Our national parks deserve a dedicated workforce

A landscape view of Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park (Leonardo Pallotta photo, via Flickr)

In the recent government shutdown, the National Parks were left open to the public while the nearly 20,000 employees and many thousands of volunteers of the National Park Service were sent home.

As a result, trash accumulated and toilets overflowed in Yosemite, roads snowed-in at Mt. Rainier, buildings were vandalized in the Great Smoky Mountains, and off-road vehicles plowed tracks across fragile desert soils in Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Elephant seals took over a parking lot at Point Reyes due to the lack of rangers. It was a mess of political making and could have been avoided.

The protection of the National Parks is inextricably linked to the presence of a professional National Park Service. Stephen Mather knew that 100 years ago. The origins of the National Park Service, its mission, its professionalism and even its classic ranger hat can be tied directly back to a Berkeley grad, Stephen Mather.

A wealthy and successful business man, Mather loved the grandeur of the few western national parks that existed at the turn of the 20th Century, but he was upset at their deplorable condition and poor management. He wrote a letter to a former Berkeley classmate, then Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, complaining bitterly about the condition of the parks.

Tapped as the first director, Mather looked to the military as the source of professional park superintendents, and the ranger uniform to this day reflects the military roots. Legislation passed in 1916, establishing the National Park Service as an agency with a mission to “conserve the national parks, unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

For the next 100 years, this agency grew to include a wide range of professionals such as biologists, archeologists, historians, economists, business administrators, carpenters, masons and preservation specialists. America’s National Parks are revered world-wide, host over 300 million visitors per year and contribute over $90B to the US Economy.

They are also sources of patriotic pride (Mt. Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty), biodiversity hotspots (Everglades and Yellowstone), and serve as anchors to large landscape conservation. Park visitors come away with new knowledge, inspiration, a touch of pride and often a set of indelible memories with family or friends.

When they leave, the national parks remain “unimpaired” because the professional staff is there to guide, interpret, educate and steer the public to a safe visit. They are also there as resource stewards, bring the best science and scholarship to preservation and restoration.

Take the staff away and both the park and the resources are at risk. I knew that and during the 2013 government shutdown, I closed the national parks to all visitors. Yes, it caused hardships for those who were planning a vacation or even a wedding in a national park. Grilled before a congressional committee, some members of Congress suggested that the parks are just “open air” and don’t need rangers to manage them.

However, because the parks were closed, no park visitors died, the wildlife did just fine and when the parks re-opened, things looked great. This time, the administration did the opposite, leaving the parks open without the professionals. People did die, park resources were harmed and when the parks re-opened, there was a mess to clean-up. Some damage will take decades or longer to recover.

What Stephen Mather knew over 100 years ago is still true today, in order to preserve our parks for future generations, they must have a professional and dedicated workforce.

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