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The Republican Platform's Worst Idea? Gutting the Country's National Parks.

by Matt Hershberger Jul 18, 2016

THE EMERGING 2016 REPUBLICAN platform is a hot mess of bad ideas. The GOP is putting together its 2016 party platform in the run-up to the Cleveland convention (which starts today), and the positions that have emerged have been almost universally horrifying.

The platform calls for the overturn of the Supreme Court decision allowing gay couples to wed, and calls for the widely discredited practice known as “conversion therapy to be more commonly used. It calls for Trump’s border wall with Mexico. It’s against marijuana legalization — even for medicinal purposes. It wants to ban abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. And it wants coal — literally the least clean fuel source — to be defined as “clean.”

All of these positions are extreme, but none are hugely surprising in the age of Trump. But there’s one position that is truly, transcendentally stupid: to gut the US National Parks system.

Ending “America’s Best Idea”

The platform says:

“Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining or forestry through private ownership. Timber is a renewable natural resource, which provides jobs to thousands of Americans. All efforts should be made to make federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service available for harvesting. The enduring truth is that people best protect what they own.”

Ranching, mining, and forestry all have major negative impacts on the environment. The reason Theodore Roosevelt set aside lands as National Forests was specifically to protect western forests from timber companies, and the reason that places like the Olympic mountains and the Grand Canyon were designated as National Parks was to protect them from being destroyed by miners.

The Republican Party has traditionally been an ally of the National Park Service — Roosevelt himself was a Republican, and Ronald Reagan himself signed bills setting aside land for the NPS.

But this is the exact language the 2016 Republican platform is using:

“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified.”

“Certain” is a bit of a fudge word in this language, because nowhere in the document does it explain which lands should be transferred to the states, which essentially leaves all public lands open.

This has happened before

And if you’re thinking, “Well, no one would go after the really great parks, like Yosemite or Yellowstone,” then think again: it has already happened. Yosemite was designated a National Park in 1890, and in the 1910’s, part of Yosemite, in an area known as the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a dam was built, essentially filling the valley up with water.

Writing in opposition to the project, the environmentalist John Muir, who played a fundamental role in founding the National Parks, wrote, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” But despite a strong push by activists to prevent the creation of the dam, it was built, flooding the valley.

Even when the Parks are protected by the federal government, they’re still open to exploitation.

Conservatives who want public lands to become private have found folk heroes in people like the Bundy family, who have had a couple of sometimes violent stand-offs with the federal government over their illegal private use of public lands. But the real intellectual weight behind the movement doesn’t come from folksy rebels in ten-gallon hats, but from from a think tank called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. ALEC’s primary funders include Exxon Mobil and the Koch Brothers.

America’s worst idea

Private ownership does not guarantee the protection of America’s beautiful places: if anything, it incentivizes the exploitation of those places. And private ownership also means that the country’s great places could no longer be open to the public. As New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich puts it, “Access to public lands ensures that you don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy the great outdoors or to introduce your children to hunting, fishing and hiking.”

The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this August. American writer Wallace Stegner famously called the National Parks, “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

It’s safe to say, then, that the Republican plan to gut the National Parks is America’s worst idea.

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