National Parks

The Fall of the Wild

Illustrations by Mott Jordan

The National Park Service can no longer provide the necessary supervision to spare its 80 million acres of wilderness and historic treasures from the ravages of time and tourism–so it’s trolling for corporate sponsors

By Christopher Weir

AS CONGRESS DANCES over the hot coals of an election year, politicians from both major parties are supporting legislation that would create ten “official sponsors” for the National Park Service. The goal is to raise $100 million to shore up the park system’s shrinking budget and crumbling infrastructure. And while it remains to be seen if the messianic legions of corporate America can stave off park degradation, you can at least brace yourself for nature documentaries “brought to you by Exxon, official sponsor of the National Park Service.”

Across the country, national park attendance is exploding, visitor and management services are disintegrating, and maintenance backlogs are mounting. Bottom liners growl that there’s simply not enough taxpayer money to do the trick, and that the recent christenings of new parks are a drain on finite fiscal resources. Park advocates counter that such arguments enshroud dysfunctional priorities that would trash our national heritage.

What’s clear is that the National Park Service can’t muster the management required to protect its charge from decay and overcrowding. “They’re having to postpone so much,” says Don Fogg, a veteran volunteer with the service’s western regional information office. “The term is ‘deferred maintenance,’ which means letting things go to rack and ruin until such time as they have money to fix them.”

In fact, the National Park Service deferred maintenance backlog exceeds $4 billion while the annual operating shortfall hovers above $500 million. Obviously, it’s going to take much more than corporate marketing stunts to turn things around. So the question remains whether the proposed alliance between Capitol Hill, Bambi and big business is truly a step toward national park salvation, or merely another maneuver to deflect a real commitment to preserving our national treasures.

What in the Hell Went Wrong?

WHILE ALL OF THE 369 holdings of the National Park System are affected by budget woes and shoestring management, nowhere is the strain more evident than in the wilderness areas, where precious ecosystems are being crushed under the weight of their own allure.

At Sequoia National Park, raw sewage erupts from enfeebled visitor areas. Yosemite’s formerly pristine high meadows are now overrun, while many of the more than 4 million annual visitors run roughshod over the park’s increasingly unsupervised roads and trails. At Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, more than 12 tons of petrified wood have been stolen.

Yellowstone is shutting down campgrounds and museums, and the Grand Canyon’s famous views are throttled with smog. At Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, 3.8 million cars a year have created an ecology of gridlock, while the seasonal ranger staff has been reduced by 70 percent. Everywhere, stray trash drifts unmolested while toilets wait to be cleaned. Unfortunately, the sordid list goes on and on.

“The use of the parks has been increasing, especially during the recession, because sometimes it’s the only thing people can afford,” says Mary Ann Matthews, state forestry coordinator for the California Native Plant Society. “And so at the very time usage is going up–particularly among first- and second-time visitors–the opportunities to educate them and to enforce the rules are just not there. It’s a terrible situation.”

In 1946, national park attendance was 22 million. Today, it exceeds 270 million. Within five years, it will top 300 million. Even more problematic than the sheer attendance numbers is the fact that visitation stress is more exponential than incremental. Take a park infrastructure designed decades ago, subject it to visitor loads far exceeding the original specifications, then factor in the decay inherent to time and neglect, and the result eventually becomes an explosive sort of ruin.

On another front, the sprawl of megalopolis continues to encroach upon park borders, importing social ills and further threatening ecosystem integrity. And as the pressure cooker of urban angst and suburban soullessness heats up, ever more people seek the relative solitude of a Yosemite or Zion. In other words, it is precisely the wrong time to abandon the park system to corporate caprice and ritualistic budget slashing. The psyche of postmodern politics, however, does not acknowledge that wildlands don’t die with a bang, but rather a whimper.

“The direct impact of neglect,” says Ernest Quintana, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, “is so subtle that it’ll almost be too late when people are going to wake up and say, ‘What in the hell went wrong? Why didn’t somebody do something about it?'”

Millions of acres have been added to the park system in recent years, yet the National Park Service’s annual budget is shrinking–down $67 million this year to $1.32 billion. Adjusted for inflation, the gap is even wider. Vital but perpetually delayed maintenance and acquisition projects haven’t a prayer of being implemented.

In this era of gloomy deficits and collective sacrifice, belt-tightening measures are aglow with an aura of necessity, but upon closer examination, the budgetary whining that threatens the national parks is transparent.

The same Congress that is groveling for $100 million in corporate park donations somehow found $493 million to add to the B-2 stealth bomber program for fiscal year 1996. (This hugs-and-kisses overture to the politically potent Southern California defense industry came despite a Pentagon analysis that indicated the existing program was sufficient.)

Meanwhile, Bob Dole (with Bill Clinton on his heels) panders to election-year headlines by advocating the temporary repeal of a 4.3-cent-per-gallon gas tax, which would siphon $3 billion–more than double the park service’s budget–from the public coffers.

Have we really reached the point where smoke-screening the price gouging by multinational oil companies is more important than adequately preserving our national sanctuaries?

