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Is Anyone Listening?


Passart1_copy    What a week. Economic impacts and impacting economics.
     If you've spent any time surfing the 'net, you've seen I'm not the only one talking about the National Parks Conservation Association's latest study on how much economic good the national parks generate or the soon-to-debut $80 America the Beautiful pass.
    Over at Wild Wilderness and Get Outdoors bloggers are wondering why we need to attach economic impact figures to the parks. At the New West site, Bill Schneider fears the constant increase in fees to visit our public lands will only continue to escalate and that the ATB pass has been ill-conceived. At Park Remark, the reaction to the pass is that it will make public lands access more restrictive. Washington-based Jim MacDonald has waxed philosophical in his comments to my posts about the NPCA report and vented about the same on his own site.
    So what are we to make of all this?

    I suppose the short answer is that there's great concern for our public lands, the national parks specifically.
    But that concern is, as the saying goes, a mile wide and a foot deep.
    Why? I suppose it's because we are barraged today with an amazing, constantly changing, kaleidoscope of issues. There are family concerns, relationships to grapple with, personal economics, health care, retirement, wars, and on and on and on.
    Is it any surprise that advocacy groups such as the NPCA hope to kindle attention by pointing out the economic benefits of national parks? How much attention would the group garner by trotting out beautiful photos of Yosemite Falls or Clingmans Dome or Mount Rainier and say Congress needs to fully fund these places? They'd be beautiful shots, for sure, but what would the reaction be? What response would they get if they focused on the intrinsic values of the park system, the beautiful landscapes, the waterfalls, the wildlife, the cultural and history?
    People can relate to economics, particularly those folks who rely on national parks for their livelihoods. At the same time, many who love national parks are disconcerted when those places are boiled down to dollars and cents.
    As for the ATB pass, my guess is that the furor will subside and the agencies will move forward with their chosen path, just as Yellowstone officials seem blindly determined to allow snowmobiles
into the park even though science suggests that would be an unwise decision.   
     I guess what's disturbing about both of these developments (the economic impact study and the ATB pass, not the snowmobile dispute, which is a whole 'nother matter) is that they'd be unnecessary if the millions of national park visitors across the country took a stand on how the park system is being managed and funded.
    (Tens of thousands have taken a stand against snowmobiles in Yellowstone, but to no avail. Perhaps that's why there's apathy out there.)
    Folks, if you don't show up, you don't get a say when it comes time to make decisions. Sit quietly on the sidelines and you have nothing to complain about if you don't like that decision.
    Those millions of park visitors could accomplish a whole lot of good for the national parks if they would voice their concerns over park funding and entrance pass fees to their elected representatives. Without that pressure, Congress isn't likely to respond.
    And it can't be just a little pressure. It's got to be a lot, and it's got to be persistent.
    Truth be known, Congress itself, even those members on the National Parks Caucus, a group that counts fewer than 40 members, is lukewarm about national park issues.
    Earlier this year Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona circulated among his colleagues a letter he just sent to the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture urging that energy corridors being proposed across the country avoid national parks and other sensitive lands. He wound up with 19 total signatures. Nineteen. Not even the entire National Parks Caucus would sign on.
    Nearly two years ago Congressmen Mark Souder of Indiana and Brian Baird of Washington introduced the National Park Centennial Act, a piece of legislation they thought could help the Park Service dig out of its fiscal black hole by the agency's centennial in 2016. It's gone absolutely nowhere.
    Congressman Souder also has spent a good deal of time crisscrossing the country the past year or so collecting testimony on how underfunded the park system is. Yet we have yet to hear the details of his fact-finding.
    If we truly love and appreciate the national parks, if we want these magical places to last for future generations, we need to make some noise. For if we, the taxpayers who own and support the parks, don't get more concerned about how our public lands are managed, I fear things will only get uglier on the landscape.


Kurt, in your article you mentioned "energy corrodors"...I can see it coming, along with the noise, auto and snowmobile pollution, and plus the excessive maddening's visual pollution!....that's all we need, some tall ugly looking steel structure, stringing miles of cable lines stretched across the beautiful horizons of our Nationa Parks. Such a sight of sore eyes for the energy companies! Next thing they might propose, is a slick tram system to be erected across the Grand Canyon. A foot in the door for these guys, is another foot in the grave for the National Parks.

