One of the craziest aspects of the government shutdown has been the response of rabid conservatives to the closing of national parks and monuments. All I see in the social media from conservatives is “they’re spending more keeping people out than they would just keeping the place open.”
I wonder if these people have any idea what it costs to keep a national park open. Sure, when you read stories like this one, it all seems rather silly. A runner gets a $100 ticket for running through a national park. Won’t it cost more for the government to administer the fine — and the runner’s protests — than it would to keep the park open? After all, the runner claimed he saw “many other runners and bikers” in the park. If they didn’t all get tickets, and didn’t destroy the park, then what’s the harm?
Well, the Department of the Interior, which runs the Park Service, furloughed 81 percent of its employees. So clearly it doesn’t cost more to close the parks than keep them open. I suspect this is because most people are in fact staying out of the sites instead of challenging the Park Service to enforce the closures.
But maybe you could actually run the parks with less people! Couldn’t this be a win-win?
I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. I wonder how many of the people complaining about the closed parks and monuments have even been to one lately. I was at the Grand Canyon with my daughter last spring, during the off-season, and experienced a 20-minute wait to talk to a ranger about a route for a hike. Tourists were complaining loudly, trying to cut in line, grousing about the wait. The campgrounds at the bottom of the canyon were completely full, booked up for months in advance. We couldn’t camp, so my daughter and I decided to hike to the bottom and back in the same day.
We didn’t see a ranger once on our hike. We might have been able to sneak by and camp outside of the marked campground, but we didn’t, for fear we would be caught and fined. What would happen if hundreds, thousands of others decided they were above the law, and the park was “open” with a fifth of its normal staff? How long would vistas such as this one be unstained by six-packs dumped off cliffs and improvised campsites as far as the eye could see?
I’ve had similar experiences at parks all across America, from the Smokeys, where finding a place to bury human waste near a campsite is often like walking in a minefield, to King’s Canyon, where you need only walk a few feet off the trail to see the trash previous hikers have left behind. If this is how well the fully-staffed Park Service can maintain the parks, imagine what they would look like with 20 percent of that number. Right now the Park Service operates on 1/15 of a percent (PDF link) of the Federal budget. Are we really so strapped for cash that we think our national treasures deserve barely more than 1/100 of a percent?
I’d say the Park Service has done remarkably well with that 1/15 of a percent, helping to maintain hundreds of sites and monuments that surely would have been destroyed years ago if not for their efforts. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it would be “cheaper just to keep them open.” Not if we value these remarkable places and monuments. Not if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to see them the way we could, just a few weeks ago, the way we hope to again soon.