Sunday, April 11, 2010

The National Park system: A grand idea that almost didn't happen, and why it matters today

It would be suicidal for a politician today to advocate selling off Yosemite National Park,  the Grand Canyon or our own Isle Royale Island (pictured). But little more than 100 years ago the whole concept of national parks – managed and preserved for all the people of the nation – was a radical and most controversial idea. Lots of people were scornful.

Free-market proponents led by the timber, railroad and mining barons of the time pounded away at the heresy of making tracts of land off-limits to profit-making ventures.  The scoffed at President Theodore Roosevelt’s idea that land should be set aside for the people’s enjoyment.  Or that the beauty or restorative nature of wild landscapes had a public value.

Roosevelt’s creation of the national parks system – and the establishment of the US Forest Service to protect it – was such a close victory that might just as easily have been lost to political opponents doing the bidding of private industry.

It’s impossible to imagine to what degree our great nation would be diminished had President Roosevelt lost that fight. Our national parks would surely have been stripped of their iconic sequoias and all the rest the old growth timber; poisoned by mining wastes washing through creeks and rivers; and carved up and sold off piecemeal for resorts, amusement parks, private preserves, Chuck E. Cheeses, Hooters, miniature golf and God knows what else.

It was a visionary thing, this National Parks idea, documented in Ken Burns’ recent PBS series:
The national parks saga is worth keeping in mind today, as we struggle to maintain the public’s access to natural resources. Make no mistake, those rights are constantly under assault:

-- In Benton Harbor, prime Lake Michigan sand dunes were taken from a public park for a private golf course:

--In 2007, the Michigan Supreme Court severely limited citizens’ rights to take legal action to protect the state’s publicly held natural resources:

--There regular proposals to sell Michigan state parks:

--And as we speak, a well orchestrated campaign is under way to crush proposed legislation from Rep. Dan Scripps that would affirm something that seems self-evident: Michigan’s groundwater belongs to the people of Michigan and we’re all entitled to use it. Property rights groups have convinced lots of folks the bill involves government owning the water, fees to use your own well water, or charges for farmers who irrigate fields. All bullshit.  The bill is all of three paragraphs, and doesn’t say anything like that:

Our publicly-held resources aren’t socialist plots to hamstring corporate America. They are tremendous, inspiring valuable assets that are equally available to waitresses and millionaires. They are owned every bit as much by you and I as they are by Bill Gates or Donald Trump. And I don’t know about you, but I’m fighting to keep my share.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Hugh! As privatization continues its assault on citizen use of the commons, it's more important than ever to be vigilant. The old town square has been replaced by the shopping mall--where citizens can not exercise their right of assembly or free speech. It's not a far reach to imagine our state parks flying a logo flag and our water controlled by international, for profit corporations. (Have you seen the documentary Blue Gold?)