The whole National Park System was created to preserve some of the most beautiful places on Earth. We, as visitors to the Parks, must take a stand on these issues. Write your Congressmen. "Snail-mail", not an e-mail. Tell them to help fix the Park system. Our grandchildren will thank you. We don't need any more MIS-management of our Parks.

I hate to be contrarian again, but please at least take what I say here with a little seriousness. I live in Washington; I've worked with think tanks, I've lobbied in Congress before. Your congressperson will not listen to you beyond having the legislative aid who handles that issue send you a form letter that has been prepared on that issue. If you want to have even the slightest chance, you have to figure out who your congressperson's legislative aid is, and you have to contact that person directly, usually by fax or by having their email address directly (you'll never find out more than the office phone of the congress). And, even then, you aren't going to get anywhere. I have seen firsthand that the only thing that speaks to a member of Congress is having either a lot of money; or a huge and organized grassroots constituency. In other words, without organizing or without a lot of cash, you will not get anyone's attention for very long. Yet, even then, there are so many competing interests, that you have to be very lucky to have any influence. That's how Madison intended it to be; that factions would cancel each other out, creating a government that changed little and had relative stability and yet gave people the illusion of influence. And, actually, I'm being too kind. If you want to put your energy into preserving the parks, the best thing you can do isn't to write your congressperson but rather to find your neighbors, educate and organize each other, and use your combined leverage to take actions which are noticeable both to your neighbors and those in charge of policy. In Washington, I realize that the latter is much easier for me. However, the former is possible. When you do that, when you connect with others organizing on different issues (and recognizing the similarity), when you connect with people across the country doing the same thing, then you have a movement and a lobby that can exert power. That's the long, hard road, but it's the only road that really is available to us. I think that "write your congressman", much like commenting on Environmental Impact Statements, is the safety valve the system gives people in order to give the illusion of a participatory democracy. Most of those letters end up in the cylindrical file. I've even visited members of Congress, and to get someone, an aid, anyone to talk to you even to set up an appointment is hard enough. Being a DC resident, where I don't even have a member of Congress (merely a non-voting delegate), it's that much harder. In fact, that part of the system is something so infuriating to DC residents that the advice that we "write our congressperson" is suggestive of ignorance of the colonialism under which so many other Americans (including those in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Marianas) continue to live. I really like a lot of what you say Kurt; I agree strongly with the need for action. I'd encourage people who want to take the lobbying route to research it and do it differently (and prove me wrong). I really believe in a diversity of tactics in our actions. However, I live here, and I see that a lot of what passes for a call to action doesn't actually amount to anything, and so we should think about what works. We really suffer as activists trying to find things that work; it's so frustrating. I'm very frustrated myself, and I want people to be empowered. I'd ask that people not dismiss what I'm saying; I feel like I'm begging here because I feel so strongly about this. Jim

Jim, This blog welcomes contrarians. Hell, look at the beating I took over guns in the parks;-) That said, you're very right in how difficult it can be to sway congress-folk. It ain't easy, it ain't pretty, and often it ain't cheap. But, as Messers. Pombo and Burns discovered last month, they can be kicked out of the club if they ignore us too long. I would hope that the folks who read this blog and agree with some of my views share them with their friends and their friends' friends and that that grassroots effort you refer to gets moving in the right direction. And that's not to say NPCA or The Wilderness Society should be written off. As you point out, we need to come at this issue from as many directions as possible and these groups carry considerable weight in Washington. And it won't be easy; little these days is, except for sitting on the sidelines. But there are opportunities. In addition to your suggestions, which I'm sure seem daunting to many, senators and representatives can be approached when they return to their districts for town hall meetings. These opportunities are golden for not only button-holing your elected official, but getting to know members of the staff. And believe it or not, Jim, some of us live in states where our representatives are pretty easy to contact. My congressman actually called me at home one night to discuss the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and drilling. Of course, we were 180 degrees apart, but we had a great conversation. Hopefully, if folks believe mightily that the Park Service isn't doing as good a job as it can, things will change. Granted, it won't happen overnight. But that doesn't mean we should be so discouraged we stay on the sidelines.

