I now live in Moab, UT.
A town that is almost entirely tourist driven for its economy.
People come from all over the world to see the red rocks, the stark landscape, and mountain bike, raft, hike, climb, and 4WD.
Top notch state park land exists practically in the town itself. And BLM land surrounds the area in abundance.
But make no mistake, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are the main attraction by leaps and bounds. Be it taking a scenic drive or taking a quick walk at a pull-over; the national parks are what draws people into the town overall.
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Being in Moab, we find it easy to find some nearby day hikes withoutmhwving to drive far. And Arches National Park is a convenient location. We tend to explore the park that borders BLM land where fewer people go. … But today we made a partial exception and hiked to the iconic Delicate Arch after our main hike. We drove right by the trailhead and a covenient excuse to hike something I’ve never done. A contrast from our hike earlier in the day. Obscure and unique views. And then hiking to what may be the most well-known feature in Utah! Luckily in December, the amount of people is manageable. And the only reason we did the hike. 🙂 Plus, to be a true Utahan, I’ve been told I need to go there at least once. 😉 … #publiclands #bureauoflandmanagement #nps #nationalparkservice #archesnationalpark #arches #findyourpark #utah #moab #nationalparks #hiking
But now the parks are closed due to a government shutdown. Arguing about the cause of the closure is something beyond the scope of this article. Nor do I wish to discuss it.
I just know the federal lands are becoming less accessible the more this closure continues. Initially, a “soft closure” where various lands were opened up if minimally staffed, recent winter weather throughout the country are making the parks even less accessible.
Roads are not being plowed, the gates are locked to keep cars and most people off the roads, and the lands are eerily quiet.
But the lands are being even more restricted because, well, people can’t behave themselves. Garbage is piling up, and people are flying drones, dogs are running around where wildlife usually abounds, illegal campfires abound, altercations occur over campsites and parking, etc.
Human feces, overflowing garbage, illegal off-roading and other damaging behavior in fragile areas were beginning to overwhelm some of the West’s iconic national parks.
“It’s a free-for-all,” Dakota Snider, 24, who lives and works in Yosemite Valley, said by telephone Monday, as Yosemite National Park officials announced closings of some minimally supervised campgrounds and public areas within the park that are overwhelmed.
“It’s so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I’ve seen in my four years living here,” Snider said.
States, such as Utah, have been giving money to keep the parks open on some level for a limited time. And local businesses have been performing trash pickup, unofficially monitoring sites, and even stocking port-a-potties. Non-profit groups are also taking over some of the roles traditionally performed by government officials.
And as bad as all of the above might be, my main concern are at the archeological and cultural sites. With minimal staff and security, people might accidentally damage or destroy irreplaceable cultural and historic sites. Or outright vandalize or even steal artifacts.
And there is no sign of the shutdown ending in the near future.
In the long term, I see all these trends adding up to one thing: More privatization of Federal land and the services on it.
Why is that?
I think this trend will happen for a few reasons:
- We’ve essentially turned over the management of campgrounds to Recreation.gov for not only the national parks but many BLM and USFS lands, too. Despite the name, Recreation.gov is NOT a government-run website. It is a private contract company called Reserve America that manages the website and the bookings. And that, in turn, is part of a sizeable multi-state company of Aspira.
- And it is only a matter of time before the campgrounds themselves are outright privatized.
- Concessionaires run a good part of the businesses in the National Parks and are almost a fiefdom. Just look at how a concessionaire trademarked well-known landmarks for its use in Yosemite.
- Volunteers routinely perform more and more tasks traditionally done by government employees. Be it trail maintenance, talks, or even clerical tasks.
- And, as mentioned, non-profits and private businesses are performing the tasks also done by the federal government. Trash pick up, maintenance, and even managing the park on an unofficial basis are occurring during this current shutdown per news reports.
- There is more and more courting of corporate sponsorship in our public lands currently. Even before the shutdown, the parks needed money and listened to what their corporate donors mandated.
In other words, the perception that a system of volunteers, for-profits businesses, and non-profit organizations can manage our federal lands just fine will continue to be ingrained. No needs for a bureaucracy and over-paid federal employees. Or so politicians will say esp as lobbyists clamor to get a larger piece of the Federal lands pie for their clients.
I see a time when not only will park businesses, campgrounds, and reservations become privatized. But so will such things as shuttle reservations, park entrances, and perhaps even the initial fees for backcountry areas. If corporate America can contract out the service staff (custodians, cafeteria workers, maintenance, etc.) and a continuing more substantial portion of their technical staff (developers, infrastructure IT support, etc.) than I don’t see why corporate run national park contracts wouldn’t do the same for what they manage in federal lands.
I see that support staff in national parks and anyone who deals with consumer financial transactions having their roles privatized. And we’ll look at the campgrounds in the same way we look at say a hotel or restaurant on national park lands: In the park, but not part of it. And if the idea to purchase park reservations ahead of time or quotas occur, expect that to be privatized, too.
In fact, in some areas, these actions are already happening. I have personally been to areas where the federal recreation area is entirely concessionaire run. From taking the entrance fees, to patrolling the campground, to even controlling the parking quotas. Why will other federal lands be any different?
And the means, I think, a continuing lessening of the wildness in our parks and other federal lands. Anytime a corporation runs things, it is not about efficiency. It is about maximizing the money for the people in charge.
Will private business follow the NPS mandate of protecting “…unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”?
And something as intangible as the concept of wildness should not be managed strictly on what will bring the largest ROI for its shareholders.
We need more wildness in our public lands. Not less. And I think the further privatization will erode what makes our public lands wild and a national treasure beyond amusement.
Except I don’t see the influence of corporate sponsorship in our National Parks as good thing based on past activity. Just look at the history of concessionaires in our NPS units for further evidence. And the demands they make. Or heed Ed Abbey’s warnings about Industrial Tourism…
I’ve said before that the largest challenge we face with public lands is not so much acquiring them or protecting the lands. But rather retaining the character of what makes the wild lands wild.
Disney Land is a fine place. And fun for many people.
But we don’t need our National Parks to be Disneyfied.
We need the wild lands to be wild. Or at least not so tamed.
More corporate influence, esp without strict guidelines that will probably not happen, means less wildness.
And more of an experience that benefits the corporate sponsors of our public lands and not us…
This current government shutdown could potentially affect public land management years after a discussion about a wall leaves the public memory.
I could be wrong. Maybe a prolonged government shutdown won’t make the idea of less Federal involvement in managing public lands attractive.
Somehow, I doubt it.