Note: This was written during the first few weeks of the 2019 federal government shutdown.
The National Park Service exists to ensure Americans are good stewards of the gifts of our planet. Right now, as the government shutdown leaves our national parks vulnerable and unmaintained, NPS can best protect our national parks by closing them down.
Over a century ago, legislation establishing the NPS charged the agency to “conserve the scenery and the national historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment… by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Taking care of nature: Does this sound somewhat familiar? Like something you heard in your faith journey?
The beginning of the Bible, the very first chapter, tells the story of earth’s creation and God’s giving humanity the responsibility to care for the creatures of the earth – fish in the sea, birds in the sky, livestock and wild animals – and plants and fruit for food. Whether you believe this story word-for-word or think of it as a classic campfire story, the message remains clear: God said to humans, “take care of the world. Don’t mess it up.”
Fast-forward to January 2019. As the federal government shutdown grinds on with no end in sight, many national parks have remained open. The devoted continue their pilgrimages to the sacred places even though NPS staff are furloughed and customer services are minimal.
The stories getting the most attention, deservedly, are about trash and human waste. Litter along the National Mall in the nation’s capital is placing an added burden on the city’s utility workers. Worse than that, California’s Joshua Tree closed because of overflowing toilets. The road into Oregon’s Crater Lake is closed because of raw sewage littering the road. The situation is getting just as dire at other national parks.
Let’s be clear: Americans love their national parks so much they are willing to poop like a bear in the woods if it means they get to their sacred spaces. And that is exactly what is happening.
Astoundingly, it gets even worse. Without the watchful eye of the park rangers, too many people make bad choices. Who will keep a careless hiker away from the cliff’s edge? Several visitors have already died during the shutdown. Who will keep a reckless souvenir-hunter from plucking a priceless, irreplaceable relic? We don’t yet know. Who will keep a foolish, thoughtless vandal from destroying a thousand-year-old petroglyph? It’s just a matter of time.
So let us ask ourselves some hard questions.
How does all that sewage make us good stewards? Some will biodegrade, but some will seep into the water supply, impacting fish and wildlife downstream. Tainted water is a problem even when parks are fully staffed.
All that trash lying around that animals find so yummy – how does that impact wildlife? What does a half-empty bag of Doritos do to the digestive system of a moose or an otter at Voyageurs? And if that moose or otter survives its case of the munchies, what trouble can it get into when humans and their food aren’t so scary?
What responsibility do we have to ensure a careless visitor doesn’t irreversibly damage a natural feature? There are already reports of such foolish trespassing at Yellowstone.
Who will ensure that the delicate balance that makes so many national parks natural wonders remains in place? Humans have altered the park environments enough, through invasive plants finding a foothold alongside Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive or an alien fish or snake finding a new place in the Everglades’ food chain.
When we believe we are entrusted to protect our resources – whether by our collective faith, our moral code, or our societal laws – allowing national park units to remain open yet unprotected is a truly unholy idea. Despite our best intentions, we indulge our worst instincts. We reenact the Garden of Eden, where we were given all we could ever want or need, only to let our greed and arrogance and ignorance destroy it. Eden could never be replicated. Neither can our national parks.
The NPS, which does phenomenal, sacred work when they have the necessary resources, is currently incapable of serving as an effective steward for our national parks. Help from volunteers and other organizations is inadequate. As uncomfortable as it is to consider, for now, it’s time to close down America’s holy ground, for its own good, before the damage can no longer be undone.