Let’s Close the National Parks

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History tends to repeat itself. A half-century ago national parks were receiving a record number of visitors but amid inadequate funding their facilities were falling apart.

One popular writer had a radical idea: “Let’s Close the National Parks” wrote Bernard DeVoto in the October 1953 issue of Harper’s Magazine. “The deterioration of roads and plants that began with the war years, when proper maintenance was impossible, has been accelerated by the enormous increase in visitors, by the shrinkage of staffs, and by miserly appropriations that have prevented both repair and expansion of facilities…[Congress] requires the Service to operate a big plant on a hot-dog-stand budget,” he wrote.

As a result, DeVoto said, “So much of the priceless heritage which the Service must safeguard for the United States is beginning to go to hell.” His proposed solution? “The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened.”

Today faced with slashed budgets, aging facilities and visitor throngs, the NPS and the individual parks it is mandated to protect face daily struggles. Is the solution, as DeVoto suggested over 50 years ago, to keep open only the parks for which Congress is willing to pay? If the outcry over park closures during a government shutdown in 2013 are any indication, this wouldn’t go over well with the many millions of Americans who want their parks open and accessible. But the mere suggestion still may be worth making. Just three years after DeVoto’s manifesto appeared, the NPS launched a $1 billion, congressionally-funded decade of maintenance and construction (called Mission 66) in advance of its 50th anniversary in 1966. No such overture has been made by Congress in advance of the park service’s 100th birthday next year. Is it time to close some parks to the public to get them the attention they deserve?

Photo courtesy of the NPS.