Don’t Mess with Our National Parks, Zinke! A Message from Purple America

The interior secretary’s proposal to hand over park management to private companies has riled up some very unhappy campers.

Glacier National Park's Cut Bank campground

Jonathan C. Wheeler/Flickr

Today is Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s last day in office. The Republican from Utah is quitting his career in public service to cash in as a Fox News talking head. But during his final months as a representative, Chaffetz did something highly unusual for a congressperson: he publicly admitted making a serious mistake by sponsoring a particular bill, and then he apologetically withdrew it.

Chaffetz’s error? Introducing HR 621, also known as the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, which would have authorized the transfer of 3.3 million acres of public land to individual states—at which point the states could do whatever they wanted with them, including selling them off to the highest bidder.

These holdings, Chaffetz had originally asserted, “serve no purpose to taxpayers.” Taxpayers disagreed. In Montana and New Mexico—two states where federal land management is a major local issue—thousands rallied to voice their fervent opposition to the bill. Their message to Chaffetz and any others who would transfer, sell off, or privatize federal lands: Dont even think about it.

Who were these protesters who so rattled Chaffetz that he felt obliged to kill his own bill and completely reverse his position? Environmental activists? A bunch of left-leaning land-use policy wonks flown in from San Francisco and Washington, D.C.? Members of the anti-Trump #resistance who are unhappy with just about anything the GOP supports these days?

Hardly. Many of them were fly-fishing guides, mountaineers, hunters, outfitters, or other small-business owners whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the continued preservation of this land. In other words, they were locals. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals. Republicans and Democrats. Grandparents, parents, and grandkids. The protesters represented a true cross-section of the citizenry—and the electorate. Though Chaffetz’s response to voter anger has often been to suggest that it’s fake, he couldn’t get away with it this time. A few days after the protests, he made it clear on Instagram. “I hear you,” he wrote, “and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”

I hope Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was paying attention. While Zinke was appointed, not elected, to his job, and doesn’t have to worry about constituent outrage in quite the same way that Chaffetz did, there’s still a lesson for him in the short, awkward saga of HR 621. And he’d be a fool not to heed it.

Zinke recently proposed to privatize campgrounds in national parks and other federal lands, essentially allowing for-profit companies to manage them in the day-to-day. Zinke says the use of private companies could help cover the more than $10 billion in long-delayed maintenance projects at our underfunded national parks. But he has another reason for handing over public lands to private concessionaires—and it has less to do with closing budget gaps and more with an ideology that reflexively glorifies business and diminishes government.

“As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke told the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, a trade group representing more than 98 percent of the RV industry. “My folks will never be as good as you are. We are going to have more public–private partnerships soon. I think that’s where the industry should be going.”

Imagine, if you will, you’re a longtime National Park Service employee listening to your new boss utter those words. What would it feel like to hear him tell a group of RV manufacturers that they’re more qualified to run our national campgrounds than are the thousands of park rangers, guides, and other NPS employees who have dedicated their lives to working in these unique and ecologically specific spaces, keeping them safe, beautiful, and accessible to the American people?

Here’s something that Zinke doesn’t bring up nearly as much: The Trump budget for the next fiscal year, if enacted, would cut funding to the NPS by 13 percent and add another $30 million to the nearly $11 billion in already deferred maintenance costs that the interior secretary has publicly decried. It also proposes cutting more than 1,200 NPS jobs, a staff reduction of 6 percent.

Secretary Zinke is implicitly endorsing harmful cuts to his own agency that will result in lost jobs while at the same time telling us that those folks, his folks, probably weren’t the best people for the job anyway. And all this is done in the name of a terrible long-term goal: ceding public land management to companies that are obliged—culturally and often legally—to increase profits and maximize shareholder value. What might that look like in a Yellowstone campground circa 2027? Curtailed camping hours? Billboard advertising? The addition of theme park–style rides and attractions? Fast-food franchises?

Hopefully we’ll never find out, because Zinke may be in for a surprise. The same display of righteous anger that caught Jason Chaffetz off guard is coalescing around Zinke’s boneheaded idea—and once again, the coalition transcends political and demographic boundaries.

Earlier this week, a writer named Christopher Barron penned a blistering critique of the way that Zinke and his boss, President Trump, have handled the public-lands issue since taking office. In his piece for The Hill, a widely read publication among policy experts, Barron vigorously defends the monument-protecting Antiquities Act, which the Trump administration is working hard to dismantle, and lambasts “corporate interests who don’t understand the value of public lands to average Americans.” In making his case, Barron notes that working-class and rural voters, “unlike the elites in Washington, often can’t afford exotic vacations or high-priced private hunting preserves . . . Instead, many working-class Americans rely on access to federal public lands.”

It’s tough talk, aimed at Trump and Zinke―and it’s coming from a rock-ribbed Republican who not only voted for Trump but works full-time as a conservative political strategist. And Barron’s censure is just another sign that the public, left and right, is finally catching on to something that really ought to be quite obvious: There’s nothing “conservative” about abandoning the conservation of our most sacred public spaces.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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