On this government shutdown

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.


View this post on Instagram


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

A post shared by Paul Mags (@pmagsco) on

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.

Arches National Park. From the Moab Sun-Times.

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.
  • 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.

Not ranger or staff. But employee. Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.

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?

From Campout Colorado

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.

A theme I addressed before in various articles:

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.


6 Replies to “On this government shutdown”

  1. We live in a corporatocracy. Everything is being privatized: prisons, military, intelligence, etc. Not to be too cynical about it, but if something can’t be converted into fiat money, then it has no worth. Our public lands were put into public trust because some very wise individuals realized the real value of those lands and knew they needed to be protected. Corporations, and, by default, our politicians now see the worth of those lands. We’ll be told that the corporations can run them more effectively and the land will be better preserved. But, we’ll know better. And what’s even sadder is the behavior of people in the absence of supervision, which will be used to reinforce the idea of privatization.

  2. I lived and worked in a national park. I am an economic conservative. Govt. can’t do everything. Efficiency isn’t just about roi, that’s just the carrot. For me, money is a resource like air, arches, & water. If we are more efficient in one area, then we can do or spend more in other areas. We should also take care of the elderly, the poor, the sick, build roads & bridges. Capitalism is not perfect and definitely not pretty. Privatization isn’t a curse. It can be a part of the answer to the big picture, with oversight (not micromanagement).

    1. I use public lands. My partner is an NPS employee. I have a pragmatic nature due to both a working-class upbringing and temperament.

      I value results, not theory.

      When I’ve seen public land managed by private enterprise, I do not see efficiency, utility, or ease of use.

      I’ve seen more expenses, less wildness, and a system that does not benefit the taxpayers but a system that benefits the corporation.

      So govt can’t do everything. But corporations have shown that the won’t manage the lands to OUR benefit. But will manage the lands to their taxpayer-subsidized benefit.

  3. Wow.

    Am I glad I live and hike in New York. Our forbears were wise enough to enshrine our public land protection in the state constitution – not just a statute that can be wiped out by the legislature with the stroke of a pen.

    “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” – New York State Constitution, article XIV

    There are page after page of amendments, but all of them are specific projects, for which land of at least equivalent value was exchanged. (Example – Piseco village building an airport runway extension, and in exchange conveying thirty acres of prime wild waterfront on the other side of town, or Long Lake conveying twelve acres of forest land in return for being allowed to *lease* a single acre for a water well field.) New York’s voters *care* about the Forever Wild Clause. (That’s why NY has few National Park Service properties – we got the idea first, and sent Teddy Roosevelt to Washington to implement it there!)

    I’ve seen numerous government shutdowns over the last couple of decades, and the National Parks are always the first battleground. This is simply because they’re just about the only really visible ‘luxury’ item in the Federal budget – virtually anything else in the budget is arguably critical to someone’s life and safety. And by the same token, they’re a popular item, supported by Left and Right, urban and rural, rich and poor, city tourists and angry mountain men. Well, with the exception of those whom newly-created parks threaten to displace: https://www.flickr.com/photos/66934423@N00/10605220 – but the NPS is probably the most universally approved of all the Federal agencies. This combination of ‘luxury’ with ‘popularity’ makes it the obvious target for those who want to make a budget confrontation *sting.*

    The National Parks always come out all right – because they are so very popular. The National Forests and BLM lands are another story – the angry mountain men see this as land that Uncle Sam has stolen from the states – and in some ways, they’re right. (On the other hand, New York’s experience with its vast state lands suggests that the states could be just as wise as Uncle Sam about the management of the land.) Some of the recent developments can be understood in no other terms than spite. “I’m going to rape this land, not because it has any value to me, but because you, my enemy, value it.”

    Taking a longer view, with the exception of the obvious ‘front country’ facilities where all the tourists go – and those are going to be Disneyfied to a certain extent whether they’re public or private – what really saves us is that the backcountry land we so enjoy is really of marginal economic value.

