Protecting the Environment Through the Ownership Society — Part II

Policy Reports | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 295
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
by H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.

National Parks, National Problem

The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve land for the "benefit and enjoyment of the people." The system now consists of 390 parks, historic sites, scenic rivers and recreation areas totaling nearly 84 million acres.7

Problems became apparent almost immediately after the Park Service was created in 1916, as the goals of "preservation" and providing for the "enjoyment of the people" arguably conflicted. Too many people using anything will destroy it, and parks - many of which are ecologically fragile - are no exception. In addition, actions taken to enhance visitors' short-term enjoyment can have disastrous long-term consequences.

For example, to encourage the enjoyment of the parks by the maximum number of people, the Park Service maintained low or no entrance fees for most of the 20th century. It also suppressed the natural fire cycle in the parks - spending billions of dollars fighting and preventing forest fires. In addition, predators were actively hunted and trapped in order to increase populations of animals popular with park visitors - deer, elk, pronghorn sheep and bison.8

The Park Service was successful in both attracting visitors (287 million people in 1999) and increasing the number of grazing animals - but success came at a high price.9

  • High visitor numbers, low fees and limited congressional appropriations have led to a record multibillion-dollar backlog in repairs and maintenance.
  • The absence of predators to keep their populations in check and periodic fires to stimulate plant growth led to an overpopulation of grazing animals.10
  • In Yellowstone, elk have almost entirely driven out deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn sheep and even beaver populations, or pushed them into poorer habitats with less nourishment, leaving them prey to disease and boom-and-bust population cycles.

"National parks eliminated predators, leading to an overpopulation of grazing animals."

Furthermore, in the most popular parks, visitors regularly complain of air pollution from automobiles, cars interfering with scenic views and traffic jams hampering the natural experience.

Changing Park Policies. In recent years, the Park Service has begun to shift its focus away from providing visitor enjoyment toward preservation. It has raised entrance fees substantially for the most popular parks. Management goals for individual parks are also shifting. For example:11

  • In Yellowstone, elk have been relocated, wolves - once extirpated within the region - have been reintroduced, naturally occurring fires have been allowed to burn unless they threaten human lives or property, and limits have been placed on the number and types of watercraft and snowmobiles in the park.
  • In the Everglades National Park, a multibillion-dollar water-flow and wetlands restoration effort has begun.
  • In Yosemite, in order to restore a more natural experience, park officials limit the number of cars entering on busy days, closed some camp sites, cabins, roads and trails, and plan to implement a shuttle service for visitors throughout the park (a similar plan is being considered for Yellowstone).
  • In the Grand Canyon, limits have been placed on the number of plane and helicopter flyovers.

Changes Spark Controversies. The Park Service's shifting focus toward preservation has not been without controversy. User groups and communities that are economically dependent on park visitors have objected to the increases in entrance fees, camp closures, and restrictions on vehicle access and activities.12 Many also argue:

  • Even if additional revenues from higher fees are used to fix the maintenance backlog, it is a form of double billing since visitors have already paid for park access through taxes; and higher fees can be a barrier to park use by lower-income Americans.
  • Concerning the purported damage caused by motorized vehicles, a recent Park Service report found little if any evidence that the number of snowmobiles entering the parks during the winter harms park wildlife.13
  • Allowing lightning-sparked wildfires to burn is dangerous since they occasionally spread beyond park boundaries and destroy homes and businesses.

"Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone to control elk populations, but killed livestock."

Another major controversy has been the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone in order to reduce elk overpopulation. Wolves do not stay within park boundaries and pose a threat to livestock on neighboring ranches. In order to lessen opposition, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife established a fund to compensate livestock owners for losses to wolf predation.14

However, problems in Yellowstone have brought planned wolf reintroduction efforts on other public lands to a virtual standstill. As predicted, wolves have thrived. And as expected, some livestock has been killed. But many ranchers say their claims for compensation have been unjustly denied because of disputes over whether wolves caused the deaths. Some also claim the compensation did not equal the fair market value of their losses. And while the wolves have had the desired impact on the elk population within the park, wolf predation of elk outside the park has begun to raise the ire of sportsmen's groups. They note the decline in elk and fear future restrictions on hunting.

These controversies have prompted members of Congress to propose altering the mission of the Park Service laid out in the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act.15 At a congressional hearing, Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), Chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands, criticized recent park management decisions that appeared to favor preservation over visitor access and enjoyment, stating, "I don't view the Organic Act as Congress' attempt to preserve parks from Americans (emphasis added)."16

In particular, Pearce targeted what he believed was an attempt to freeze time, rather than allowing the parks to change. "Success should not be determined exclusively by whether the resources look like they did when our ancestors landed on Plymouth Rock," he said.17

For now, the national park management is caught between the conflicting goals of preservation and visitor enjoyment. The multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog continues to grow and has become an annual albatross hanging around the neck of multiple Congresses and presidential administrations. In each election cycle, environmental lobbyists cite poor maintenance as evidence that neither Congress nor the administration care about the environment.

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