Kelly Bouma takes in the view on a hike in Glacier National Park. (WyoFile/Kelsey Dayton — click to enlarge)
Kelly Bouma takes in the view on a hike in Glacier National Park. (WyoFile/Kelsey Dayton — click to enlarge)

Shutdown reminds us of the importance of public lands

In a departure from the normal Peaks to Plains news format, this week’s offering is a perspective column from WyoFile contributor Kelsey Dayton. 
By Kelsey Dayton
— October 15, 2013

There were first the stories of the tourists whose vacations were ruined. Then there were stories of people losing out on trips of a lifetime, like rafting the Grand Canyon where people waited years for their trips and showed up to launch only to find the area barricaded. Then there were the numbers, the dollars lost and the businesses suffering. The National Park Conservation Association believes shutting down the 401 National Park Service sites, which includes the parks and national monuments, costs businesses $30 million a day.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

In the day before the shutdown and first days after it, I was surprised to see so much coverage focused on the National Parks. At first I thought I must be hearing so much about the parks because I live in a state with two. But the stories kept coming and people grew more outraged as the parks blocked off their gates.  The closure of the parks, people said, was done because it would it would hurt the most.

I can’t say where public land should fall on the level of importance in funding or services. I realize the shutdown impacts many people in serious ways. What I find interesting is how many people say that cutting off access to our public lands is one of the things that will hurt Americans the most and the fastest. When the government reopens, will those at the protests and those writing their representatives remain active in protecting our public lands? Sometimes we don’t realize how important something is, until it’s taken away. Will the shutdown serve as a wake-up call for people who otherwise might not have considered the importance of these places?

If there was every any doubt about the economic value of recreation and public lands, the facts and numbers that have come out since the shutdown should squash them. Some states, like Utah, have deemed the parks so important to their economies they have agreed to put up the money to reopen them. Some communities have staged protests to get the parks re-opened.

The reaction to the park closures wasn’t a surprise to the National Parks Conservation Association, said Tim Stephens, the Northern Rockies Regional Director.

“It keeps reaffirming what we already know, how deeply loved our parks are,” he said.

The closure can sound as a call to remind people — and Congress — how much the parks matter. Even before the government shutdown, the nation’s parks were already absorbing significant cuts and facing more cuts, Stephens said. He hopes Congress gets the message that people value their parks.

Some argue that just because the government has shut down, people should be allowed into the parks on their own, that it’s taking more man power to keep people out, that working so hard to keep people out of public lands is simply a ploy to make people feel the impact of the shutdown. It’s true that once I’ve flashed my park pass at the gate I often don’t have contact with staff the rest of my visit as I head away from the crowds. It’s also true that National Parks were created as a way to protect the resource. We put up gates and hired rangers to help monitor lands we deemed special and in need of protection. There are people who have advocated to protect public land with rules and regulations and now want to storm the gates and prove the land is ours and we can do with it what we want. Since the closure there have been reports of vandalism and even at least one case of someone ignoring closure signs and needing rescue.

But that is beside the point.

The National Park Service is following the law, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said on a phone conference on October 10. There is a very clear process lined out for what the park service must do during the shutdown.

“(They are) doing what the law mandates,” he said. “We are a nation of laws and we have to live up to those laws.”

Closing the federal government is not only painful to the public, but logistically difficult for those charged with enforcing a decision they had no part in making, former Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett said during the phone conference.

Criticizing the park rangers doing their job as dictated by law is the wrong approach, Salazar said. If people are frustrated that their parks are closed they need to let Congress know. And people need to let Congress know they value the parks even after they are reopened, Salazar said. People should continue to be vocal about loving their lands and wanting them protected. This groundswell of support should send a message about the value of outdoor recreation and its important ties to jobs and economies.

The shutdown has shown that outside Washington, public land is not a partisan issue and that the American people “want reasonable and sustainable investments to support” public lands, Scarlett said.

“When the dust settles, let’s hope our lawmakers see our parks and public lands the way the rest of America does,” she said.

Let’s also hope the we remember the importance. These voices that have risen now that the parks have been closed, need to stay vocal after the gates reopen. Those who were outraged when they were told they couldn’t visit their parks need to stay active in how that land is managed. It’s time to become educated on what threatens our parks and our forests and how these resources impact our economies and our lives.

While the National Parks are closed, there are other places to explore. Despite a shutdown of the U.S. Forest Service, you can still hike on your National Forest Land. You can visit your state parks. Get outside and enjoy your public lands and think about what you can do to protect them in the future.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Believe me Loren Nelson, she, or our Senators Barrasso/ Enzi, had you or me in mind, just ALEC and the Koch Bros. was their concern.

  2. Thanks for this article. Another article worth reading is this one from High Country News: Here is an excerpt: “But the use of state funds to pay national park staff fuels the arguments of people like Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who believe states should have more control of federal land. “’If anything,’ the shutdown has shown that states and localities may be able to manage the properties better than the federal government,” he told E&E News.”

    Meanwhile, in Wyoming, the Legislature’s Task Force on Transfer of Public Lands is meeting Oct. 31st in Casper. In light of the shutdown and the failings of the federal government, citizen voices like Kelsey’s will become ever more important if we want to keep public lands in public hands.

  3. It was a sad day when the government shutdown forced the closure of the national parks. I was working in Yellowstone and was one of the non-government employees who was furloughed when the visitor’s center at Old Faithful closed to the public. My autumn of a lifetime ended early but it was only later that I began to understand the severe economic impact this had on all small businesses in NW Wyoming. What is so disappointing was that our ‘representatives’ in Washington, Cynthia Lummis, in particular, supported the shutdown and ignored all pleas from the people of this area to help open the parks. Instead, she joined a fool-hearty, divisive, and non-productive motion to fund the parks but not the rest of government. Clearly, Lummis care more about her job than her constituents, particularly those of us in the greater Teton region.