Biblical imperative of environmental stewardship to his congregation.

In the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, local residents are bringing their faith
to bear in their effort to stop widespread pollution and environmental damage.  In a
state where three million pounds of explosives are used a day to strip the mountains of
their coal, some evangelicals are relying on scripture to battle Big Coal.

“I first want to apologize as a Christian for the unfaithfulness of the churches and
Christians who have oftentimes — too often — been complicit in the destruction that we
see upon the land,” says Allen Johnson, who co-founded the advocacy group Christians for
the Mountains.  “In the Book of Revelation, there’s a scripture that says that God will
destroy those who destroy the Earth. We’re breaking a covenant with God.”  Copyright 2007 by Midwest Today

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