Jim, I've enjoyed reading your thoughts over the last week on this blog. I've read before that standardized form letters that arrive in email are ignored by congress, but do individual notes get any more attention? Although, I have seen that sometimes those form letters sent en masse can work. I was impressed by how well the collective voices were heard this past year asking that the Hoffman Management Plans be rejected (or rewritten).

I know that in the propaganda wars, individual letters are said to be given more weight over form letters. This means that they are more likely to be read. Yet, I don't think that necessarily equates to more likely to influence or more likely to be the most effective use of one's organizing time. I once worked at a think tank that had a very small budget as far as these things go, about $750,000 a year, still much more than you or me. What it meant was that we could send some letters to Congress, arrange people to be in meetings with some congresspeople, and hold roundtable luncheons that sometimes attracted the congressional LA's on the issue we were targeting. In 3 years there, despite having the ear of a lot of people, I don't recall us ever having our fingerprint even once on a single piece of legislation through Congress. Sure, there were some things that were somewhat beneficial to what we were working on, but that was not due to our work. That's despite playing the game, knowing who the LA's were, keeping a database, setting up meetings, creating prestigious "advisory councils" and so on and so forth. You can get anyone's attention at any time, but the decisions on the Hill are made by an oligarchy of the few. Public support matters only when the powers that be deem it to be part of their need for leverage. Public outcry can work as a tactic in some circumstances, but the effect is fleeting, and still someone else has control of the puppet strings. If you've been to my blog, you know that I'm a political radical and have little use for institutions of power; I have less so having seen them firsthand. Yet, it's what we are stuck with for the time being because either we let the federal bureaucracy manage the parks or we let private corporations manage them, and the latter alternative has even less accountability. And, in truth, it's a marriage of the two that we actually have and have always had (which incidentally fits well with Mussolini's definition of fascism). Even so, given the choice between the two, I've always been prone to support the government because theoretically at least, I have some influence over that. However, in truth, I don't. And, if you simply think about the mathematics of it, you will never be able to make change this way except in the most superficial way. In a country of 300,000,000 people, you can only have any right to 1/300,000,000th of the say, which is statistically nothing. At most, you can pool with others on the increasingly narrow things you can agree with to magnify your voice on those few things that you can agree to. In fact, though, some people have a hugely magnified voice, and they are on the in with the few interests that actually control the game. That's probably why I think that change has to start in your own towns among your own neighbors, starting book clubs, discussion events, educational forums, and networking with others working on their issues. It grows perhaps to protests and direct action and building communal infrastructures of support. The more you as a community make a voice for yourselves and make yourself less dependent on the caretakers of the national (and hell international) infrastructure, the more likely you'll be to force people to listen. I don't know what I think about $80 passes; it seems more a tax on the middle class than on the poor (who actually work in the Parks and get in for free), so there's a big part of me indifferent to the whole question. The allocation of funds issue seems important, but it's caught in a mess much greater than that. So, I am not inclined to focus my ire at that despite the fact I realize that there's something tricky and unjust about it (and that it points to the lack of transparency in government). On snowmobiles, however, I have always believed that the issue, like all issues of the kind, was essentially not scientific but ideological, and its the culture of privilege in those who think they have a right to snowmobile that irks me (and that those who would treat the land differently are actually elitists is astounding to me, especially coming from that lobby). I think they should be resisted, and that's something a public education campaign in the towns can make some difference over time in doing, that's something that going on the ground to West Yellowstone to harass those who would ride snowmobiles into the Park can make a difference immediately (or if one prefers a different tact, talking with business owners in West Yellowstone about different ways to make a living - I have a feeling though that tact is less likely to be effective). But, no matter what people do, the lobbying congress approach, the direct action approach, the grassroots approach, the public education approach, we do need to be doing something, and we cannot root passively on the sidelines here. The things we love are at stake, and no one can be counted on to do these things for us. We have to find each other and figure out what to do as a group, not simply as individuals (those in power are far too organized to pay attention merely to what any single individual might have to say). Some do this by trying to win elections; I prefer organizing for approaches I think are more effective (in part because those who win elections only need to pay just so much attention to those who sent them there and much more to those who can fund them and get them ripe committee seats). Jim

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