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A View From The Overlook: The Advantages Of National Parks

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A program at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park launched in 2010 works with under-privileged high school students to introduce them to the array of sciences  exploredin the park. NPS photo.

“What good are national parks?”

This is a question often raised by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party when faced by non-utilitarian public land use.

It is an interesting question. The first answer is the John Muir answer; that national parks are “good” in and of themselves; that they are not required to be economically valuable.

The idea that plants and animals are spiritually valuable and soul nourishing was first proposed by the first century naturalist, Jesus Christ, who famously observed “Consider the lilies of the field; how they grow, they toil not, nor do they spin, and yet I say onto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

The quote (Luke 12:23-40) was undoubtedly made in response to the Judean Sheep and Goat Association’s claim that God had given them the right to overgraze the Holy Land (This doesn’t show up in the Bible, but it should!).

Now we are not inferring that the Tea Party Republicans are the Anti-Christ, but you might want to check your congressman for the Mark of the Beast!

The second answer to the question of the value of national parks takes the dilemma by the horns and states boldly that the parks ARE economically valuable; that you CAN make money off them; that is, folks who show up to “Consider the Lilies” are going to need something to eat and a place to sleep, as well as a souvenir of their “Considering,“ and you can make money selling these goods and services to them.

This is not quite as spiritual an answer as that of Christ or John Muir, but it has a powerful appeal to the local chamber of commerce. Indeed, the presence of the NPS arrowhead or a patch of dark green or pink on a road map, indicating the presence of a national park unit, is much sought after by most of the normal parts of the United States.

The NPS brand on a piece of property, large or small, is sort of the touristic version of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” The park patron is assured of first-rate museum exhibitry and a friendly, knowledgeable staff that will leave the patron with the feeling that his time, tax dollars and admission fee were well spent. A sizable segment of the traveling public views visiting NPS sites as virtually a patriotic duty, making sure to get their NPS Passports stamped, and encouraging their children to work to acquire the Junior Ranger badges offered at most sites.

All of these activities precipitate money into the surrounding communities. Everyone, particularly normal Republicans, likes this. This helps to make national parks a rare bi-partisan issue that most people can get behind. (Readers will recall the recent frantic efforts of Utah, Arizona and other “red States” to re-open parks closed by the government shutdown.)

Battling Poverty With Parks

It is also helpful that many national park units are located in what President Lyndon Johnson called “pockets of poverty.” These are generally rural areas with declining industries such as mining, logging, or marginal agriculture, with low educational outcomes and a high proportion of jobs that are seasonal in nature and close to minimum wage when available.

Some of these “pockets of poverty” are pretty big pockets, such as much of Appalachia and the Ozark Plateau. In other cases, NPS units butt up against or are surrounded by Native American reservations where unemployment and alcoholism is in the high double digits.

NPS units in these “poverty pockets” constitute a sort of small economic oasis for the local population. NPS jobs, even when seasonal, generally pay more that the going rate and are among the few jobs in the community guaranteed not to be outsourced to China.

This brings us to the third advantage of National Parks: the presence of the NPS staff. The rangers, interpreters, maintenance, and administrative folk are a great resource (and role model) for the surrounding community. They provide vital backup and support in law enforcement, medical first response, fire and natural disaster assistance, and education They are intelligent, well-educated, well-trained, outgoing persons with a broad worldview due to the nomadic nature of the NPS life style.

They are also well paid (at least by poverty pocket standards). This allows them the luxury of working only their NPS jobs, rather than several low paying jobs to make ends meet. This in turn, provides the luxury of spare time, which they often invest in volunteer work for the community. Using the bases of schools, churches, service organizations such as Rotary or Lions, youth groups such as the Boy & Girl Scouts, these NPS volunteers do provide reinforcement to the community, for the betterment of the locals and the mission of the NPS.

Park personnel and spouses often assist after school in tutoring or coaching sports. Now, we are not implying that every NPS bureaucrat is some sort of Lord or Lady Bountiful, bestowing wisdom on the surrounding yokels as in a Department of Interior version of “Downton Abbey.” But the NPS staffers do have an effect on the community and it is usually positive.

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Some of the program's students are involved in interpretive programs. NPS photo.

Let us consider one such example of NPS effect on a “pocket of poverty” located on the Big Island of Hawaii.

“But”, you say, “Hawaii is a tropical paradise! No one can be miserable! It’s against the law!”

That may be the case in the Kona district of the Big Island, where all the famous resorts and beaches hold sway. But it is not so in the Ka’u district, an agricultural area that abuts Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Ka’u District is economically depressed.

Why is this the case? Breaks of the game, neighbors! The Hawaiian sugar industry collapsed due to the “deregulation” that forced Hawaiian sugar to compete on the world market. In such cases, Bangladesh wins every time.

The big Ka'u plantations like C. Brewer shut down, as did all but one in the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. This left a lot of folks out of full time work.

Now perhaps they should have all moved to North Dakota to get in on the oil boom, but they didn’t. Some were able to transition into the developing Ka'u Coffee industry, others settled into tropical torpor, subsisting on welfare, subsistence wild pig and goat hunting, part time or odd jobs, supplemented in some case by a little pakalolo (marijuana) farming; for recreation there was surfing, music, and hanging out with buddies.

