Author Wallace Stegner, often described as the "Dean of Western Writers," called national parks "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best."
Indeed, the idea of democracy has always been central to the enterprise of creating national parks. President Theodore Roosevelt, at the founding of the first national park, Yellowstone, said visiting the park would be "a democratic experience."
The wealthy always have their amusements and playgrounds, he explained, but the American project would have places where ordinary folks could recreate side by side with the rich and privileged. These national parks would consist of more than breathtaking vistas, more than pristine rivers and forests; they would embody a quintessentially American idea.
Now, more than 100 years into this successful experiment, Congress is on the brink of allowing the National Park Service's budget to be slashed. If the super-committee can't pull together a compromise by Nov. 23, it could trigger a 9 percent cut for an agency already reeling from cuts over the past decade even as it plays host to an all-time high number of visitors.
As with some other programs on the chopping block, the 9 percent reduction could seriously cripple NPS, but it wouldn't make a dent in the deficit. NPS accounts for less one-thirteenth of 1 percent of the national budget. And its programs have a significant economic impact — each $1 invested in national parks resulting in $4 returned to economy, in large part through private-sector jobs. It's time for Congress to get serious about entitlement and tax reform and stop trying to pick off small budgetary gains here and there that don't make a meaningful impact on the budget.
In addition to serving as symbols of democracy, national parks are an important part of preserving and transmitting our national history. They include not just wilderness preserves like Yellowstone, but also historical sites like Gettysburg and the Statue of Liberty.
The story of American expansion is replete with the stories of champions of national parks, from the notable Roosevelt and John Muir to less prominent figures such as George Masa, a Japanese immigrant whose photographs moved John D. Rockefeller to donate $5 million to create the Appalachian Trail State Park, and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who said, "There are no other Everglades in the world."
Indeed, as Douglas suggests, national parks are irreplaceable, and it is irresponsible and disrespectful for Congress to hold them ransom in a political fight, playing chicken with our national heritage.
This country eventually will have to reform its burgeoning entitlement programs. Our leaders can either bite the bullet now and strike at the root of the deficit problem, or they can continue to dither and suggest cuts to small but important programs. It would be a shame to unnecessarily lose something such as a national park in a weak effort to postpone an uncomfortable political reality.
As writer Dayton Duncan puts it in Ken Burns' PBS documentary on the U.S. National Park System: "At the heart of the park idea is this notion that by virtue of being an American ... you, you are the owner of some of the best seafront property this nation's got. You own magnificent waterfalls. You own stunning views of mountains and stunning views of gorgeous canyons. They belong to you. They're yours.
"And all that's asked of you is to put it in your will for your children so that they can have it, too. Hopefully you won't let it be sold off, you won't let it be despoiled; hopefully you'll provide for proper maintenance of this property that's yours, but that's all you have to do. Now that's quite a bargain."