The National Parks Are Not Causing the Deficit

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Rainbow Bridge

            Most successful writers of blogs or columns periodically travel to some dangerous locale to report on man’s inhumanity to man in some earnest way.  Of course, it is a critical for democracy that front–line reporters venture into war zones and revolutions.  But at forty-nine with a teenager and a ten year old, the best I could muster was a family truckster vacation to Southern Colorado, Utah, and Arizona with a hand in New Mexico – more to come on the Four Corners Monument.

            Our itinerary included a dude ranch on the Rio Grande, three days of perfect summer in Durango, a week on a Lake Powell houseboat, and a last spell on the Arkansas river at full flood in Salida.  Hardly a route generating much insight into the Arab Spring, South Sudan, or the rest of the world’s hotspots.

            It is a totally different experience to visit a park in the West than in the East.  While living on the Eastern seaboard, I drug family and friends through a wide swath of National Park Service sites.  But in the East, much of the NPS’s charge is to preserve historic structures, national battlefields, and national cemeteries.  In the West the NPS showcases not the impact of people, but the physical world before the completion of the nineteenth century’s Manifest Destiny.

            As I stood in line to check into the Lake Powell Resort amongst the throngs of European and Asian tourists my major concern was did I smell as if I had lived on a malfunctioning houseboat for a week? We were all of us looking forward to a freshwater shower, air conditioning, restaurants, and real beds.  On the wall as I waited was a display describing the six national parks nearby (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Zion).  We had already seen Mesa Verde and I realized that if we had time for another week we would have seen even most of the remnants of the dry southwest.

             We emerged into the world of the Internet and television after a week with no connectivity.  Politicians were essentially claiming that cutting the National Park Service budget to avoid cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security was a pathway to national prosperity.  There were no direct attacks on the NPS, but rather a phenomenon known as “out of control government spending.”  To attack the National Parks by name is to lose a battle with the public, particularly the public that visits the Parks. The National Park Conservation Association press release from July 2010 announced continuing strong majorities across partisan lines favoring support for the Parks.

            In our three-week trip, there were two remarkable NPS sites and one alternative (again, more about the Four Corners Monument below).

            We travelled to Mesa Verde out of Durango on a day trip and watched the land change from the richness of the Las Animas river valley to the dry scrublands before the desert beyond.  We arrived in the thirteenth century – not the century of Gothic Cathedrals, but of Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.  The bluffs above many of the dwellings are scarred with burnt trees from fire where wild horses lived amongst the enterprising scrub.

            At the visitor center the boys achieved one of my goals, which was to jostle with a cross-section of Americans and foreign visitors for a ticket.  There was no platinum air or credit card I could waive to avoid the line.  At the counter was the first of the many NPS employees we were to encounter along our way.

            Cheerful and enthusiastic about the Park to the point of primal nerdiness, she walked us through our options and sent us off down the road to the Cliff Palace and the Spruce Tree House.  It was a breathtaking series of climbs and crawls along the cliff under the guidance of a twenty something ranger and her volunteer guide.  And at every pause she literally exploded with information in a depth that belied her age and caused me to wonder in one photo if she was going to fall off the cliff.

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            It was almost a week later covered in the slime of sunscreen, sweat, and Lake Powell water that my youngest son and I climbed in the heat (100° F and 5% humidity) up from the temporary dock to Rainbow Bridge National Monument.  Accessible only by boat from Lake Powell it is a stunning visual display. But we only understood its ancient history after a ranger spent fifteen minutes with us explaining how the river had carved first a bend, then a second bend around a block of towering sandstone, then over the millennia a hole in the block. At our feet were exposed dinosaur prints that we would have missed without the Rangers guidance.  And it really did not strike me as “out of control government spending ” when a NPS volunteer took the time to introduce us to a visiting artist painting the bridge in brilliant watercolors.

            Spending is not out of control.  Some spending is out of control, principally spending on the politically dominant retirement class.  While at Mesa Verde we saw priceless Puebloan artifacts in the Park’s museum, which was nothing more than a 1930s WPA overgrown shack.  At least a third of the NPS personnel we encountered were volunteers.  Other than closing the Park I am not sure how you could spend less.  The restaurants and simple shops were tastefully limited and outsourced to Aramark, whose employees were as helpful and cheerful as the Park Rangers.  Contrast this with the concessionaire monstrosity that consumes the entrance to privately run Mt. Vernon.

            The twelve dollars we paid to scramble up steep ladders and through tunnels into the Cliff Palace of the thirteenth century were the best value of our trip.  And the low-key public nature of the NPS where the Aramack employees were as enthusiastic as the Rangers was a stark contrast to Mt. Vernon and Four Corners commercialism.

            Four Corners is a stone and concrete plaza pulled from some downtown open space and surrounded with cheap metal huts for Native American art sales.  It is not a national park, but a jobs program for the Navajo on whose land it rests.  But the Navajos we encountered during the trip appeared too stoic to manage a monument requiring the worst sides of Hollywood or Miami Beach.

            The principal attraction is the opportunity for a visitor to do an awkward push-up with a hand or a foot in each of the four states.  There was no ranger, display, or museum to explain how Congress arrived at the geography that produced four states touching each other, the history of the Navajo, or anything else.  By design, the Four Corners is more of a National Lampoon moment than a national monument.  But like Mt. Vernon, it is hardly an argument for outsourcing more of the National Parks to facilitate budget cuts that preserve sacrosanct retirement benefits.

            The National Parks are not only good value to the average American, they are a good value for the nation.  Reasonable people can debate the effect of the Bush era tax cuts, the cost of three unpaid wars, and the effectiveness of health care reform. But no reasonable person disputes the rise in health care costs and the population age curve are driving Medicare, Medicaid, and eventually Social Security costs.  They are the root cause of the national debt, not the National Parks.

            During my career I worked in one multi-national company with a massive debt and cash flow problem that attacked the problem with across the board budget cuts.  It is easy with hindsight to see that the core product offering had commoditized into dramatic permanent decline.  Even easier to see that the across the board cuts did not cut into the commodity business enough and cut too deeply into the products of the future.  The failure of leadership that drove those cuts made decline permanent and hastened bankruptcy.

            If Congress wants to turn the American experiment into a bankruptcy, start cutting the effective parts of the government to avoid the politics of cutting at the poison root of entitlement costs.

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