Yes, we have. So call in the Fortune 500.


THE CONCEPT OF official park sponsors invokes one of capitalism’s cultural taboos: the philosophical dilemma. As history has told, at the altar of the marketplace, it’s not where you draw the line, but how you play the game. So now a nation that is beating its chest about welfare reform also is asking for handouts to clean up its heritage. So now we’re poised to license our country’s most precious monuments–our history and natural legacy–to the same corporate marketing tundra as football bowl games and New Year’s parades.

The pending legislation, which has broad backing and the endorsement of the Clinton administration, would establish an elite coterie of corporate benefactors to the tune of about $10 million each. They would be the first “official sponsors” in the history of the National Park Service.

Ostensibly, guidelines will be established to codify sponsor modesty and restrict the flow of corporate logos. Publicity would be confined to advertising and public relations, and the parks themselves would be spared obvious corporate fingerprints, such as Jack-in-the-Box mascots emblazoned on “Welcome to Death Valley” signs. Nevertheless, many fear the legislation could become a Trojan Horse through which big business will increasingly ensnare our national parks within a culture of privatized dependency and economic spoon-feeding.

“The use of the term ‘official sponsor’ diminishes the dignity and independence of the National Park System,” says Sierra Club chairman Michael McCloskey. “We are worried about the whole image of this proposal leading to a relationship of undue influence on the system by major companies.”

Adds Brian Huse, Pacific regional director for the nonprofit National Parks and Conservation Association, “We have extreme concerns about corporate sponsorships of parks. While there are instances where corporate support has been a tremendous benefit for park units, anything with as broad a scope as this has to be looked at very carefully for a number of reasons. It could simply become too easy to overrun our parks with commercialization.”

Corporate support is, in fact, already integrated into the circuitry of the National Park System. Canon USA, for example, has donated $1 million that is being applied to wildlife habitat protection in 20 parks. Target Stores not only has pitched in $1 million toward restoration of the Washington Monument, but also is actively soliciting more donations for the project. A number of smaller companies and foundations regularly contribute to various park programs without fanfare or publicity blitzes.

McCloskey and Huse don’t dispute the effectiveness of such donations, but are concerned that the sponsorship legislation comes perilously close to letting the “tail wag the dog.” Indeed, it’s a big leap from restrained benevolence to congressionally orchestrated, multimillion-dollar annual auctions for the right to crow about being an “official sponsor” of the park system.

“We’re concerned,” McCloskey says, “that if these arrangements are struck with companies selling consumer products, that this will unleash pressures to sell those products at concessionaire stores within the parks. These are supposed to be temples of nature and history, not temples of commerce. … This whole effort reeks of misplaced emphasis.”

It also is quite possible that the park system won’t get a cent for its soul. “If this succeeds in raising a fair amount of money for the park system,” McCloskey says, “Congress could very well then turn around and cut that much money out of the budget, and the parks would be no better off. That kind of thinking has permeated this particular Congress. There are real dangers that this might not improve the position of the parks at all, but rather merely increase their dependency.”

The park service, while jittery about the proposal’s potential implications, is in no position to split hairs on the issue. “With the way the budget is, the parks are having to rely on these other sources,” says Ann Holeso, public information officer at Death Valley National Park. “That’s the kind of chance you’ve got to take right now.”

Huse, however, maintains that the predicament is to some degree illusory. “Quite frankly,” he says, “there wouldn’t be a need to develop a corporate sponsorship device if Congress would do its job and appropriate adequate funds to keep our parks in first-class shape.”

Second-Rate Power

THE NATIONAL PARK System has become a sort of political roadkill upon which the vultures of expediency increasingly prey. Entrance- fee income is hijacked and diverted to the general fund, industry ghoulishly pounds on the door of park resources and a powerful congressional clique advocates closure of more than 100 park units. And to the struggling system, the funds obtained from corporate sponsorship would be little more than a fiscal Band-Aid.

The funding woes besetting the National Park System not only threaten America’s heritage, but also its status as the global leader in park development. “Our country has always led the world in establishing and protecting parks,” Matthews says. “And it has been a tremendous stimulus for saving ecosystems around the world.”

Today, the world watches as the nation revered for its swift resolve during battle and crisis allocates slightly more than one half of one percent of its budget (about $10 per taxpayer) to the tarnished sacraments of its legacy. It watches the health of America’s parks degenerate at the same time park funds are being raided.

Another contentious issue is that of entrance-fee increases, which are being considered in other pending legislation. The income derived would not be applied to habitat protection or interpretation programs, but would at least reinforce visitor management services. That is, if federal banditry doesn’t divert the cash flow to the Pentagon or welfare rolls.

“It’s not really a matter of raising the entrance fees,” says Joshua Tree’s Quintana. “It’s what are you doing with the money that’s being collected right now.”

