How shut­down’s dam­age spreads

Na­tional parks harmed in ways not so ob­vi­ous

San Francisco Chronicle - - OPINION - By Kurt Repan­shek Kurt Repan­shek is pres­i­dent and CEO of Na­tional Parks Trav­eler, a non­profit me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion and ed­i­to­ri­ally in­de­pen­dent web pub­li­ca­tion ded­i­cated to cov­er­age of na­tional parks.

Aformer oil in­dus­try lob­by­ist and a keep-the-seat-warm act­ing Na­tional Park Ser­vice di­rec­tor sat down the other day to fig­ure out how best to give the na­tional parks the ap­pear­ance of nor­malcy dur­ing the on­go­ing bud­get stale­mate. But their so­lu­tion risks fur­ther weak­en­ing park in­fra­struc­ture, de­grad­ing the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence, and leav­ing parks shy of sea­sonal rangers come sum­mer.

Three weeks into the par­tial shut­down, trash is over­flow­ing and hu­man waste is blight­ing park roads and vis­i­tor ar­eas. Il­le­gal campers and off-road­ers have trashed del­i­cate ecosys­tems. Van­dals axed some of Joshua Tree Na­tional Park’s name­sake spiky ev­er­greens.

The par­tial shut­down is mis­guided and also dam­ag­ing to the parks in ways not as ob­vi­ous as mounded garbage.

Act­ing In­te­rior Sec­re­tary David Bern­hardt and Na­tional Park Ser­vice Deputy Di­rec­tor P. Daniel Smith de­cided this month to spend Fed­eral Lands Recre­ation En­hance­ment Act rev­enue on daily cus­to­dial ser­vices. It was an al­ter­na­tive to com­pletely clos­ing the parks un­til Pres­i­dent Trump and Con­gress re­solved their im­passe over build­ing a south­ern bor­der wall. The rev­enue comes largely from park en­trance fees that Con­gress in­tended for im­prov­ing vis­i­tor fa­cil­i­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences, shrink­ing the park sys­tem’s huge main­te­nance back­log and hir­ing sea­sonal rangers.

What the two men did not pub­licly dis­close is that they are will­ing to spend ev­ery dime of the park fees on tak­ing out the trash and clean­ing toi­lets.

Us­ing vis­i­tor fees for trash and toi­lets sets an un­for­tu­nate prece­dent: Will the Park Ser­vice be forced in the fu­ture to lean on fee rev­enue to pay for op­er­a­tions that are sup­posed to be funded by con­gres­sional ap­pro­pri­a­tions?

De­cid­ing against a full clo­sure of the parks ap­pears to be an ef­fort to avoid the pub­lic out­cry that greeted that 2013 shut­down, sug­gested Jon Jarvis, a for­mer Na­tional Park Ser­vice di­rec­tor and cur­rently the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of UC Berke­ley’s In­sti­tute for Parks, Peo­ple, and Di­ver­sity. “The na­tional parks were the pub­lic face of the shut­down,” he said, not­ing that mem­bers of Con­gress pushed him to ac­knowl­edge that the full shut­down was a po­lit­i­cal move, one that left many con­gres­sional con­stituents an­gry over their thwarted park vis­its.

But that 2013 shut­down, he said, was “a stew­ard­ship act”: With­out em­ploy­ees on duty to man­age and pro­vide stew­ard­ship, the parks would be vul­ner­a­ble. “I think we’re ac­tu­ally see­ing that play out now,” he added.

Wildlife has been din­ing on garbage that nor­mally would be col­lected and se­cure — a wildlife buf­fet that con­trib­uted to the de­ci­sion to close Se­quoia and Kings Canyon Na­tional Parks, and raised dan­gers of hu­man-bear en­coun­ters at parks from Yosemite in Cal­i­for­nia to Big Bend in Texas.

More dam­age you don’t see:

De­lays in sci­en­tific re­search, with in­for­ma­tion gaps in data col­lec­tion and mon­i­tor­ing of cli­mate change and species preser­va­tion — un­der­min­ing the sci­en­tific in­tegrity of data sets.

In­ter­rupted plan­ning for vis­i­tor man­age­ment, mon­i­tor­ing of en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts and hir­ing of sea­sonal rangers — all which will lead to the detri­ment of park in­tegrity and vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence. “It all just grinds to a halt,” Jarvis said of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice’s wide port­fo­lio in its mis­sion of pre­serv­ing the na­tion’s trea­sured lands for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Even more in­sid­i­ous than trashy parks is Wash­ing­ton’s stew­ard­ship di­rec­tion — with politi­cians bend­ing, and pos­si­bly break­ing, fed­eral reg­u­la­tions for spend­ing Park Ser­vice rev­enue. House Democrats and ad­vo­cacy groups have called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the rev­enue di­ver­sion and prom­ise hear­ings into the le­gal­ity of raid­ing park fees.

Joshua Tree typ­i­cally takes in about $9 mil­lion in fees. Most, if not all, of that money from 2018 has al­ready been com­mit­ted to projects. Has act­ing Sec­re­tary Bern­hardt or­dered the park to re­di­rect those promised funds, too, to the par­tial shut­down?

Just a month ago, sev­eral mem­bers of Con­gress were work­ing in a bi­cam­eral, bi­par­ti­san ef­fort to ad­dress half of the es­ti­mated $11.6 bil­lion main­te­nance back­log across the park sys­tem. Now they’re back at square one.

If any­one is won­der­ing, this is not the way to run the world’s preem­i­nent park sys­tem.

Jae C. Hong / As­so­ci­ated Press

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice said it can keep Joshua Tree Na­tional Park open with money in­tended for long-term uses.

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