It was supposed to be a fall wedding in the heart of Yosemite National Park’s beautiful, famed valley. That was my son and his bride’s plan, until the government shut down the park on October 1, 2013, five days before the ceremony was to take place on October 5.
The closing of our national parks may not have had such an immediate and palpable, personal effect on you as it has on me; but as a fellow American, losing access to our national parks has certainly touched you. National parklands belong to us—we, the people—a notion Ken Burns reminded us of in his PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea: “The national parks embody a radical idea, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, born in the United States nearly a century after its creation. It is a truly democratic idea, that the magnificent natural wonders of the land should be available not to a privileged few, but to everyone.”
I admit that I considered moving the barricades that blocked entrance to Yosemite Valley when I was there two weekends ago. At that time, little did I realize that on that same day, about a dozen people in Zion National Park had that exact thought.
Losing much-needed funds
On October 5, several people climbed over the gates at Zion National Park. According to Outside Magazine, people at two other national parks did similar acts. Natural Habitat Adventures’ founder and president Ben Bressler recently stated, “The closure of America’s national parks is incredibly disappointing. These wild areas are the people’s land, entrusted to the government to act as stewards for the animals, the environs and all the people who depend on these lands for their livelihoods.”
In fact, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees have put numbers on the lost “livelihoods” that Ben speaks of; based on October 2012 government park attendance data and an analysis of economic impacts by Headwaters Economics, these figures are:
Lost visitors: 715,000 a day
Lost spending: $76 million a day
Lost revenue to the federal government, in the form of entrance fees and rentals: $450,000 a day
And with the national park shutdown now a day past its second week, we can multiply those numbers by 15.
Among the parks that have felt the biggest impacts in the first 10 days are:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee): 257,534 lost visitors and $23.1 million lost visitor dollars.
Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): 120,000 lost visitors and $11.8 million lost visitor dollars.
Yosemite National Park (California): 106,849 lost visitors and $10 million lost visitor dollars.
Reminding us how much we love our parks
Some would say that I did the right thing by not moving those Yosemite barricades; that we Americans stand to lose even more by visiting without permission, and that we should limit our peaceful protests to Washington, D.C. Going into the parks without having most of the rangers back to work would only enable looting, poaching and vandalism. And with so few rangers on duty, search-and-rescue operations for hikers who become lost, injured or ill in the backcountry are now almost impossible.
Recently, some national parks have decided to open on state funds. But it’s not known whether our national parks will ever be able to recover from this shutdown. After a steady decline in federal funding (20 percent over the last decade), intensified by this year’s budget sequestration’s additional 5 percent cuts, our parks are strapped. The National Park Service’s maintenance and repair backlog is in the billions of dollars. This year, several parks have been forced to cut services, such as many of their popular ranger programs. And every day that our parks our closed, ground is lost on protecting the extraordinary natural and cultural assets housed within them. If there is any silver lining to denying us access, it is that we once again realize how important our national parks are. We Americans love our national parks, whether we have immediate plans to visit them or not.
As for our family wedding, it went off anyway. It took place in a lovely mountain meadow in the High Sierras, near the Yosemite National Park border.
How has the closing of our national parks affected you? Regardless of your political leanings, how have you responded? Is it better to physically “storm the gates,” or send a written message to Congress?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,