In the 1980s, similar legislation–which was supported by the Park Service director–promised to enrich the system with entrance- fee increases. “And when it got passed,” McCloskey says, “the money was just put in the general fund, and the system got nothing out of it. Sure, we had the increase, but no increase in the welfare of the parks. These promises are frequently breached.”

In other words, entrance fees have become just another circuitous tax inhaled by the labyrinthine Treasury. Proponents of fee increases like to compare the price of tickets to Disneyland or two McDonald’s Happy Meals to the relatively inexpensive–and often free–access to national parks. But when you buy a Happy Meal, you get what you pay for, while at the parks you may get nature, but you’re paying for things like Patriot missiles.

For Quintana, fee collecting has become an exercise in futility. “I do get a small percentage of it back, but then it’s tied to my collecting of fees and it’s not enough to even pay for the fee collection, so I have to offset the difference with money that is given to run and maintain the park.”

Even if increased fees were circulated exclusively within the system, they wouldn’t necessarily benefit it. “There’s this thing called offset,” Quintana says. “When you get special monies, a lot of times they’ll take it away from somewhere else, so you really don’t get ahead. There’s no net gain.”

Another dubious configuration allows park concessionaires to enjoy low rents and steady crowds while often contributing less than 3 percent of their gross–which collectively totals $700 million–to franchise fees. At state-run parks, franchise fees usually exceed 10 percent, while at major-league ballparks, concessionaires regularly pay more than 30 percent.

Meanwhile, external forces continue to apply pressure on park ecosystems. Clear-cuts have advanced to the borders of Olympic National Park, while a potentially devastating gold mine project at Yellowstone’s front step was barely averted by a Clinton-orchestrated federal land swap. A proposed 2,000-acre landfill bracketed on three sides by Joshua Tree will supposedly employ innovative engineering to mitigate soil leaching and water contamination. Of course, people don’t go to arid Joshua Tree for its roaring streams, but rather for its profound solitude, to which the 24-hour din of a mammoth dump operation is pure anathema.

The rural West–home of the most ardent so-called congressional “eco-thugs”–is increasingly, and perhaps legitimately, concerned that its open spaces more and more are beginning to resemble a federal and environmental police state. And while recent park system additions constitute a mere fraction of these spaces, they’ve become symbolic of increasingly authoritarian federal landlording.

The western “wise use” movement, however, fails to offer viable alternatives for sparing such jewels as the Mojave from the funeral march of Kaufman and Broad­studded suburbia.

And unlike such ideological cesspools as EPA standards, Bureau of Land Management leases and broad wilderness protection legislation, national parks represent neither partisan bickering nor unclear mandates. Americans recognize their natural treasures, Civil War battlefields and historic monuments as intrinsic to the nation’s identity. And they want them preserved in perpetuity.

A Pox on the Polls

THE NOTION THAT Congress acts as a proportional representation of its constituencies is, in the case of our national parks, a tawdry myth. Year after year, Congress condemns the park system to operational shortfall. Yet poll after poll confirms that an overwhelming and bipartisan majority of Americans cherish the integrity of their national parks.

Says Chuck Clusen, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The national parks are to the American culture and history as the great cathedrals of Europe are to European culture and history. They are a definitive part of our identity.”

The pending corporate sponsorship legislation will probably be incorporated into the “omnibus” parks bill, which aspires to address some of the park service’s more obvious predicaments, as well as ensure sound management of San Francisco’s Presidio Trust. And this omnibus bill, which should come to a vote soon, is being inexcusably vandalized by unpopular special-interest “riders.”

“What was once a good deal for the American public,” Huse says, “has become a freight train for political wants and needs. For example, we’re now looking at big threats to federal parks and wilderness in Alaska through the opening of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, as well as removal of significant wilderness protection from Glacier Bay National Park.”

So either many of the controversial riders sneak through, or they send the omnibus bill in a tailspin toward veto. Either way, the park system suffers.

The National Park Service Organic Act, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, charges the park service to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment for the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Congress has systematically violated this fundamental precept of American life. Will Yosemite and other parks disappear if this principle is not reconfirmed and reestablished? No. Will they be sadly disfigured? Yes.

“It’s very hard to see incremental change,” Huse says. “If you’re going to a park year after year, you don’t notice that the paint has peeled a little bit more, that there are a few more social trails compacting what was once a pristine meadow. And so we become inured to these minor but, over the long term, devastating changes. … If this trend continues, your kids, my kids, future generations will not have access to a Grand Canyon like we know it.”

Quintana suggests that the burden for change rests squarely on the taxpayers. “Congress is doing its best to provide us monies while at the same time trying to reduce the deficit and provide for other departments,” he says. “It’s going to take the American people to stand up and say, ‘We want more emphasis placed on our national parks.’ If the public does not stand up and say that, it will never happen.”

But Americans already have expressed their undivided support of the National Park System. Congress, however, isn’t listening–its special-interest stupor seemingly insensible to the priorities of an increasingly disenchanted electorate. Ultimately, corporate sponsorship is not a solution to the National Park System’s troubles, but rather another symptom of a widening divide.

From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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© 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.

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