FILE – In this Aug. 3, 2016, file photo, a large bison blocks traffic as tourists take photos of the … [+]
We have a quiz question. Name one issue on which Republicans and Democrats can agree, where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has joined hands with environmental organizations, and that is supported by six former interior secretaries from both parties.
The answer: funding national parks.
Early this week, the U.S. Senate voted 80-17 to start deliberating on the Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422). This bill, with 44 Democratic and 15 Republican sponsors, has two major objectives. First, to create a permanent $900 million annual funding stream (from offshore oil and gas revenues) for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports local, state, and federal lands. Second, to fund the $20 billion maintenance backlog at national parks, other federal lands, and the Bureau of Indian Education.
The “National Park” Labels Matters
Why this political support for the outdoors? It’s about jobs and the economy. The outdoor recreation industry supports more than 5 million jobs and contributes to $778 billion in consumer spending.
National parks in particular are the crown jewels of the outdoor industry. One might think that any beautiful mountain, lake, or canyon would attract visitors. It does, but labeling it as a national park adds a seal of recognition to its beauty. One study reports that getting the national park label increases the number of visitors by 21% within five years. Maybe Google searches channel potential visitors to national parks. Or maybe social media “likes” increase when the selfies are in taken in a national park. Whatever be the mechanism, politicians across party lines work hard to secure the national park designation for federal properties in their states.
Take the case of West Virginia. Both its senators, Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Joe Manchin (D), have introduced a bill to designate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Capito noted: “Redesignating the National River to a National Park and Preserve will shine a new, brighter light on the New River Gorge and its many offerings, including hunting and fishing, to help drive tourism and spur the local and regional economy.”
With bipartisan Congressional support, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Monument was recently designated as Indiana Dunes National Park. Its visitor center recorded a record high of 131,662 visitors in the first eight months of 2019. Cathy Martin, program manager of Save the Dunes, notes, “I think that name change has sparked a desire to learn more.” Similarly, Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz said that “This crush of visitors is clearly an indication that the public responds to that national park name.”
New Mexico got another national park when the White Sands National Monument was upgraded to the status of a national park. Arizona is trying not to be left behind. Senator Martha MacSally (R-Ariz) has introduced a bill that would designate the Chiricahua National Monument as Chiricahua National Park.
Reducing Inequity in Access to the Outdoors
National parks are enormously popular. In 2019, national parks saw 327 million visitors, with 21 national parks getting more than 5 million visitors each. However, these numbers hide tremendous disparities in access to national parks. The reasons are both cultural and economic. In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney shows how the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have “shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors” and determined who can and should have access to natural spaces.
The national park system has a problematic legacy. The reason is that many national parks are located in the traditional lands of Native American Nations and Tribes, and they were established by evicting indigenous communities. Famous conservationists who were at the forefront of the national park movement, including Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, had problematic views on race. The toxic legacy of the conservation movement has created the impression that national parks are meant for some groups, but not others.
National parks are often located far away from major population centers. When race and class overlap, as they often do, cost considerations make national parks out of reach for many. This is why, in addition to supporting national parks, business and environmental groups should advocate expanding state, county, and regional parks.
Let us focus on state parks. There are 8,565 state parks as opposed to 419 national parks. All states have state parks, but only 29 states have national parks. In 2018, state parks attracted over 800 million visitors, more than 2.5 times national parks’ visitors. Thus, while state parks might not have the grandeur and prestige of national parks, they are more accessible, especially to the underprivileged. To some level, they correct the inequity in access to the outdoors.
During his visit to Glacier National Park in 1934, FDR noted: “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” Without doubt, national parks should be celebrated and protected for future generations. But we should recognize that not everybody has the resources to enjoy them. State parks, in contrast, provide more equitable opportunities for outdoor recreation. This is the path to greater environmental equity and inclusion.