Monday, June 13, 2011

The Sound of One Shoe Dropping

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Sadly, as the New York Times reports, the catastrophe hitting California's State Park System is more of a nationwide phenomenon.

To sum it up, parks around the country have had few funds, and in the past few years, even these have dried up.  In California, we are looking at closing 70 parks, and probably radically altering fees.  Closing 70 parks.  This is unprecedented, and sad.

Think about this:  What do we have to remember about the 20th Century's massive economic meltdown?  Many things, of course, but just about the only physical representations are the "C's" park units - parks whose infrastructure was designed and built by the CCC, a Depression-era attempt to put young men to work.  These park buildings are often jewels of rough-hewn timber and stone trail steps, with a unique aesthetic, beautifully integrated into the rugged park scenery.  In their day, they were beacons of hope to aspiring American visitors, and good, honest work for young men.  

What will our legacy be for this economic downturn?  According to the NY Times, "Customers... is the new buzzword", the notion that parks are selling goods and services, competing with the likes of Six Flags, WalMart, Sierra Pacific Lumber and Chevron.  Gone is the notion that visiting our most treasured natural and historical spots is an American rite and right.  Gone is the notion of "visitors".  "Customers" is the new buzzword. 

A few years back, I stood up during a National Park Service-sponsored conference on visitor use and defended the idea of visitors using parks.  Amid concerns from park staff about a sizeable reduction in visitation to parks, a well-meaning professor had made the comment that fewer boots on the ground meant fewer impacts to the resource. 

My response:  If visitors aren't using it, if Americans and other tourists aren't there to enjoy what we are trying to protect, then they will no longer care, and others will use them - they will log them, dam them, mine them, and drill them.  They will get used, just not in the same way.  We have to encourage appropriate use, to build appreciation for and a desire to protect these amazing places, by encouraging appropriate access.

Today (from the Times):  "One of the most inventive efforts is in Ohio, where the Legislature is set to approve a bill that would allow drilling for oil and gas in the shale beneath some state parks. Lawmakers say parks would directly benefit from revenues."

As a Western American, I know our Right to Freely Move through Our Lands.  California is half-owned by the federal government, in the form of US Forest Service and BLM lands.  These lands have always been free (notwithstanding the Los Padres Nat'l. Forest fiasco), and it is as American as apple pie that they stay free to appropriate uses.  However, parks have usually had minimal fees - they require higher standards of protection and more intense management because they guard our most cherised natural and historical places.   But without funding from government, these places are pressured to increase fees to draconian levels, where they can, and pressured to close - or be opened up to extractive uses - where they cannot.  "Customers" is the new buzzword, as unAmerican as that is - limiting access to the history of how we became the freest society on Earth.

I am sure I've opined in previous posts about the sad affairs of California's State Park interpretive (educational) system - how I had to quit my best job as a park interpreter because we couldn't afford to live on a 3/4-time salary, how my park units saw one million people per year (1/3rd the visitation of Yosemite), but only had one 3/4 time interpretive position.

For a quick reminder, here is the Mission of the California State Park System: 
"To provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation."

Sadly, we are way past just underfunding the very mission of the park system.  We are actually closing parks.

We have met our recent economic downturn in a much different way than did our forebears some eighty years ago. 

I, for one, am ashamed.


Ingrid said...

Josh, I'm more than despondent over this course of events. I appreciate your post, and will continue at least supporting those groups (like the California Parks Foundation) who are working toward more sustainable solutions. I couldn't believe we California voters turned away the small car fee that could have resurrected our parks. The "no new taxes" meme was carried to the extreme in fighting that provision. Washington State, where I'm living right now, is striving for ways to keep their park system alive (car fees, increased visitor fees). I hope that the short-sightedness of exploiting parks for oil and gas is a transient thought that will be generally viewed as too dangerous a slippery slope to engage. I hope that recent muckraking pieces on the effects of fracking have some impact on these decisions. I don't have faith in that outcome, but I have hope.

Josh said...

It is a sad, sad day. I even greatly dislike fees for parks, due to their regressive nature and that, once parks are dependent upon them, they have to buckle to different influences. However, as is sadly the case in California, even when they aren't directly tied to park management (park fees go to the general fund), parks are still not immune to pressures.

The drilling bit is just crazy.

The "no new taxes" meme is a smokescreen. The real choice is whether or not we want to be a first world society.