Photograph by Carolyn Kaster, AP
Published October 2, 2013
Yesterday, as the U.S. government shut down, all 401 of our national parks closed their gates. The campers and visitors inside were given two days to leave. It was no great surprise.
We had gone to sleep the night before knowing that time had run out; there would be no last-minute return to sanity in Congress, no daring White House maneuver that might avert the shutdown. The sequester of last March, with its closing of selected parks, national monuments, and historical sites, had given us a preview and some degree of preparation for bigger hits this time. Yet one word in my morning paper stopped me in mid-paragraph and made me bristle: "nonessential."
Of all federal endeavors deemed nonessential by the government, I learned, the national parks are at the top of the list. Really? I found myself questioning priorities. Many of the choices made in the present crisis do make some sense: The military will not be furloughed, nor will Social Security workers or air traffic controllers. Some of the shutdowns are even to be celebrated, if you happen to share my values: No new oil or gas leases will be contracted on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and IRS offices are closing here and there around the country.
Photograph by Nati Harnik, AP
There are gray areas in between, of course. Just now, in writing this, I heard the postal van and walked down, as usual, to meet my mail carrier on the driveway. I was glad to see her unfurloughed and losing no pay. And yet. It was one of those junk-mail days, with not one piece of actual correspondence, not a single letter addressed to me. I walked the envelope of coupons from Valpak.com and the sales fliers from Lucky, Safeway, Subway, and ADT Home Security straight to the recycling bin. Was this sheaf of cheap print really more essential than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Acadia, and Glacier Bay?
"The best idea we've ever had," Wallace Stegner wrote of the park system. Ken Burns, in making his documentary on the national parks, recast the phrase as "America's Best Idea." Stegner, in his famous "Wilderness Letter," went on to make the best case for the wild terrain that is the quintessential core of many of our national parks and forests. "We simply need that wild country available to us," he concluded, "even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
The national parks hold the landscapes that formed us as Americans. The long vistas, the possibilities over the horizon, the purple mountains' majesty, distinguished our experience from that of the Africans, Europeans, Asians, and islanders that we were before we came. The national parks are where we go to renew contact with that experience. Can there be a connection between the partisan hostility of the moment, the governmental paralysis, and our loss of contact with those roots? Is it possible we were not meant to live like canned sardines?
It was in wilderness that we became Homo sapiens. Our evolution was not in the Information Age, or the Space Age, or the Atomic, or the Industrial. It came long before the invention of agriculture or fire. We evolved as hunter-gatherers in the wild landscape of Mother Africa. It is in wilderness that we meet ourselves face to face.
It is easy to take for granted what a remarkable creation the national parks are, and what a great slice of Creation they contain. The National Park System spans 82° of latitude, from Gates of the Arctic National Park at 70° N, to American Samoa National Park at 12° S. It spans 90° of longitude, from Katmai National Park on the Gulf of Alaska (and American Samoa National Park 7,500 miles south on the same meridian) to Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. The highest point in North America is the summit of Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet in Denali National Park. The lowest is Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley National Park. The coldest is Mount McKinley, where in 2003 the wind chill reached minus 118.1 degrees Fahrenheit (47.8 degrees Celsius), a North American record. The hottest is Death Valley, where at Furnace Creek, on July 10, 1913, the temperature reached 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.6 degrees Celsius). Death Valley, no surprise, also scores as the driest, with just 1.8 inches (45.7 millimeters) of annual rainfall.
The tallest tree on Earth, the coastal redwood Sequoia sempervirens, grows in Redwood National Park in California. The biggest, the redwood's inland cousin, the giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum—the most massive organism ever to live—grows in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks. The longest cave system on Earth lies in, or under, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. The deepest lake in the United States, at 1,943 feet (592 meters), fills the caldera of Crater Lake National Park. The tallest dunes in North America, 750 feet (228.6 meters) from base to crest, march across Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
The National Park System, expansive in space, also spans great gulfs of time. A mile deep in Grand Canyon National Park, in the inner gorge of the Colorado, the river has cut into a basement layer of rock 1.75 billion years old. A river-runner floats by walls of metavolcanic Brahma Schist laid down when the highest form of life on Earth was blue-green algae.
In Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, the rock is brand-new. Kilauea Volcano, in the middle of the park, has been in continuous eruption for the past 30 years. Shield your face against the heat of one of Kilauea's molten streams, dip the point of your geological hammer in, and you will come away with a glowing gob of lava at the tip. In seconds the glow fades. The gob blackens. In a minute it is cool enough to touch. Newborn basalt.
