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A View From The Overlook: Contingency Plans


One of the minor joys of flying Southwest Airlines is the patented deadpan humor that the flight attendants use to get you to listen to the most routine housekeeping and safety messages:

“We have a report of broken clouds at LAX, but we hope to have them fixed before arrival,” or, my favorite:

“In the case of loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend; put yours on first and then assist your child. If you have more than one child, put the oxygen mask on the child that is the cutest, most promising, and least amount of trouble.”

That last joke may be food for thought for national park partisans, depending on who wins the 2012 election. Someone might have to choose which parks are the “cutest, most promising and least amount of trouble” and which should be allowed to suffocate.

“Poppycock!” says The Old Ranger, with the worldly smile of a veteran bureaucrat. “It doesn’t matter which party is in power for the NPS! The American people love their parks! Now, some administrations are leaner than others, but it all averages out in the end; why, I don’t even bother to vote!”

Perhaps, but this election is different from others; just as these “tea party” Republicans are a bit different from Eisenhower or even Reagan Republicans. Indeed, think Madame DeFarge Republicans.

Where's Theodore Roosevelt When The GOP Needs Him?

You see, the 800-pound gorilla in the room has finally dropped the other shoe.

What, exactly would be fate of the environment under a Romney-Ryan regime?

It took some doing, but Thomas B. Edsall, writing in the September 9 New York Times managed to winkle out a fair prediction of the possible environmental results of a Romney-Ryan victory.

There is no environmental plank in the Republican platform; not even the usual boilerplate about, “Preserving our glorious parks without going fiscally overboard, etc. etc.”

Nope. According to the Times article, what will happen to the environment, the parks and other matters is to be found in another document, THE CONCURRENT RESOLUTION ON THE BUDGET, FISCAL YEAR 2013. On page 16, on the far right of the page, is nearly a trillion dollars (897 billion to be exact) in what is called “Discretionary Spending.” That is the stuff you really don’t need, like education, environmental protection, work-place safety, law enforcement, parks. All that stuff you hardly ever use if you are a billionaire.

Problem is, Congressman Ryan needs to cut just about that entire discretionary trillion slice to make his budget figures work out.

Dave Clary, a retired NPS historian, grimly remarked that full implementation of Ryan’s ideas might include eliminating the national parks.

Actually, the Tea Party Republicans would be satisfied with just eliminating the National Park Service, thank you. That would save a little over a billion dollars a years. (The more perverse Republicans would be amused to abolish the agency on the eve of its centennial SURPRISE! SURPRISE!)

“Tommyrot!” harrumphs the Old Ranger “Who would take care of the parks if the NPS was abolished?”

Let The Military Return To The Parks!

No problem! Under our new streamlined federal government, the national parks could be transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Defense and the various branches of the Armed Forces would manage the parks.

Water-oriented parks such as national seashores, lakeshores, or recreation areas would be managed by the U.S. Coast Guard or the Navy. The Marines could manage desert parks and the Tenth Mountain Division of the U.S. Army would handle mountain parks such as Yosemite or Yellowstone.

An expanded U.S. Army historical division would staff military history parks. Small, non-military historical sites would be turned over to local historical societies. As mentioned, the National Park Service itself could then be abolished with commissioned law enforcement personnel transferred to Homeland Security. Non-pistolero employees would be transferred to other government agencies or subjected to Reduction In Force, (Ah well! There’s always grad school!)

Could this work?

Don’t see why not, neighbors! It was, after all, the way the early national parks were managed, courtesy of the U.S. Cavalry.

From the 1880s 'til around the time of the first World War, the U.S. Army provided for the protection, if not interpretation, of the existing parks. (One cavalry unit patrolled Yellowstone National Park in the summer time and spent the winter in the Philippines fighting guerillas and Moro tribesmen; must have been interesting duty!) To this day, the NPS has relics of its Army roots in the campaign hat and a distinctive paramilitary attitude.

But Could The Military Handle It?

But would it work well?

Probably not. Due to virtually unlimited personnel, the military could probably equal or even surpass the civilian NPS in trail maintenance, roads, and other infrastructure, as well as forest-fire management and, due to unceasing backcountry training patrols, the complete suppression of marijuana farming in the parks.

However, the public would want a bit more than that, such as answers to questions.

Through no fault of his/her own, the Tenth Mountain Division trooper stationed at Old Faithful would have to respond, “Sorry, Sir! Geology is not my MOS!” to a taxpayer's question.

Still, a military takeover of the parks would be one contingency plan.

Here’s another contingency plan. Several years ago, Owen Hoffman, a former long-term seasonal interpretive ranger, suggested the possibility of a “Ranger Reserve” made up of retired permanent NPS employees and former long-term seasonals who could be activated in the event of an NPS “emergency.”

As there was no particular “emergency” available when Dr. Hoffman proposed his “Ranger Reserve” idea, he was politely thanked and his suggestion filed in the Limbo of Interesting Ideas.

However, we now have an official, looming emergency.

That would be the celebrated “Fiscal Cliff Sequestration” that would gut many park programs, including some that are considered existentially essential to the survival of the parks that Congress has established. The Park Service director and the regional directors would be forced to make the choice as suggested by the flight attendant. That is, choosing which parks are, “The cutest, most promising, and least amount of trouble.”

