Matt Dickerson: 2019: National parks and the shutdown
I’ve been thinking a lot about national parks lately.
One reason is that in a few days I’ll be heading to Acadia National Park for a four-day trip with 12 college students who are taking my class on narrative non-fiction nature writing. I’m a little nervous about the weather we might encounter in January on the coast of Maine, and how that will impact various planned field trips around Mount Desert Island. I’m even more nervous because of the impact on the park (and on our visit) of the current federal government shutdown.
The shutdown is another of the reasons I’ve been thinking about our national parks. Since the National Park Service is part of the U.S. Department of Interior, park service workers are federal employees, meaning they are not getting paid and aren’t allowed to work. Although stories about the implications of this may be buried under a lot of other stories about the shutdown, the negative consequences in the parks — “wounds” might be a better word — are not trivial and could take years to heal.
Consider, for example, all the conservation efforts that have been made in parks (Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite are prime examples) to keep animals (such as grizzly bears) from becoming acclimated to humans as food sources. This is important for safety of bear and human alike.
Now consider a park where humans are still visiting and dumping trash including food wastes, but nobody is actually taking care of all that. Imagine 20 or 30 or 40 bears — maybe a significant percentage of a park’s population — getting acclimated and trained to seek free food in these places. Think what will happen to them, and the long-term impact.
Or just think about the sanitary facilities, still being used by visitors — even in places that are officially closed — but not being maintained. Actually, unless your stomach is less squeamish than mine, you might not want to think about that.
So I’m excited to return to Acadia, where I spent the month of May as artist-in-residence, but this time to experience it in mid-winter. I’m excited to bring students. The park is beautiful and unique and amazing. But I’m also a bit nervous and even sad about what we might find.
A third reason I’ve been thinking about national parks is that (as many folks do at this time of year) I was recently thinking back on the past year and the highlights.
I’m not sure if it’s a highlight or a lowlight, or just a confession, but in 2018 I fished in both New York and Rhode Island, without catching a fish in either state. Since my oldest son has a sleep schedule that is about five hours offset from mine, when I visited him in Providence in April I was able to get up at my usual time, drive an hour to a river, fish for three hours, and drive an hour back, and still eat breakfast with him as he rubbed sleep from his eyes.
Unfortunately, those three hours casting flies didn’t yield a single fish. Neither did a full day of casting for steelhead with my friends Randy and Wes over on the other side of the Adirondacks. Or, rather, I should say that two of the three of us managed to land a fish. But one of the three of us didn’t.
Still, thanks to some work and writing trips, I did manage to catch a trout in five different states including two California steelhead and five Washington steelhead. And I got to visit three national parks, Acadia, Olympic, and Lake Clark, as well as the preserve side of Katmai National Park and Preserve. Those were in addition to the Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Grand Teton national parks that I visited in 2016 or 2017, also as part of my work and writing.
Federal lands have been under pressure lately, not just from government shutdowns but also from being opened up for exploitation. For example, a door was recently opened and the first steps taken to potentially open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploitation for oil extraction.
Our national parks are probably not under threat of being sold off, or having mineral rights sold, but they are facing budget pressures that have resulted in higher access fees, which can in turn result in these lands becoming less accessible to many citizens — “public land” available only to the wealthy and elite.
So I consider myself fortunate to have experienced so many of these places over the past few years. I have discovered they are not only priceless “resources” in terms of the beauty and recreation opportunities they offer to visitors (though they certainly do offer that), but they are also invaluable spaces for conservation, preservation, and even restoration of habitat.
I think of Glacier National Park, which holds some of the last and best-protected refuges for several native species ranging from fish to birds to insects. It is also the one place on the continent with headwaters for the Hudson Bay (and Arctic Ocean), Gulf of Mexico (and Atlantic Ocean) and the Columbia River (and Pacific Ocean). Protecting these headwaters is protecting a vital ecological resource impacting three different watersheds.
And then I consider that the entire annual budget for the park—which gets over three million visitors per year and has several hundred employees — is comparable to the salary of a single good NFL cornerback or starting MLB outfielder on a big-market team.
Or I think of Acadia, where I will be going in a few days, which thanks to the conservation of its forests and streams is one of the few remaining habitats for some important fish species that connect marine and freshwater ecosystems in a Gulf of Maine that has been ecologically ravaged in the past century and a half.
I hope my trip to Acadia gives at least a dozen students a profound vision not just for the beauty and delight to be found in the places, but also for their ecological importance. One of the things I hope for, as I enter a new year, is for hope itself. An intact and financially supported system of national parks and other protected lands would go a long way.
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