America’s National Parks were given special prominence during this past record-breaking government shut down. Joshua Trees chopped down, piles of trash left by neglectful park visitors accumulating in large heaps, and bathrooms overflowing with waste. Even more dreadful, reports by CNN and The Washington Post suggest that at least three deaths could have or might have been avoided if the parks were properly staffed with emergency or law enforcement personnel (though the connection is fairly tenuous as Reason’s Zurl Davis points out).
Given the hyperbolic tendency of mainstream media to over-extend itself in efforts to satiate the hunger of a snarling twenty-four-hour news cycle, I was surprised at my reaction to these stories. Absent was my typical eye-roll and in its place was a fixed, serious gaze. Then, almost tears. What was happening to these– I’ll just say it– miraculous places was horrifying and I was stunned by it. I was infuriated by the carelessness of people and the carnage of unconcern. It was here my politics and (what feels like) my soul came into potential conflict.
Too rational for the left, too humane for the right, and too reasonable for either, I’m hard to pin down politically. But, for the sake of context, I consider myself both a classical liberal and a libertarian of the ‘small l’ variety. I’m also a life long naturalist, having devoted a great deal of time and money towards engaging with the diverse groups of plants, animals, and landscapes this country has on offer. It makes sense, then, that I paid special attention to the reporting and political culture surrounding the National Parks during this past shutdown. More directly, I was interested in the libertarian perspective on National Parks/Forests and I wanted to see if it jived with my adoration of them.
“If not all Americans use the National Parks, why should all Americans pay for their upkeep?”
This is one of the largest and, if I’m honest, most salient points the LP makes on the topic. I quite understand the impulse– the government is oppressive when it comes to collecting money and really, really bad at appropriately spending it. The list of massively bloated federal programs to which the American taxpayer (often unwittingly) contributes, couldn’t reasonably be displayed here. Unchecked government spending by both parties has created a culture of fiscal distrust that, unfortunately, lumps the allocation of federal money towards the National Park Service in with the likes of National Defense, Medicare/Medicaid, and Homeland Security. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study on federal spending, the reality is that the federal government spends very little on the maintenance of the NPS. Libertarians, to the extent that the National Park System is on their collective minds, should focus that energy on larger, much more urgent budgetary concerns.
“Privatize the National Parks.”
Again, privatization of most things is something I largely agree with. TSA, Air Traffic Control, the DOT. Privatize it and do it soon. The National Park System, though, is an exception. Outside of the aforementioned fat trimming, there are a couple of theories at work here.
The primary suggestion, and arguably most dubious, is that those places that are truly wondrous (Yosemite, Big Sur, etc.) will likely stay tourist destinations based on free market demand. Not only that, but they’ll likely be better maintained than they were under government supervision. As Chris Rossini wrote in the Ron Paul Liberty Report back in 2016:
“But what about all those family vacations? How dare anyone suggest taking that away from middle-class Americans? Well, if there’s one thing we know about the market, it’s that if demand (for anything) is great enough you can bet your last ounce of gold that entrepreneurs will rush to satisfy that demand. Vacationing and tourism are huge industries. They’re not going away.
Entrepreneurs will also take much better care of the land since it will be their own property. Governments, as we’ve seen over the ages, are the biggest polluters on the planet. The U.S. government itself ranks as one of the top polluters on Earth. If (the) government owns something, it’s the same as saying “no one specifically owns it.” And if no one specifically owns it, no one has any incentive to take care of it.”
Typical smugness on the topic aside, I don’t buy it. Unless companies like Energy Transfer Partners and Marathon Petroleum decide, out of the goodness of their hearts and in direct conflict with their bottom line, to keep and maintain giant swaths of energy-rich land so people can go birding, I can’t see a situation in which the parks aren’t thoroughly and wholly destroyed by gargantuan corporate interest. This is of course not to mention the smaller, less Instagrammed parks and forests, the majority of which would be transformed into condos, big box stores or both faster than you could say tree eating machine.
“The government has no idea how to appropriately use the land.”
There are and have been huge issues with the National Parks and their relationship with eminent domain– the creation of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is a disturbing example of one such abuse of power. I don’t want to brush that off and it’s important to remember what bonafide government over-reach looks like– see a 2006 article written by Bart Frazier for The Future of Freedom Foundation about Shenandoah. That said, when it comes to the conservation of the United States’ wild places, the government is using the land appropriately and it did so uniquely early. Whether you feel that ‘the parks are for the people’ or that that’s just a toxic line used by both the media and government to pull your heartstrings in one direction or another, the resulting preservation of habitat and wildlife is an objectively good thing. Maintaining healthy National Parks is good for the environment and good for the 331 million people a year who visit the 59 National Parks, both of which in turn are good for the country.
It’s worth mentioning that this, like most everything else, isn’t a black and white issue. There’s a whole lot of grey area (perhaps green area, in this case) surrounding the issues, the people and the ideology. There is likely a boots-on-the-ground reality that need be taken into account. For instance, a fairly large subset the 101.6 million Americans who hunt, fish and ‘observe wildlife’ are libertarian leaning. If you, like me and Steven Rinella, believe that hunters are a crucial element of the American conservation effort, it’s logical to assume there are a healthy amount of nature (read: National Park) lovin’ libertarians out there.
Then there were these guys:
Groups of libertarians actively picking up trash at the National Parks amid the shutdown. (Though some Tennessee volunteers, in a moment of forehead-smacking irony, were told to stop cleaning and leave by Park Rangers)
Pulling back even further, I doubt any American would be alright with paving over Saguaro National Park to make way for a smog-cloaked ghost city built simply for the sake of building something. Nor do most Americans appreciate the tree-less monuments to the worst parts of ourselves: deserted Wal-Marts or Shopping Malls. Yet I still consider these and many other options to be fully on the table without suitable protection.
In a way, every shutdown is unique; a perfectly imperfect little snowflake of dysfunction, rhetoric, and egomania that, generally speaking, negatively affects the lives of a population Americans in any number of direct and indirect ways. The reporting on the shutdown(s) is no different, so perhaps that is why we saw so much discussion of it during the thirty-five-day stalemate. After all, mainstream media reporting in an era of twenty-four hour news is hyperbolic on a good day, but when something significant happens, storylines can be downright biblical.
Yet, it’s important for the centrists, classical liberals and libertarians out there to think deeply about this sort of thing; to think about the intersection of their values and their politics. The formation of The National Parks– the acknowledgment that some wild places should remain wild and that the American kinship with adventure should dually be preserved and remain accessible– was America’s best idea.