As an ancillary result of the ongoing federal government shutdown, all 401 U.S. National Parks were shuttered on October 1. Under a deal reached last Friday between the State of Arizona and the U.S. Interior Department, Grand Canyon National Park reopened this week.
With the shutdown coming amidst the October peak tourism season, local businesses dependent upon Grand Canyon tourism felt the impact acutely. According to Town Manager Will Wright, Tusayan, AZ businesses were losing roughly $200,000 in daily revenues; while 2,200-odd park employees were out of work. Naturally, tourists who had planned trips to the park coinciding with the closure were also upset.
As detailed in the outstanding 2009 Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, management of the parks during the early years was inconsistent at best. In Yellowstone and Yosemite, business interests were allowed to exploit the parks for profit, largely as they saw fit. While an idealistic reverence for beautiful natural spaces underlay the creation of the National Park System, there was an additional motivation: promoting tourism in the heretofore wide open American West.* To wit: Western railroad interests were instrumental in lobbying for the creation of many of the early parks, in order to boost their passenger business.
Eventually, it became apparent to the Interior Department in Washington that the tension between conservation and tourism inherent in the Park System’s genesis had to be resolved somehow. Prominent businessman turned assistant secretary of the Interior Stephen Mather crusaded for the creation of a National Parks Bureau – which “blurred the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation through an emphasis on the economic value of parks as tourist meccas.”* Congress responded by passing the Organic Act of 1916, which created the National Park Service.
(*This is, again, quoting Barry Mackintosh.)
The Organic Act charges the NPS to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein 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.” And thus the National Parks today stand upon a wobbly foundation – torn between competing directives to: 1) promote the parks as tourist destinations; while 2) conserving the values that made them desirable as National Parks in the first place, uncorrupted for future generations to enjoy alike. Within the success of the first directive lies the seed of destruction for the second.
All of which raises the question: is it possible that the long term health of the National Park System may be improved through a thoughtful re-examination of what its primary purpose truly is? Viewed in this light, the current (albeit temporary) park closures could provide the opportunity to envision an alternate future for these American icons. Check back for part II, which will take up this issue.