Monday, October 21, 2013

Oh, what a relief it is. And, how fascinating it was.

Barrier at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, October 8, 2013
I count myself was among the millions in this country who felt like a massive weight was lifted when our justly-beset politicians in Washington ended their game of brinkmanship and authorized appropriations to re-open the government -- at least for the near term -- and to restore functions critically important in one way or another to all segments of Americans society. These functions include payroll for civilians employed by the Department of Defense; yes, our uniformed services budget was authorized during what quickly became known as the "partial" shut-down, but hundreds of thousands of civilian Defense Department employees were furloughed. These civilians provide indispensable services to the military, including servicing and maintenance of machinery (like jet engines), medical care, IT services, the list goes on. Meaning, although our sailors, soldiers (but not our spies, to channel John le CarrĂ©), and pilots  were on the job, any sense of national security was utterly false, as most could not perform their full duties without the support of the civilian corps. Other halted government resources impacted, or would soon impact if further prolonged, the country's ability to track the spread of, and deploy interventions against, contagious disease outbreaks (SARS, bird flu, to name a couple); those dependent on unemployment compensation for income; support for food and nutrition programs for needy families, and early education programs for children such as Head Start; those needing services like Meals on Wheels for disadvantaged senior citizens; and the millions of people employed by government contractors (such as the company I work for) to pay their mortgages and feed their families and the ripple effects thereof. In other words, the shutdown sooner or later would have affected not only our most vulnerable citizens, but the rest of us too, all the way up the socioeconomic ladder. 

In spite of immediacy of these and countless other government supports and collaterals thereof, none were at the top of the sound-bite lists of closures. From the most benighted conservative to the most enlightened of liberal media outlets, the number one closure on every list was America's national parks. This caught me completely by surprise. No, it's not that I think I'm the only person who puts extremely high value on our parks (and national forests and monuments, shores and historic sites), it's that in times of personal and public disaster, alas, the parks are not likely to be savers of life and property.
Google search page header, October 1, 2013. (Thanks to Google for use of the image without formal permission.)
Having said that, one reason for their prominent place on the list (and in many subsequent discussions) may be that the parks are symbols of values that almost all Americans share: they represent our wide-open and fruitful lands, our sacred histories, and in many senses, our prosperity. Look at us, we are well fed and clothed, and employed and secure, and we're still able to set aside massive acreage "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." 
Yellowstone's barricaded Roosevelt Arch at North Entrance, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" writ in stone at the top. Even the elk seem puzzled by the closure. My thanks to Patty Bauchman for the use of her wonderful photo, "Barrier at Roosevelt Arch" October 5, 2013.
Another reason is that the national parks and related units are a subtle proxy for all the affected economic engines, unlikely though it is that most people would readily make that connection. Although government run, units of the Department of Interior (national parks, monuments, historic sites, shorelines) and the Department of Agriculture (national forests, grasslands, recreation areas) rely on concessionaires and other contractors to provide guest services -- lodging, gift and convenience shops, guided tours and transportation, food service, gas, and emergency medical services for instance -- plus road construction and maintenance, utilities, communications... The list of businesses required to service visitors on federal land is remarkable. When the government shutters the parks, the concessionaires and vendors get stop-work orders. When the concessionaires and vendors get stop-work orders, they lay off personnel.The domino effect on the economy is obvious and nearly immediate.

Just outside of most parks are gateway communities. Take Yellowstone, for instance, which has several adjacent communities that owe their existence, or if not their existence, their prosperity, to the park: Gardiner, Montana at North Entrance; the twin map-dot towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City, Montana at Northeast Entrance, and West Yellowstone, Montana to the west. Fifty miles beyond East Entrance is Cody, Wyoming, and just beyond South Entrance is the little tourist development of Flagg Ranch. These settlements are all about visitor amenities (museums, snow-mobile rental, guided tours), services (restaurants, lodging), and necessities (groceries, gas, medical care). Although not park service contractors, when the parks close, visitors cancel or divert and business activity is flat-lined.

There have been numerous studies of the benefits of national parks on the economy, and a variety of estimates on the negative effects of the shutdown -- all of them staggeringly large for an approximately 2-week period of downtime. The pundits who chose national parks to represent the immediate impact of the shutdown were right on the money.
Barrier at the entrance to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, October 4, 2013

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