For most of us, birthdays are happy occasions, when friends and family pay fond attention, lavishing us with gifts to prove that we are loved and valued. For one day, our foibles are accepted with a smile—or at least diplomatically ignored.
The National Park Service’s 100th birthday this August has been less joyful. In fact, anyone paying attention to the news might think that the proud agency, which oversees 412 units across more than 80 million acres, has had its centennial celebration ruined by a series of uncomfortable revelations.
In January, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report detailing two decades of sexual harassment by boatmen in the Grand Canyon’s river district and the failure of senior officials to adequately respond. In March, the agency abolished the river district and announced that it would increase sexual-harassment training and conduct an agency-wide survey to ascertain how widespread the problem is.
Then, in February, Chief Jon Jarvis was reprimanded by his bosses at Interior for publishing a book on the parks through a private company without federal approval.
Meanwhile, the Park Service remains hobbled by byzantine bureaucratic policies that have contributed to its struggle to hire a workforce that reflects the nation’s racial diversity, despite decades of “we’re-on-it” rhetoric. Today, 83 percent of its 23,000 employees are white—no more racially diverse than it was a decade ago.
The agency also lacks an adequate funding base, not only to maintain current operations, but to address the crumbling, neglected infrastructure at parks around the country. Annual appropriations from Congress, which make up about 88 percent of the Park Service’s roughly $3 billion budget, declined 8 percent between 2005 and 2014 after adjusting for inflation, according to a December report from the Government Accountability Office. The funding crisis is so bad that the agency is considering corporate sponsorships, a move that has some worried that “America’s Best Idea” will end up auctioned off to the highest bidder: Arches National Park brought to you by McDonald’s.
It's enough bad news that some park officials probably wish that they’d planned a low-key event at some remote park in, say, South Dakota, rather than the yearlong media-saturated, Subaru-sponsored celebration that is keeping the agency in the public eye.
But I’m glad the Park Service went big on its centennial—and I’m even glad that its dirty laundry is getting an airing. After all, birthdays are more than just celebrations; they’re also a time for reflection and redirection. The fact that we are having such deep, passionate discussions about our national parks and their problems is proof that they are loved and that they matter.
Besides, there are some bright spots: The agency continues to lead the way in helping us understand how climate change effects ecological systems; over the past five years, its new climate response program has studied climate change impacts on national parks from Acadia in Maine to American Samoa in the Pacific. Director Jarvis has also convened a panel of independent scientists, who, in a report called Revisiting Leopold, urge the agency to stop trying to preserve each park as a “vignette of primitive America” and “act immediately, boldly and decisively” to prepare for volatile conditions, including severe wet seasons and deep droughts. That is forward-thinking all land agencies need to embrace.
The Park Service has expanded its vision beyond protecting gorgeous landscapes to embracing parks and monuments, some brand new, that spotlight America’s unique cultural heritage in all its remarkable, complex and occasionally ugly glory—places like Cesar Chavez National Monument in California’s Central Valley and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park in Maryland.
The centennial may not go down as the Park Service’s happiest birthday celebration ever, but hopefully it will be the most memorable and transformative one. We can all raise a glass to that.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.