    Local to me:

    New York’s forest preserve was created at least in part because of a cycle that had turned several times – someone would buy up the forests, sell the timber, pay themselves a handsome salary, and have the company go bankrupt, leading to the State seizing the now-worthless clearcut land for back taxes. The State would wind up not finding a buyer for a few decades, until the land was grown to trees again, and the same cycle would take place. All the while, water quality downstream of the clearcuts suffered, until it was polluting the Erie Canal to the point where the pols wondered about the canal’s long-term viability, and threatening the drinking water of the Downstate cities. That’s what drove Forever Wild – the state would lose money at both ends of the deal (not getting nearly what the timber was worth in the land sale, and then never collecting the taxes on the land).

    Similarly, the Helderberg Mountains were settled because Dutch land barons would give financial breaks to those who ‘improved’ the land and farmed it. The topsoil was so thin and alkaline that the land was good for nothing but sheep after a few years, and there were several waves of settlement, until all the farms failed in the Great Depression. Nobody even tries to farm the hilltops any more, all the dairying is down in the valleys, and the hilltops are grown to trees (where the soil supports them) and scrub (where it doesn’t). Again, the land survived – and nowadays is prime hiking.

    Harriman Park on the AT was established in 1910. At the time, a LOT of it was an industrial wasteland – and you can still see the wreckage of mines and furnaces and charcoal ovens and lime kilns all over the park. But I have watched it for about half a century as I’ve hiked it from time to time over those years – and see Nature returning to it, faster than I thought She could manage. (Although it will be many, many more years before it’s safe to hike off-trail without someone who knows the place – too many mine shafts, wells and cellars await the unwary.) It’s surely a pretty place to hike, and it’s hard to believe that it’s in the middle of suburbia!

    Privatization of the Federal lands, if it happens, will follow the same trajectory. It’ll be sold to wildcat miners, developers, cattlemen – who will discover that there’s little to mine, less reason to develop, and sparse grazing for the herds. When the last suckers into whose hands the land falls (the original buyers may well make out like the bandits they are), the government, either federal or state, will find itself with the land on its hands again, somewhat the worse for where, but Nature is nothing if not patient, and She will take it back.

    The National Parks would be the last to go, not the first, because of their popularity. “Sell Yellowstone” would have the electorate up in arms. “Sell a hundred thousand acres of BLM range in Idaho” would be greeted with “what kind of price can we get for it?”

    Even in the time between the sale, and the time when Mother Nature takes it back, we backcountry travelers wind up being ignored – often by formal policy! – simply because there’s no economic incentive to chase us out. We don’t do any harm to the grand schemes of the robber barons, and we don’t represent enough of a revenue source to pay for collecting it.

    I’m willing to pay some sacrifice to Abbey’s industrial tourism – I don’t need to monkey-wrench everything. If Bear Mountain, or Hunter, or Lake Placid have to be Disneyfied, well, fine. They’re on the border of wild lands, and some few of the Disney tourists will venture out of bounds and some of them will have their eyes opened and join our ranks. That may be the price of keeping the West Canada Lakes, the Santanonis, or the Bushwhack Range – all of which are breathtakingly gorgeous places where I’ve gone for days at a time without seeing a soul.

    They’re also places for which no sane businessman would advance a development plan. It’s that hard to come up with an economic model for building the necessary road through miles of high peaks and sucking swamp. What would ever pay for it? The view is not nearly as grand as Yosemite, there’s no spectacular waterfall or geyser or boiling mud pot or glacier or wind-sculpted fairy castles of rock. It’s just rivers and lakes and mountains and marshes and trees. There have been attempts at economic development. They failed. There’s no big tourist attraction. The miners – victims of fraud – have been there, but there’s nothing to mine, or the mines are all played out. The wood isn’t worth the cost of hauling it. The land is marginal even for sheep.

    You and I are like the mice in the woodwork. Until and unless we start messing in the kitchen, we’ll have free run of the wainscot. Tolerating us in most places doesn’t cost anyone anything, even in terms of forgone revenue. We’re neither a money source, nor a money sink, and to the money people, we’re mostly invisible.

