Photo: Nicholas Stankus/Shutterstock

How National Parks May Just End the Shutdown

by Colin Heinrich Oct 1, 2013

THERE’S some good news coming out today. Yosemite, one of the most iconic parks in California, is turning 123 years old!

The park was established way back in 1890 through the continued efforts of John Muir, who lobbied to a sympathetic House and Senate about the needs of the people, their need for nature. That Congress in turn, through a Lincoln-era land grant and its own sustained vision, created the national park we know and love. Today, it stands as an apotheosis to the positive relationship the government can foster with its own country. Happy birthday, Half Dome.

But it’s gonna be a lonely party.

America’s modern government isn’t nearly as interested in crafting the kind of long-term visions that turned Yosemite into one of the country’s greatest triumphs. This Congress has decided to use America itself as a hostage in its partisan budget battle. As such, government employees and their families (sans Congress and the military, of course) will be stuck at home without pay until the House and the Senate finish up their little pissing match over the people. Given their track record, I’m not optimistic. As somebody with family in government, this shutdown is frustrating enough, but here’s the other problem: The people aren’t the only victims.

Yosemite is going to be celebrating its birthday alone this year because, as a national park, it’s dependent on funds from the federal government. And with the furloughs, every national park and national attraction in the country is closing its gates.

The effect is immediate. Some may stay open, depending on how apprehensive the state government is towards giving up those tourist dollars. That’s what happened last time, way back in ’95 when Arizona pulled it together enough to keep parts of the Grand Canyon open. But all others are finished for the foreseeable future. The Smithsonian has a chain on its doors. Campers in Zion have 48 hours to collect their things and vacate the desert. One can only imagine the backpackers deep in Denali receiving the notice on their radios, silently shrugging and turning them off as if they hadn’t heard a thing.

For reference, here are the details of how the parks are being affected by the shutdown:

  • All national monuments are closed immediately. This means everything from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial to the Statue of Liberty. Anything dependent on federal upkeep, well, isn’t currently so federally upkept.
  • Any and all national parks are closing in phases. Because these are usually pretty damn big, it’s a trickier thing to empty them out. As of now, entry is closed. Over the next few days, current campers will be ushered out as quickly as possible like a furlough laxative. Of course, this shutdown could be over quickly, leaving many still in the furthest reaches of the park, but that’s optimistic. The last shutdown lasted for three weeks.

I hope the government employees weren’t planning on going to Joshua Tree on their next day off.

This shutdown is going to be the talk of the town until it’s resolved, and chances are that national parks won’t be mentioned except as a footnote in the list of casualties. But while the televisions spout partisan vitriol towards our chosen leaders, the pressure is going to come when the people take a look around and see these natural victims sitting idly. What they represent goes beyond the petty squabbles of a democratic republic.

When national parks are affected, politics go out the window. There’s no real partisanship to be had. There will always be those who fight on both sides of the aisle with regards to things like Obamacare, and who’s right and who’s wrong changes by district. But closing these places, the most important pieces of natural heritage in our country, does nothing but harm to the people.

In that fact, there are positives to be had. Nature and our access to it provoke such a visceral and emotional reaction that when we’re forced to focus on it, we tend to rise up to our best. In the day-to-day bustle of modern life, its very presence provides a comfort. It’s why somebody who does a lap around the block once a week will call himself outdoorsy. It’s the reason people who’ve never been to Yosemite will take a look at today’s Google Doodle and smile, whispering to themselves: “one day.” They’ll add a camping stove to their Amazon wishlist with no intention of ever actually buying it. The simple possibility, the availability, the freedom, is enough. It’s what connects us to our ancestry. It’s what makes us human, let alone American.

Take that away, and what do you have?

The last time the government shut down, it created such a backlash against Congress that some would argue it helped Clinton win the ’96 election. National parks and monuments, what they represent, were a defining image of the conflict. There’s something beautifully ironic about people being refused entry to the Statue of Liberty, once — and hopefully still — a symbol of the American government’s love for people. All people. Putting the Constitution itself behind a locked door? Well now, that’s an image people can’t ignore.

I’ve only just returned from a long journey overseas. I had planned on a trip to Joshua Tree as my grand re-entry into the country. This shutdown is, with restraint on the expletives, disheartening. This shutdown is frustrating. This shutdown is embarrassing, and it’s already given its fair share of grief to millions of Americans. But whatever negatives it comes with, there’s some beautifully appropriate symbolism in the details. And if there’s one thing America knows how to use, it’s a good symbol. Even if that symbol is a martyr.

There’s really nothing to do now but wait. A few vacations will be ruined. People will be turned away on one of the most beautiful weekends of the autumn. Congress will sort itself out eventually, once it realizes that its own constituents are being pushed to their boiling point. And when that happens, Yosemite will be waiting.

Happy birthday, Half Dome.

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