“But,” you ask, “Can’t we just close the least-visited parks?”

Sorry, you can’t “close” a park. Today’s modern vandals arrive with bolt cutters, pry bars, chain saws, 4-wheel-drive vehicles, and acetylene torches. If you want to keep your park, you are going to need boots on the ground, as the California state parks found out.

Due to the catastrophic California budget crunch, they “closed” Mitchell Caverns State Park. Vandals looted the contact station and little museum and found the key to the cavern door and vandalized the cave itself.

“So, would these 'Reserve Rangers' get paid?” you might wonder.

Not bloody likely, neighbor; this is a political disaster, not a natural disaster.

"But wouldn’t this be playing into the hands of the Bad Guys? You would be spending your retirement years working for the NPS for nothing!”

No, the Reserve Rangers would be on short-term assignment, just long enough to save the parks and get us past the Tea Party lunacy.

“So, who would organize this 'Reserve Ranger' thing and would YOU sign up?"

Well, I don’t rightly know. The Coalition of Retired National Park Employees comes immediately to mind. I’ll have to ask Dr. Hoffman if he has ideas on the subject. As to the second part of the question, would I sign up? Darn tootin’! Sounds like fun!


This sort of partisan claptrap really spoils the nature-- pun intended-- of your magazine and organization. Republicans are just as capable and interested as anybody, perhaps moreso, being conservatives, of "conserving" the environment. But let's face it. If we keep running deficits like we have been, the Chinese will end up owning our National Parks and either charge us exorbitant sums to use them or will strip-mine them to power their coal industry.

Anon 7:06 is absolutely right. This is just more of the partisan speculation. They have no real evidence so just "predict" and then attack the predictions. Totally irresponsible.

Your suppositions regarding administration of the NPS sites under a Republican admin are wildly fantastic. The Federal government continues to grow outstripping the ability of taxes to pay for what it wants. Both sides of the political debate recognize that government cannot continue to borrow 40% of it's expenditures annually and ultimately, government will be trimmed in some manner. The tea party isn't the demon. Uncontrolled growth of government is.

My wife and I love the NPS system. We visit sites on every trip we take and plan some trips each year to NPS sites exclusively. It doesn't follow that we believe that the NPS (or other agencies) can continue to operate as it has and continue to grow as they have.

I worked in natural resource management for the Federal government for 40 years. Government never has enough money or people. Left to it's own devices it will continue to grow unabated. Sequestration is a cowards method to reduce spending. It takes a meat axe to everything, regardless of it's importance. We will reduce funding indescriminately to the most necessary programs like SS, Medicare, defense and to the ones we love most like NPS. The cowardice of Congress and the President to take meaningful steps to avert this crisis should alarm all Americans.

Your blatent provincialism regarding the NPS does nothing to perpetuate protection of the parks we all love. Ultimately, the 'solution' of a government unable to manage it's resources will destroy the system unless we find a way to balance our spending with Federal revenues.

The problem with this article is that it is hard to weed out the sarcasm from any possible truths. Just be straight forward with information. If, indeed, there is no environmental platform in the GOP, then say so clearly. If the GOP is considering closing parks, say so. If the GOP is talking about the army taking over parks, say so. I would share this with friends but it is way too convoluted.

The problem became much more clear to me when I heard yesterday on national news that 48% of Americans pay zero Fed. income tax--- nada. Also that the # of Americans recieving Fed assistance had increased by something like 300% in the past 25 years ??? Something ain't right......and something has to change.

Thank you PJ Ryan for an interesting and amusing op-ed. Frankly, I think there is much truth in what you have to say, at least in my own humble opinion. The NPS has generally done an excellent job with our parks as have the USFS and BLM in managing other public land units. The vast majority of these employees are top flight personnel, but of course there are exceptions, which unfortunately get most of the public attention. Its interesting to note that many congressional members are calling for severe budget cuts (but no equitable way to pay for them including a more fair and balanced tax system), but when it comes to the Defense Dept, whoa, no way. According to the Simpson/Boyles report, the US spends more on "National Defense" than nearly all the the nations of the world combined. We are spending 51% of the total federal budget on defense (excluding ss, medicare and interest on the national debt) as compared to China's 7% (the next largest military spender). In any case you can find stats to support almost any argument, and I do agree that a balanced approach to reducing the national debt is important. According again to Simpson/Boyles, the top five priorities are health care reform, defense spending, ss, interest on the debt and tax reform. But they stressed that everyone would have to set aside their lobbying interests to get this done. That is going to be tough to do with the special interest advocates that basically control Washington with hugh amounts of money. We will see, it is an interesting debate.

If you're upset with PJ's style don't ever read anything written by Jonathan Swift!

According to the Simpson/Boyles report, the US spends more on "National Defense" than nearly all the the nations of the world combined.

Not even close/ World $1,735 billion. US $711 billion.

We are spending 51% of the total federal budget on defense (excluding ss, medicare and interest on the national debt)

Why exclude SS, medicare and interest other than to pad your number - since China doesn't have any of those things. Fact is Defense is 25% of the federal budget and is currently near the lows of the last century.

Yes, we need a balanced approach - higher tax revenues (stimulated by lower tax rates- which worked for Kennedy, Reagan and Bush) and lower regulation as well as lower and more efficient spending - especially on entitlements.

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