    When we are visible, we’re curiosities. I surely had fun interacting with one guy I met at Lake Durant. He’d parked a HUGE RV – the thing could probably sleep eight, and then set up an equally huge screenhouse next to it. I hiked through, and after shouting, ‘howdy!’, commented “that’s some setup you have there!” He answered, “yeah, the couple in the next site over came here in a Mini Cooper! I don’t know how they manage!” Me: “I don’t know, I walked here from Lake Placid with what’s on my back, I’ve been on trail almost a week.” I’ll let you imagine the remainder of the conversation. I became part of the Industrial Tourist Attraction for those ten or fifteen minutes – and really, I don’t mind. At least Mr. RV Camper learnt that there *is* another way of interacting with the land.

    When I visit the front-country tourist areas, I often gather a small crowd of the curious. I don’t mind answering the Hiker Twenty Questions over and over again. It’s part of the price of enjoying the backcountry. It makes those people – who are voters, like me – aware that the backcountry is there, and that there are people who enjoy it. They at least assign it some vicarious value.

    Don’t give up the good fight, but don’t despair because of a year of tribulation. It’s bigger than all of us. “One generation cometh, and another generation passeth away, but Earth abideth for ever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4)

    Hope to see you Out There sometime!

    1. THanks, AK. I always appreciate your insightful comments. But, I disagree with you on two aspects:

      aking a longer view, with the exception of the obvious ‘front country’ facilities where all the tourists go – and those are going to be Disneyfied to a certain extent whether they’re public or private – what really saves us is that the backcountry land we so enjoy is really of marginal economic value.

      Perhaps I because I have been out West for twenty years, I see “Front country” areas as different. Many places out here (Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, and others) are protected areas. If these areas are Disney-fied via private campgrounds, the culture of these places is changed. And the only way to see these areas ARE via the campgrounds. No traditional backcountry access.

      And for other areas, I think sacrificing front-country areas means that these areas will get more expensive. Furthering the trend of making the outdoor the province of the affluent, college-educated consumer. The front country is often the “gateway drug” to explore the backcountry. I know it was for me. Dad had to sacrifice a weekend of overtime to go hiking with me on Franconia Ridge. Imagine if I did not have the camping weekend? Now imagine more expensive campgrounds in marquee areas with WiFi, snack bars, and other amenities to compete with KOA. And pricing people like the past version of my family out?

      As one article stated concerning USFS lands, but could easily apply to NPS lands:

      Concessionaires are allowed to charge for things like parking and scenic overlooks which FLREA prohibits the USFS from doing, the issuance of a concession permit for all intents and purposes takes the facilities included in the permit out of public hands and privatizes them.

      I see access, camping, and other fees going up. Not only losing a sense of wildness but also making the national parks the province of the “liberal elite” that some critics of national parks are starting to grumble about in the comments sections of articles. Parks are no longer well-loved by all it seems in this highly politicized age.

      Soo..I am not despairing. But I do, I think anyway, see what is on the horizon.

      With all that in mind, I hope to see you out there, too!

  4. I am undecided, of two minds you might say, about what you view as the end of the wilderness if parks become more privatized. However, I have some personal experience with front country campgrounds, public and private, where I usually camp before heading out the next morning rather than spend much more money on a hotel. The privately owned campgrounds have far outshined the NPS or USFS campgrounds. For instance, in Mammoth Lakes, CA there us a privately owned campground directly across the highway from the Ranger Station and Campground as you enter town. For the same price as the public campground, you get hot showers, wifi, and onsite laundromat. The wifi is useful the day before I left and the laundry and showers were very useful the day I got back from my hike. I think private industry could operate our parks better, but I’m just not sure how at this time. Maybe I’m just not smart enough. Unfortunately, I have no confidence that our leaders in Washington are any more intelligent, and have shown themselves time and time again to be far less than honorable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • === You can also subscribe without commenting. ===

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.