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Plan to visit a national park this year? Let's defend our public treasures: "America's best idea" is under attack

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Reprinted from Hightower Lowdown


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In his 2012 presidential escapade, Mitt Romney cast himself as just a regular fella, but his inner son-of-privilege kept coming out, exposing him as completely out of touch with regular Janes and Joes. Meeting with Nevada newspaper editors in February 2012, for example, Romney confided his concern for a problem of rising importance: America's national parks.

Great! Parks really matter to the Janes and Joes, too. They'd be excited by any presidential contender making an issue of our parks' dilapidated facilities, shortened hours, closed-off sections, locked visitor centers, cancelled programs, ranger shortages, etc. Folks are angry that politicians subsidize rich peoples' private jets, yachts, and multiple vacation homes while constantly and callously cutting funds for public parklands. So was Mitt their guy -- who'd fully fund, restore, and expand these neglected jewels of our common wealth?

Get real. This multi-millionaire's concern was not the parks' deterioration, but their very existence. Noting that millions of US acres are tied up in public parks, forests, seashores, wilderness areas, historic lands, and preserves, a baffled Romney told the editors: "I don't know why the government owns so much of this land... what the purpose is."

Really, Mitt? Any Jane or Joe could tell you "the purpose" of our 84 million acres of public lands. From the Everglades National Park down in Florida to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, from Yosemite's giant sequoia trees out west to the wild horses back east on Assateague Island, their purpose is plain: Just be there.

First, be there for their own sake, for their unique natural beauty, history, ecological importance, or simply for their survival. Second, be there as proof that not every acre in our land has to be a theme park, a strip mine, a mall, an oilfield, or anything that produces even a dime in profit for some rapacious group of humans. And third, be there for us -- for the millions of workaday families who don't summer in the south of France or have a getaway ski mansion overlooking Aspen.

We have so many public spaces because we have so many un-rich people who count on, enjoy, and love them. Far from having too many, we need more. Last year, our national parks had 292 million visitors, 19 million more than the year before. This year is expected to be the busiest summer yet, and next year -- the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) -- even busier.

Ironically, this expansive network of public lands was launched by the conservatives of Romney's own party. Before today's daffy Koch-headedness, "conserving" was a core principle of Republican conservatism, and preservation of the people's natural treasures in public parks was touted as a party goal.

HISTORICAL TIDBIT I. The GOP's own Abraham Lincoln started this national set-aside of park land in 1864 when he designated California's Yosemite Valley as a state park expressly "held for public use, resort, and recreation."

HISTORICAL TIDBIT II. Which president created a system of national parks and made their maintenance a core responsibility of the federal government? Roosevelt. The Republican one, Teddy, who with vim and vigor reserved 280,000 square miles -- an area the size of Texas -- for future generations of the public.

These places are available to us only because they belong to us. TR's initial network -- five parks, 150 forests, the US Forest Service, four game preserves, 51 bird sanctuaries, the Antiquities Act, and 18 monuments -- provided the foundation for the NPS, which President Wilson established as a federal agency in 1916. Every president since has added treasures to America's unparalleled and universally admired trove of protected public lands, rivers, sites, structures, and other spaces. So today -- whether for a two-week camp-out, a lunch hour stress break, a cross-country road trip, or a dip into America's rich history and diverse cultures -- there's an affordable, accessible place for us.

When Romney -- aspiring to sit in the chair of Lincoln and Roosevelt -- revealed his cluelessness, Ed Schultz, the plain-spoken populist host of the The Ed Show, was blunt: "Our public lands make everyone rich. Not Mitt Romney-rich, but... you can drive a couple of hours into the wilderness, and all of sudden, you have more than Romney ever will."

Year after year, polls make clear that these public resources are not merely supported, but cherished. A 2012 survey is typical: 88 percent of registered voters -- and 81 percent of Republicans -- consider it "extremely important" (59 percent) or "quite important" (29 percent) for the federal government to protect and support these public places, with zero percent considering them "not at all important." Meanwhile, 80 percent of voters complained that officials are not funding the essential upkeep of the parks.

A thousand cuts

An unfortunate recent trend is for presidents to praise parks but fail to pay for them. Bill Clinton-the-candidate spoke of how lucky he was to have Hot Springs National Park as a childhood playground. Yet Clinton-the-president sat idle as natural wonders crumbled, facilities deteriorated, and the NPS maintenance backlog soared to $5 billion.

In his 2000 campaign, a khaki-clad George W posed in the majestic Cascade Mountain Range, wailed that parks were "at the breaking point," and vowed to eliminate Clinton's backlog. Instead he slashed the NPS budget (including a 40-percent cut in repair funds for the Cascade parklands he'd used as a political prop). The maintenance backlog ballooned to nearly $9 billion.

Ranger George did make one fix, however -- a PR fix. Bush operatives instructed park superintendents to make budget cuts in "areas that won't cause public or political controversy." When discussing park deterioration they were to avoid the phrase "budget cutbacks" and say instead that parks were undergoing "service level adjustments."

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Jim Hightower is an American populist, spreading his message of democratic hope via national radio commentaries, columns, books, his award-winning monthly newsletter (The Hightower Lowdown) and barnstorming tours all across America.


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