The shutdown of our national government, driven by an extremist minority in the U.S. Congress, is economically reckless and, ultimately, politically self-defeating.
For those of us who love our public open spaces, it is especially maddening to watch the more than 400 areas in the National Park System held hostage. Equally shocking was seeing a hearing last week by a committee of the House of Representative on a bill that would force a fire sale of 3.3 million acres of our public lands. All of this is, as journalist Bill Moyers says, an act of sabotage of our democracy.
News outlets and the blogosphere have been overflowing with stories about people being shut out of the parks. It is important to not simply rail against those who protect our sacred landscapes and historic treasures on our behalf. It is unfair and counterproductive to blame National Park employees for the shutdown.
Our park rangers are in the no-win position of having to do the opposite of what comes naturally. Instead of inviting visitors into the parks, they are required to ask them to leave. We need to accept that it is not their fault. They are doing their best to defend the natural and cultural values of our parks and to ensure public safety.
Ironically perhaps, the shutdown showdown reminds us of the importance of our national parks. They are an essential part of the American experience that we should not take for granted. Close to 300 million visitors seek out our national parks each year for good reason. These areas are our birthright, part of our national heritage.
The shutdown has also reminded us of the economic value of our parks. Visitors spend $13 billion a year in local regions around national parks in the U.S. In the Acadia region of Maine, visitor spending injects $186 million per year into the private sector economy. This time of year, Acadia National Park normally has a positive economic impact of more than $1.2 million a day. Across the country, local businesses are losing $76 million every day because partisan fundamentalists are determined to try to prove an ideological point.
For all those who just want to take in the world-class vista from the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, the park closure is especially disheartening. I often go there to get a birds-eye view of the sun rising above the watery curve of the planet to find assurance that another splendid day is dawning on the shores of this spectacular land.
Quietly sharing those eternal moments with strangers, I listen. The air is full of exotic languages and the song of accents from other regions in my own state and country. I have met people in Acadia National Park from as close as Bar Harbor and as far as the opposite side of the world. All have one thing in common. They have come to see for themselves the heart-lifting scenery of Maine’s rocky coast and to marvel that they can go to a park that is for everyone to share.
I have been to scores of national parks in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Europe and Asia. The natural and human histories of every one is different, but in each I have had a mind-opening experience.
Yet, I always come back to Acadia. It is the iconic park of my home state, one of the first national parks I ever experienced. It is where, as a teenager lying in my family’s blue canvass tent in Blackwoods Campground, I listened on a transistor radio as human beings first set foot on the moon. It is where I have hiked, biked and observed the miracle of porcupines waddling, eagles soaring, and anemones blossoming. It is where I have met important people, some of them famous figures on the international stage, some of them ordinary souls who were anything but ordinary.
Maine’s remarkable landscapes have inspired generations. More than a century-and-a-half ago, it was his travels here that inspired Henry David Thoreau to be the first to write about creating grand national preserves in the eastern U.S. By the early 1900s, we had established many national parks.
James Brice, the British Ambassador to the United States, famously pointed out in 1912 that “Your National Parks are the best idea America ever had.” Later, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan proved the claim in their 2009 documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
Those who think shutting down “America’s Best Idea” will help win support for their crusade to destroy government have underestimated the respect Americans have for the National Park Service and their powerful affection for our most cherished landscapes and cultural sites.
Jym St. Pierre is Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods.