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Opinion: Wrongheaded “Rightsizing” of the National Parks

We do need to prioritize the parks, but not among each other, writes former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

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The opinion piece “It’s Time to Start Closing National Parks” by Gill Lusk is wrong on many fronts. Over the 40 years that I worked for the National Park Service, there have been several attempts at “national park closure commissions”. In 2005, Congressman Richard Pombo (CA-R) announced his own hit list. Like Lusk, he started with parks with the lowest visitation, implying that popularity is the main criteria for their preservation. Some of the parks on his list were small historical sites like the homes of Revolutionary war hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, places never expected to welcome hordes of visitors. Pombo also included Alaskan wilderness like the 2.7 million acre Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, the 4 million-acre Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and the 2.5 million acre Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. These Alaska parks are remote and visitation is low, but they preserve enormous biodiversity and the traditional lifeways of Native Alaskans. Pombo’s closure proposal went down in the flames of public outcry as should Lusk’s ill-conceived opinion.

Jonathan Jarvis
Jonathan Jarvis was the 18th Director of the National Park Service.National Park Service

The National Park System isn’t meant to be just a playground. Instead, its 419 units (not 483, as Lusk writes) are representative of the entire nation, its ecosystems, biodiversity and historical experience. Ever since 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred the American battlefields to the NPS, the National Parks preserve our nation’s most important natural and cultural places. Since then, the NPS has grown to include hallowed ground of the civil rights movement, of women’s suffrage and right to vote, of westward expansion, and the prison camps that held Japanese Americans during World War II.

It is because the NPS tells these stories with authenticity and preserves places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite that it is the envy of nations around the world and the destination of over 300 million visitors per year. When I served as the 18th director under President Barack Obama, I recognized there were still many untold stories: the Buffalo Soldiers’ early stewardship of the national parks, Harriet Tubman’s heroic escapes from slavery, the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement at Stonewall, Cesar Chavez’s protest for the rights of farm workers. By adding these parks to the national park system, we broaden and deepen the narrative, creating new constituents for preservation and conservation of the entire national park system and our public lands. Those who suggest we cannot afford these important parks and call for them to be closed (or “mothballed” as Lusk suggests) fall into the category of Oscar Wilde’s “those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. We witnessed what happens when national parks are left unattended during the 2018-19 shutdown, when Joshua Tree and other parks suffered damage that none of us will see repaired during our lifetimes.

According to a recent survey by Pew Research, 86% of Americans, of all political persuasions, have a favorable view of the National Park Service. In addition, the book Valuing U.S. National Parks and Programs: America’s Best Investment by Harvard economist Linda Bilmes and Colorado State University Professor John Loomis, determined the NPS contributes over $100 billion to our nation’s economy, and found the American public would support a significant increase to their taxes to support the national parks.

Lusk asks “what is the alternative” to closing parks? The average American taxpayer now gives less than one-tenth of one cent to support the national parks. With bipartisan public support for the national parks and their economic impact as justification, Congress, who holds the purse-strings of appropriation, could easily increase the funding for the national parks. With two-tenths of one cent per person, we could double the National Park Service’s budget and give it funding more equal to its contribution to our nation’s pride, history, natural resource conservation, recreation, and economy. It’s—literally—a small price to pay.

Jonathan Jarvis served in the National Park Service for 40 years, as ranger, biologist, superintendent and as the 18 Director from 2009-2017. His most recent book is The Future of Conservation in America: A Chart for Rough Water

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