‘America’s Best Idea’ in Jeopardy

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Pam Linn

How encouraging it was to read that President Obama is touring many of our national parks and talking about how climate change is affecting them. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, coming up in August, the president and his family visited Yosemite National Park, the first president to do so since JFK in1962.

The fourth-most visited park in the country is breathtakingly beautiful and has been celebrated by photographer Ansel Adams. One of the purposes of the trip, which included a stop at New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, was to encourage people to visit America’s many parks.

The protracted drought experienced throughout California has increased damage in Yosemite, drying out grasslands and shrinking its largest glacier. Climate change is also affecting bird migration patterns and shifting historic mammal ranges. The range of pikas (similar to a small chipmunk) is moving northward, Obama said. I can attest to that. While visiting Yellowstone National Park last year, a pika surprised me by running up my leg. Oh, well, no harm done, just a bit of a shock.

Obama has experienced nature in the parks during his life and never ceases to explain how that has affected him. He pointed out that on a trip he took to Yellowstone at age 11, he saw a moose standing in a lake and a mother bear with her cub.

“That changes you,” he said. “You’re not the same after that. And I want to make sure every kid feels that.” He called attention to a program called Every Kid in a Park, which gives free passes to fourth graders and their families to visit federally managed lands and waters.

I’ve been lucky enough to see nature at its best in Yellowstone. One early morning in January, I was on a photography expedition and heard wolves howling in the Lamar Valley. Then, across three miles of snowy wilderness came the answering howl of another pack. It was indeed a life-changing experience.

The President referred to a painting of Yosemite’s iconic Vernal Fall and Half Dome hanging in the West Wing of the White House and quipped, “They look slightly better in person.”

But the future of many national parks may not be so rosy, he warned. Wildfires rage in several Western states much earlier in the year than ever before. Experts warn that the fire season, once limited to summer and fall, has become year round in the West. Also, sea levels are rising and threaten Everglades National Park in Florida and several park locations on the East Coast. 

The effects of climate change are real, Obama said, and the future could be bleak for many sites in the national park system. “No more glaciers in Glacier Park; no more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park,” he warned.

For many states such as Montana, there are legislative attempts to transfer national parks to state control. I strongly oppose such efforts. There’s a slippery slope between state or local management and private ownership, instigated in the name of tight budgets and commercial development.

Our system of federally managed public parks has been called “America’s best idea,” originally written by Wallace Stegner in his 1983 book, “The Making of the American West.” The phrase was repeated by Ken Burns in the title of his TV series for PBS, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” 

We all can point fingers at some federal agencies that haven’t always measured up to the high standards required. The Bureau of Land Management, for instance, has come under fire on several occasions for what’s been labeled “mismanagement.” And the agency isn’t highly regarded by some ranchers in the West who chafe under regulations they deem ineffective.

But before cleaning house, we should remember how difficult it must be to hire help that understands land management as well as those folks who’ve lived and worked on that land for generations.

The recent, and still unresolved, fracas with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons is a good case in point. We might accept that long-standing rules, such as the Taylor 

Grazing Act, have been in effect for decades and have saved federal lands from damage caused by over-grazing among other faulty practices.

But to allow our National Park system to become a political football is extremely foolish.  Those who adhere to concepts that denigrate the federal government could ruin the entire concept of public land. And that would be truly sad.