The last of the tallgrass prairie, which once covered 140 million acres of North America, is preserved at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. The largest stands of saguaro cactus are protected at Organ Pipe National Monument and Saguaro National Park. The last wild bison herds roam Yellowstone, Theodore Roosevelt, and Badlands National Parks. Florida panthers, the last cougars in the eastern United States, take refuge in Everglades National Park and two nearby reserves. Big Bend National Park in Texas, Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Noatak Natural Preserve in Alaska preserve the beauty and integrity of the nation's finest stream courses.
Manassas National Battlefield Park, Gettysburg National Park, Little Bighorn National Monument, and dozens of National Historical Sites (Jamestown, Andrew Johnson, Fort Bowie, Harpers Ferry, John Muir, Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., Brown vs. Board of Education) preserve American history.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (from the Archaic period of Pueblo civilization), Chaco Culture Natural Historical Park (from the Pueblo II period), Mesa Verde National Park (Pueblo III), and Pecos Natural History Park (Pueblo IV), preserve American prehistory, as do Petroglyph, Aztec Ruins, Montezumas Castle, Bandelier, Wupatki, Walnut Camp, Navajo, Hovenweep, and assorted other national monuments.
Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, with its fossils of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus, along with Badlands National Park in South Dakota, with its fossils of rhinos, horses, and saber-toothed cats, and Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, with its fossil cycads, extinct conifers, phytosaurs, and crocodylomorphs, all preserve American pre-prehistory, the paleontological record of our land.
The National Park System is, in so many ways, the measure of our place and of ourselves. If anything good comes of the shutdown, it may be that it gives us the opportunity to see how we like it without our parks, and to see what they mean to us.
This government is DRUNK on its own power!!! The only reason Obama is shutting down the parks is because we the people should NOT ever defy this administration.Obama wants to hit you where it would hurt the most. Lets not forget the amount of money we are paying to close the parks, they had to pay for the signs, the barricades, pay for ARMED police to make sure you can’t go to an open air federal parks. A bunch of these parks/lands are MONEY MAKERS. The parks don’t belong to the government, they belong to the people!!!!
Does the designation of 'essential' or 'nonessential' in political terms change the ecological make-up or functions of sites such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier Bay? For what function are we valuing these sites - their value to us as humans, or their value the the Earth as a whole? Our lack of control over these sites for a week or so won't damage these systems if they are in a 'natural' state where they can function on their own. Perhaps we should realize that 'national parks' aren't what the general population believes them to be. They are highly curated and modified landscapes that bear the effects of humans. There are no places left on Earth not effected by humans - we must be careful in what we deem 'wilderness'. Perhaps we should not hold on to landscapes and try to preserve them to retain the character they bore hundreds and hundred of years ago, and just let them be and change. Just something to consider.
I feel the government is dumb for shutting down the parks, because each day 100s of people come to see them & those people PAY to visit, now they're losing more than the employees daily wages by having them shut down! Good job on losing daily money that we'll probably end up making up for in taxes & gas prices!
At least the air quality will improve in the crowded parks, temporarily. Nothing wrong with wilderness existing on its own terms without people to validate it.
P.S. A good way to cut the Federal budget and preserve scenic places is to remove all tax incentives for colossal wind turbine projects.
ils finiront bien par les rouvrir, obligé ; mais ceux qui vont pâtir de cette clôture ce sont les touriste qui prévoyaient de faire les parcs lors de leur bref passage aux états unis, eux devront reprogrammer un autre séjour " double coût" . mon rêve est de voir le Yellowstone : ouf heureusement que je n'ai pas encore acheter le billet !!! ;)
Creating unhappy people (by making them cut off from facilities-such as described-for obvious concerns) does really help their glory at the end? That also should include animal kingdom.
Have a great day!
My first reaction to the government shutdown of the parks is that they don't belong to the government. Who is the government to deny us access? The lakes, the forests, the canyons -- they belong to the people -- not to whatever political administration is in power.
In some cases during this shutdown, the government has shut down parks it doesn't even run, open air exhibits on sidewalks that anyone can visit at any (other) time, and terrain they haven't even fully explored, let alone overtly controlled. It's like the sequester -- the President's many vacations cost much more than keeping the pools open for military families or a few White House tours -- back then it was not about saving money, but about making the sequester hurt the American people as much as possible.
