For the longest time, National Parks have generally been apolitical places; land that was always praised and whose expansion was widely supported. Beginning in 1872 with the Yellowstone National Park Act but really taking off in 1906 with the Antiquities Act, National Parks in the United States have seen repeated expansion over the century and a half that they have existed. This is not to say that everything has been perfect. Decades of federal neglect have amounted to $20 billion in deferred maintenance. Roads, buildings, trails, and campgrounds are all in need of repair. However, that has certainly not kept the government from expanding the parks. They are an American icon, considered by writer and historian Wallace Stegner “the best idea we ever had.”
In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the parks are also something important to consider. As urban recreation like bars, clubs and restaurants are required to close for public safety, many Americans have turned to the great outdoors for something to occupy their time that does not involve large group gatherings. Biking, hiking, long walks, and picnics have become the replacements for clubbing, intimate bistros, and cramped theatres and cinemas. As the weather cools in most of the country and citizens start to move indoors for a winter with an expected surge in infections and an uncertain political response to the crisis, a last outdoor excursion is in order. Especially in a year where vacations and travel have been severely restricted, a visit to the parks with those in your isolation pod (family, roommates, etc) is a great way to get out of the house, breathe fresh air, and see some natural wonders. And remind the federal government that the parks are a treasured resource.
For some time, lobbyists and politicians have pushed the idea that the parks should be shrunk or that private energy companies should be given leases to drill for oil and gas or to mine for minerals. These efforts and other anti-conservation efforts have gained major steam under the Trump Administration. Most iconic among them are the reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Parks (created by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively) in order to make space for mining of coal and uranium deposits. Beyond that, the administration has rolled back protections for wildlife in parks, pushed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to offshore oil drilling, and scaled back the resources and abilities of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior through hiring freezes, budget cuts, and the inclusion of private sector executives in advisory positions.
Oddly enough, despite his blatant disdain for environmental regulations and organizations as well as explicit moves to weaken the parks, the President has signed two major bills into law, expanding and improving National Parks.
In March of 2019, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act was signed into law, expanding some existing parks, creating new national monuments , adding 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, removing 370,000 acres from mineral development and permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (which had expired in 2018). The LWCF was created in 1964 and is one of the most popular and effective programs created by Congress. Ironically, the fund uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation and recreation projects nationwide.
Recently, in August of 2020, weeks before the Presidential election, the President signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law, providing $9.5 billion over the next five years to reduce the $20 billion in deferred maintenance at parks across the nation as well as guaranteeing $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund in perpetuity. This is important because, while that has been the expected level of funding since the Carter Administration, successive governments have redirected many of those funds to other projects, hampering the funds ability to serve its purpose.
At first glance, one might look at these actions and believe that the President is not nearly as opposed to conservation or environmental protection as described but careful examination speaks otherwise. Over the course of his term, the President has been regularly nudged, pushed, and, sometimes, begged by fellow republicans, his own advisors, and his family to sign certain legislation for the sake of helping the party or avoiding unnecessary political battles. National Parks are so universally cherished that expanding them is a feather in the cap of any legislator. Both large bills were passed with nearly unanimous support from both parties in both chambers of congress. In the case of the Great American Outdoors Act, the bill was majorly supported by Republican Senators in tight re-election campaigns, likely hoping to score an easy win during election season. This is further highlighted by the fact that no Democrats, some of whom were major architects of the bill, were invited to the signing ceremony.
These gems have always been iconic parts of the United States but may become another in a series of political bargaining chips in our more fraught government. Since the current President’s position on National Parks seems to be that they are liabilities until Republicans need them as assets, one of the most important things that American Citizens can do is to vote with their wallets and bodies by making trips to the parks to increase attendance rates and demonstrate the value they provide to the country.
Also, go vote!