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National parks are a major economic engine - October 10, 2013

National parks have been referred to as “America’s Best Idea.” Following the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the idea took off like wildfire. Today, hundreds of national parks are found in more than 100 countries worldwide.

The concept may seem simple to us today, but just over a century ago, it was revolutionary. National parks allow us to take the most special places of the natural landscape — along with places of exceptional historical and cultural value — and set them aside for posterity, for all of us to enjoy. Because of the efforts of the first park champions, people like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt — our great conservation president — we will never see strip malls built upon Old Faithful or fenced-in private estates along the rim of the Grand Canyon.

We will not have to endure seeing the largest of the giant redwoods felled for Pier One furnishings, and — to use our local example — we will never see Boardwalk vendors or miniature golf courses upon the gracefully flowing dunes of Assateague Island.

By creating national parks, we are collectively recognizing that there are places in our country whose value unaltered exceeds that of what society could gain by privatizing and opening such landscapes to the free market. We recognize that as individuals, we wish to enjoy these amazing places as they exist naturally. And we also recognize that the best way to protect them for our own enjoyment is to allow everyone in our society to enjoy them as well.

In doing so, they become our common heritage, a natural resource that each and every one of us has a stake in. They are bought and paid for with our tax dollars, administered by policies enacted by the officials we vote into office. And they are maintained by our volunteer hours, donations, park entrance fees, and by dedicated staff that, at the moment, are furloughed.

Considering the immense value we place on our national parks to be those special places we can all go enjoy, it was a shock to see Assateague Island National Seashore, along with national parks across our great nation, close their gates this past week. The political squabbling that has lately reached an epic pitch in Washington, D.C., had the unfortunate side effect of closing our parks. Our parks! Our special places! The parks that we — the people — set aside for or own enjoyment. How is that even possible?

Ironically, when you peel away the layers of debate in Washington, the partisan divide boils down to spending, and that boils down further to the health of the economy – something we all want, but have differing views on how to get. So logic would suggest that if a government shutdown were necessary to improve the economy, it would not also harm it. Was closing the parks good for the economy?

Here on Delmarva, more than 117,000 acres of public land was made inaccessible to the public because of the shutdown. The closed parks include Assateague Island National Seashore and the National Wildlife Refuges at Blackwater, Bombay Hook, Prime Hook, Wallops Island, Chincoteague and the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Temperatures are in the high 70s and 80s, it is sunny and gorgeous, the fall migratory bird season is in full swing, hunting season is starting, and — other than agriculture — tourism is the No. 1 driver of our economy.­

Consider Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which draws birders, paddlers and all manner of outdoorsy types from around the country. Roughly 1.4 million people visit the scenic shoreline and historic lighthouse each year. The refuge generates an amazing $155 in local economic activity for every $1 Congress appropriates to it. But due to the government shutdown, this economic engine was closed down.

As the air gets brisk and the sun’s rays less brilliant, our shoulder season tourists shift their attention from the beaches and onto our other natural wonders — the ponies, migratory birds, our endless maze of waterways. While they are here, they shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants, fill up with gas and stay in our hotels and campgrounds.

Many of them are here to enjoy the special places — our parks and refuges — that belong to all of us, to them as much as to us locals who get to enjoy them year-round. If they’re closed, the tourists have no reason to come. And if the tourists do not come, they do not fuel our economy. We set aside those parks for a reason, because we believed them to be so special that they should be enjoyed by all, for all time.
 

Arlo Hemphill is the watershed coordinator at Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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