Whatever loathing voters feel toward Washington, D.C., this week, it is a fair bet they make an exception for America’s national parks — immortalized by Ken Burns in the miniseries “America’s Best Idea.’’ So it is ironic that one of the worst casualties of the government shutdown is the National Park Service, which administers 401 national parks, monuments, and iconic places across the country.
October is a popular time for the parks. Normally some 700,000 visitors pour into the parks every day, primarily to see the foliage. Fish are spawning, bears are fattening up, birds are migrating. But the National Park Service is responsible for all the utilities, fire protection, emergency services, and other infrastructure in its parks, so all the campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, and other commercial activities within the parks are now closed. That in turn hits the surrounding gateway communities, where the local economy is dependent on small businesses that cater to tourists, such as tour guides, outdoor recreation shops, motels, and small eateries. Much of their annual revenue is generated at this time of the year. The timing could hardly be worse for damaging the US economy.
Shuttering the parks in their autumn glory seems silly and unnecessary, but it is also a much more significant matter because the Park Service plays a vital role in education. More than 7.5 million schoolchildren participate in structured learning programs in the national parks every year. October is a prime time for school field trips and thousands of kids will be denied the chance to hear the deafening sound of the textile looms in Lowell or walk the hallowed ground of places like Gettysburg. Nothing taught inside a classroom can come close. The Park Service website — now shut down — is the government’s most-visited website. Its 900 links and curriculum study guides are a key resource for teachers and kids across the country. This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but schoolchildren who are assigned to write an essay on the Civil War will find a “closed” sign on the key Web links to this heritage.
The Park Service also underpins a number of vibrant regional economies. Hollywood films many of its famous chaparral and Western scenes at the 20th Century Fox Movie Ranch in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Miami-Dade County depends on the Everglades National Park for much of its drinking water. Local communities around the country get more than $5 billion per year in tax credits to support historic protection of local places of interest, most recently helping Boston restore the old Filene’s Basement. Park historians, curators, and archeologists work with thousands of community groups, Native American tribes, local town historical societies, wildlife organizations, and other parts of society to tell the diverse and fascinating stories of this country.
The Park Service is already reeling from the government “sequester’’ earlier this year that has obliged it to leave 900 jobs unfilled. Despite this shortage of resources, it was called on to battle the Pacific Rim fire — the worst ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada — which threatened to destroy Yosemite National Park and its 2,000-year-old giant sequoia trees.
The budgetary dysfunction in the federal government means that the Park Service personnel are putting up “closed’’ signs, nailing down posts, shutting computer systems, and severing contracts. All this will need to be reversed once Congress gets it act together and the government finally opens up.
Perhaps the only good thing about the timing of this government shutdown, from the perspective of the nearly 1 million federal workers who are not permitted to do their jobs this week, is that the weather is still nice. So in theory, they could enjoy a healthy bike ride on the 185-mile C&O canal trail along the Potomac. But unfortunately, it is shut down.
“The ultimate irony,’’ according to National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis, “is that the Affordable Care Act is supposed to incentivize healthy behavior and one of the best ways to improve health is to get outdoors. We are shutting down America’s best way to keep you healthy.’’
Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University, serves on the US National Parks Advisory Board.