By the same token, shutting down the parks used more manpower in many cases than it took to keep them open. The point here too is not about saving money but making it hurt the American people as much as possible. A lot of the government agencies that closed are so full of pork that we probably wouldn't have missed them -- so Obama has to take extraordinary measures and find ways to attack us in order to get us riled up about the shutdown. And that's when he can start pointing fingers like he always does when there's a problem in Washington......it's always somebody else's fault, right?
non-essential I really doubt it is a good idea to be calling the national park systems non-essential You know what would have happened to the thousands of rare animals the forests would have been chopped down by one logging company or another and not to mention the amount of astounding beauty that would be completely destroyed in the process of digging or mining for coal or oil and if a petty democrat and republican argument can even leave this as an option for paying off our debt we might as well authorize the hunting of thousands of endangered or even not yet discovered animals then someone must pay!
non-essental, I think the idea that "How we treat the disadvantaged, poor and older people is the mark of our society, it's how we will be judged" what should also be added is how we value the world, our world around us!
Having had worked for the National Park Service, as a Seasonal Ranger, I have no doubt that the Park employees are quite used to being jerked around by their employer.
That our national park system is deemed “non-essential” by any entity, is frightening – and a sad commentary on what we DON'T value in this country.
It shouldn't be the federal government who operates or maintains these parks. This should be done only through local or state government & that's if it's monitarily feasible.
Thank you for this insightful article. I'll add that politics has played a not always positive role.. The national parks are emblematic of our commons, the spaces that belong to all of us, but the corporate mantra of globalize, privatize, and deregulate needs to be countered by a commitment to localize, regulate, and reclaim the commons. We also have a huge disccnnect with the natural world, and a growing tendency to value what's built or manufactured over what has evolved or is growing. I have the highest regard for the National Park Service and its strong commitment to preserve our natural heritage.
America's best idea wasn't its parks..it was the establishment of a democratic republic that provided the framework for an enduring private economic system that could provide the economic gains that would allow the formation of a park system.
So let me understand this... We are paying guards to keep US citizens from walking through our national monument grounds, national parks, and forests while the government is shut down... how absolutely stupid!!!
The Last Battle of America's World War II Vets
If you get a chance to visit the World War II Memorial someday, do so. I'll bet many of you have already. If you have, you'll probably recall . . . it has no walls. It has no "inside." It's a collection of columns and fountains.
So it's rather hard to "close." But the National Park Service tried anyway.
On Tuesday, when veterans came to the World War II Memorial only to discover it had been barricaded because of the shutdown, they moved the blockade, then continued on to pay their respects.
But the memorial is a federal site in a public space. According to the National World War II Memorial website, "The memorial is operated by the National Park Service and is open to visitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Why was there a need for barricades in the first place?
"Park Service did not want to barricade these, but unfortunately we have been directed, because of the lack of appropriations, to close all facilities and grounds," said National Mall and Memorial parks spokeswoman Carol Johnson.
"I know that this is an open-air memorial, but we have people on staff who are CPR trained, (and) we want to make sure that we have maintenance crew to take care of any problems. What we're trying to do is protect this resource for future generations," said Johnson.
Before we go any further, let us note once again how contrived it is to shut down entryways to a wide open space out in the middle of a park.
This is not a building, like a museum, that has doors and staffers and guides. This is [bleeping] scenery.
And yet the erected artificial barriers to block people from walking through outdoor scenery.
Voila! Now we can pretend a memorial standing unsupervised out in the open is a "National Park" or "Open Air Museum" and close it to pedestrian traffic (and people can in fact just walk through this thing in their normal transversing of the city).
Now, that out of the way: They then took the next step.
When they were informed that the Honor Flight was on the way, and that they should make one exception for the veterans of WWII and open up the artificial barriers they had erected to make a political point, they refused. The White House and the Department of the Interior rejected a request from Rep. Steven Palazzo’s office to have World War II veterans visit the World War II memorial in Washington.
"It just goes to show you why we won World War II," says Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio President Lee Armstrong.
Many elderly veterans, some in wheelchairs, broke through the barriers set up around the memorial, as police, park service employees, and tourists looked on.
"The Germans and the Japanese couldn't contain us. They weren't going to let barriers contain them today. They wanted to see their memorial," says Armstrong.
Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio has a trip scheduled to depart from Toledo next Wednesday, October 9.
"We will make the call this Friday to determine if the flight is still a go, or if we will have to re-schedule," Armstrong explains.
