Wednesday, October 16, 2013

National Bargaining Chips

One of the notions that is drilled into the head of every American practically from birth is that the United States, of all the countries on Planet Earth, is uniquely “exceptional”.

This is such as a firmly anchored article of faith that to question it in the least is to risk almost branding yourself as anti-American.

During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, (I forget which one, since he won twice), one of the many accusations that his opponents hurled at him was that he didn’t believe in “American exceptionalism”. This is a serious charge.

American exceptionalism ranks right up there with a belief in God when it comes to the standard litany of heart-felt convictions that all American politicians must profess, loudly and often, if they hope to attain any office higher than that of dogcatcher.

As you might guess, I don’t completely buy into American exceptionalism, at least in the sense that many conservatives like to think of it. But I do agree that the US is exceptional in other ways that Americans should be proud of. One is its multicultural society. Another is its National Park System.

Now, the fact that the US is blessed with an unusual abundance of natural spots of amazing scenic beauty is something no national leader can take credit for. It’s just a lucky feature of the North American landscape.

Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were spectacular long before any forefather, who might have been inclined to bring forth a new nation on any continent, ever set foot in the New World. And these places will remain spectacular long after the last vestige of the “United States” has faded away.

It’s not just that the US has an outstanding wealth of natural wonders, or even that it’s the only country so blessed (I’m thinking of places like Switzerland and New Zealand here). What really makes America exceptional is how, thanks to visionary men like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, the nation decided to protect these wonders, making open to the public immense swaths of the best scenery America has to offer.

I’m grateful and proud that the US has a National Park System that, in many ways, has set the gold standard for safekeeping natural treasures.

Growing up in North Georgia as I did, a natural treasure that we often gravitated to was the chunk of wilderness that makes up the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a teenager, my buddies and I spent many days exploring some of the more remote corners of the Smokies on extended hiking trips that I still remember fondly.

Over the years, National Parks have often played a big part of our family vacations from Finland. We’ve taken our kids to various parks whenever we’ve traveled somewhere in the States. This past summer, we briefly visited Mojave National Preserve in California, Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona (my third time there).

We are not unique in that regard. Every year, there are some 280 million visits to some part of the National Park System, and this out of a nation of 314 million Americans, plus of course foreign tourists who flock to sites as varied, and iconic, as the Grand Tetons and the Statue of Liberty.

It’s little wonder then that, for many average Americans, the national parks are a very visible and familiar part of the federal government, the federal government that many of those same average Americans seem to otherwise detest and think they could live much better without.

On the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, 2013.
When the federal government partially shut down on October 1st, thanks to some unwise negotiating tactics by Tea Party Republicans, one of the most immediate and visible impacts was the closing of all national parks, sadly bringing places set aside for nature and recreation to the front and center of a nasty political debate.

Some conservative pundits and politicians, openly giddy over the prospect of a federal shutdown, tried their best to downplay any negative fallout from the sudden disappearance of most government services (98 percent of NASA, for example). “What? The sky didn’t fall?”

But, the closing of the parks hit a nerve and has the real potential of reminding voters that there’s one part of the national government that they actually appreciate.

You would think that the disruption, or even ruin, of family vacations by the closure of parks would be enough to spark a backlash against those Republican politicians who, out of pique, so cavalierly caused this mess.

And maybe in some ways that’s the case. But in the eyes of some people, it has also somehow made the Park Service out to be the bad guy, the face of an arrogant and manipulative government.

Media images of WWII veterans being denied access to war memorials in Washington has been exploited by conservatives to fuel criticism of the Park Service and led to civil disobedience by conservative on the Mall this past weekend, presided over by the oh-so-ardent Tea Party celebrity Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the shadow leader of the GOP.

The closure of open-air monuments that don’t require entrance fees seems a bit over the top, even to me. It would be like the Finnish government putting barricades around the Sibelius monument (standing alone in a city park) due to austerity measures. Unless there are some arcade legal reasons behind such closures of open spaces that I’m not aware of, it doesn’t really make sense and plays into the hands of Republicans who are all too happy for any excuse to vilify Washington.

Despite the opportunities for schmaltzy photo ops within walking distance of the Capitol, the Republicans soon realized how closing popular parks can come back to bite them. Early into the shutdown, the GOP-dominated House scrabbled to partly backpedal by passing resolutions to fund only the Park Service (along with a few other shiny objects that gained media attention, like cancer treatment trials for children).

Magnificent view of Yosemite Valley.
Photo by Eeek.
The Senate wisely didn’t go along with the piece-meal approach to governing, so the parks remained closed.

Except, not entirely. Some parks have now reopened after five states, desperate to stem the loss of tourist dollars, agreed to provide the money to keep marquee parks operating. Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, has agreed to fork over state money, to the tune of $93,000 a day, to keep part of the Grand Canyon National Park open for a week. Utah is transferring $1.67 million to the US Treasury to reopen five parks in that state for ten days.

What is interesting is that these states, bastions of the Republican Party, are two of the 28 or so that typically receive more money from the national government than they pay in federal taxes. Or, to put it in the parlance of Ayn Rand, these are “moocher states”.

I hope that having to pay out of their own pocket for services normally funded by the taxpayers of more liberal states like California and New York provides an object lesson to the good people of Arizona:  sometimes it’s beneficial to be part of a larger union of diverse states.

I dearly hope Arizona and Utah are not reimbursed, so as to drive that lesson home.

However, some people may be taking away a different lesson. I’ve seen some Internet chatter from folks who, miffed at how shutting down the hated federal government has also shut down beloved parks, have jumped to the conclusion that maybe it’s time to devolve the national parks to the individual states and let them run places like Yosemite and Yellowstone.

On National Public Radio recently there was even someone from the libertarian Cato Institute suggesting that the national parks, to me a true treasure of public heritage, should all be privatized.

I hope all Americans would agree that this would be a bad idea, an exceptionally bad idea. 


  1. The closing of our National Parks has meant almost nothing to the dim-witted creeps who people the RepubliKKKan Party base. I have seen many, many comments to the effect that the National Parks "should be privatized". This is the level of idiocy of the people who vote RepubliKKKan.

    The people who are upset now over what has been done by the RepubliKKKan filth are either already dead-set against those creeps, or folk who will have conveniently forgotten what those monsters did to us when it comes time to vote in another year.

    Under Nazi-Newt Gingrich, the RepubliKKKans shut down our National Parks during the Clinton administration. I still recall why they did it. Their argument was that they had to hold our President's "feet to the fire". Torture analogy aimed at a Democratic President. Typical of these hideous creatures.

    The thing is, by the time elections rolled around after the RepubliKKKans had shuttered our National Parks for a while, they did lose a few seats to Democrats, but were still in solid control of the House. Nothing much really changed.

    My guess is that the same thing will happen again.

    The USA is one of the least exceptional nations on Earth when you discount the natural beauty of our country. It is probably THE most violent nation on the planet and is, in almost all ways socially, exceptional only in a negative way.

    1. Great, you clearly know as much about American politics as you do about Finland.