He says they are considering going ahead with the trip even if the government is still on shutdown, but when he called the parks service, he was told they would face arrest.
Armstrong says, "I said, are you kidding me? You're going to arrest a 90/91-year-old veteran from seeing his memorial? If it wasn't for them it wouldn't be there. She said, 'That's correct sir.'"
When he asked for her name, he says she did not give it to him and then promptly hung up the phone.
99% of veterans on Honor Flights have never had the opportunity to see the memorial that is devoted to their service.
Through October, there are over 35,000 veterans scheduled to visit the site, more than 900 in the next five days alone.
The Postal Service runs on its own budget, funded by mailing fees. Because of that, it is not affected by the shutdown.
@Shannon Stanhope Waldrop Sounds like you want to loosen Federal environmental regulations and turn some parks into mining or drilling areas. Just a wild guess. Some people have no sense of aesthetic values. Every last thing has to have a price tag on it.
The parks are on federal lands and are open to everyone who visits them, from anyone in America and visitors from all over the world.
There's no way that local/state governments could run the parks as well as the federal system.
@Marvin Blum Thank you for your comment - I agree.
The National Park System is not the bogeyman here. Even if the parks are closed, you still have to have security. What's to prevent some idiot from defacing a monument or starting a brushfire? If you want to point a finger, point a finger at those obsessives in the House who care more about their ideology than the health of the country.
Fortunately, the National Park Service and most veterans were more interested in finding a reasonable compromise than in making political points. And they were successful.
Fortunately, the National Park Service and most veterans were more interested in finding a reasonable compromise than in making political points. And they were successful.
@John C. , i had heard they were allowed to see the memorial. Which is true?
@Ted Dubin @Marvin Blum I agree also. However, unfortunately that democratic republic is fast becoming a thing of the past. It was developed in a much simpler time, before instant access to the constant media blitz we now have and our elected officials, once in office, spend their time campaigning for re-election rather than governing. Our president should be elected to serve ONE term of 8 years - no re-election - and the entire congressional election system should be revamped also perhaps with single but staggered terms so we wouldn't have a Congress of all newbies every eight years. Our current system has become an outmoded, frustrating mess.
@Ted Dubin @Marvin Blum I agree also. Unfortunately, that democratic republic is rapidly becoming a thing of the past because our elected officials main objective once in office is to start campaigning for the next election. Give the president (any president - I'm not saying yea or nay for the current one here) ONE only 8-year term, revamp and establish term limits for Congress and I think we would see more governing and less posturing.
@Pete Kurtz This comment reflects the effects of relying upon left wing media to tell you what to think. How about pointing a finger at the obsessives in the Senate and White House who are trying to turn this once great country into a socialist state, destroy the middle class, destroy the country fiscally with endless crushing debt and enslave as many Americans as possible with government handouts called entitlement programs? Both of the main political parties seek to destroy the Unites States from within, one trying to deprive us of our 1st and 2nd Amendment rights while the other tramples the 4th Amendment, and both the 10th, among others. I guess the liberal press forgot to mention that, huh?
Jeff Miller, the co-founder of the Honor Flight Network, applauded the National Park Service on Wednesday for accomodating veterans hoping to visit the World War II Memorial, which had been closed as a result of the government shutdown.
“The Park Service they have been so compassionate, they have done everything they could,” Miller said, as quoted by the Washington Post. He added that the service “bent over backwards” to ensure that veterans were not dealt any additional inconveniences.
On Tuesday, veterans affiliated with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight removed barriers at the Washington, D.C. memorial with the assistance of serveral congressmen. More veterans groups descended upon the memorial on Wednesday before the National Park Serviceannounced that the veterans would be granted access to the open-air site.
Tea party lawmakers like Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) joined the veterans at the memorial on Wednesday, something that Miller suggested was unnecessary.
“We don’t need representatives, senators anybody here,” Miller told the Post. "We will be allowed to move the gate if there’s no one here and our veterans [can] go in.”
Republicans have tried to score political points off the ordeal. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said Tuesday that the government had deployed "goons" to deny veterans access, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) issued a statement Wednesday blaming the Obama administration for the closure.
Obama opposed the shutdown, and is still calling for a clean CR, which would end the shutdown.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Three decades ago, the innovative physicist had a eureka moment that explained the universe.
Latest News Video
Fonio is a traditional West African grain that some believe could be the "new quinoa"; it could even replace wheat because of its drought-resistant and gluten-free qualities.