It is not a bad existence; nobody starves or dies of exposure in Hawaii. “Poverty is a warm weather sport” as one acquaintance put it.

It was, however, a very limiting role model for the children. Indeed, such children are known as “at risk,” particularly to the crystal meth problem, the “drug of boredom” in rural America.

Parks As Educators

The astute principal of the Ka’u High School perceived that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and its rangers have the ability to help the students gain self-esteem, to learn more about the homeland they love, and to set goals for acquiring professions and higher education

At roughly the same time, visiting anthropologist Dr. Joan Rubin and her retired NPS husband contacted a major figure in the Ka’u district, Julia Neal, who in addition to being a crusading local newspaper woman, was actively involved in promoting the Pahala community.

What to do?

“When in doubt, ask a ranger.”

So the three presented a plan to Cindy Orlando, superintendent of Hawaii Volcanos National Park, who thought it an interesting challenge. It was especially timely since the park was interested in greater outreach with the surrounding communities.

Cindy asked Interpretive Park Ranger Kupono McDaniel if he was interested in the plan to involve the Ka’u students in the park by training them in the various NPS disciplines. Indeed, Kupono was interested in helping the “at risk “youth of Ka’u, but knew it would be a challenge for both sides.

National parks and the National Park Service are resolutely middle class. For example, “volunteering in the parks,” that is, working for nothing, is pretty much a middle class concept. Since the Ka’u kids were not middle class, that concept would have to be shelved for the time being; “Only a chump works for nothing!” 

So, Kupono instituted the “GS-1 Ranger.” At the bottom of the GS ladder, there are no prerequisites for the GS-1 position other than to show up breathing. Humble as it was, the GS-1 paid $10 an hour. Not bad pay for a Ka’u kid.

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Students learn about the geologic forces at play in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. NPS photo.

In addition, the park provided a training program and uniforms. The uniforms were the real deal. If they passed the training course, they would wear the same uniforms as regular park rangers. For the first time in their young lives, they would feel and be important. It would prove to be a heady feeling.

Thus was born the Youth Ranger Internship Program. Ostensibly, the Ka’u kids were being hired and trained as seasonal rangers. In reality, they were being introduced to middle class values. There was the concept of the alarm clock; you didn’t shut it off and roll over; if you were expected to be at a certain place at a certain time, you were there, not just the first time, but always. The job came first; you didn’t drop it, because there was something “interesting” happening on the other side of the island. Above all, you would talk to strangers, look them in the eye, and answer their questions.

To many, if not most, of the Ka’u Kids, talking to strangers was primordially terrifying. Six-foot-tall Hawaiian surfer kids who had no fear of a 20-foot wave were reduced almost to tears by the prospect of talking to middle aged Iowa farm couple.

“What will they ask? What will I say?” were the fearful questions.

“Don’t worry! We will teach you,” said Kupono.

At Path Out Of Poverty

And teach and instruct they did. Training this fourth year of the program started on April 4, 2013, with 45 youth from Ka’u, Pahoa, and Kea’au public high schools, as well as the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences. There were short courses on how the volcano worked, the more common native plants and their uses, conservation values, teamwork and, of course, Hawaiiana; the rousing history and legends of the Hawaiian and Polynesian peoples. Practice on how to impart this newfound knowledge to others followed.

The Nature Conservancy, the powerful private conservation organization, got involved and took the Ka’u kids on overnight camp overs on their land. A local philanthropist provided a van to take the kids to the national park (Incredibly, few of the kids had ever visited the park; that, they thought, was for Haoles).

Those who completed the training program, 33 in all, were assigned to all six of the divisions of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; Interpretation, Natural Resources, Cultural Resources, Maintenance, Protection, and Administration. They then worked the summer of 2013 under the supervision of their ranger-mentors.

So, bottom line, was the Youth Ranger Internship Program a success? Seems to be the case. Let’s take the interns in the Interpretive Division. One by one, after much mentoring and critiquing, and considerable trepidation, every Youth Ranger Interpreter eventually gave his/her maiden interpretive talk. It was invariably well received, often with applause. Success begets success: half-remembered stories from grandparents were recalled—and researched, and incorporated into other talks. The kids began proposing ideas—always a good sign.

Over at Natural Resources Division, Youth Ranger Intern Grace Tredinnick was having the time of her life.

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Some students are immersed in the park's botany, which includes this Uluhe Frond. NPS photo.

In a letter written at the end of season, she stated: “Before I started working at the park, I never knew how diverse and beautiful the native species in Hawaii are because so many of them are uncommon outside the park…I would encourage anyone looking to start a career in conservation to check out this program. It is a perfect transition to adulthood from high school and gives everyone who participates in it a step up in the real world. In addition to that, it is a wonderful atmosphere. Everyone is so helpful and happy. I don’t think I’ve ever met an unhappy park ranger, and I knew I was happy to be there the entire time. I looked forward to every day.”

Before the program, college seemed as unrealistic as a trip to Mars for the Ka’u kids. Now it seemed a feasible idea, as there was a goal, to be a resource manager, or a park ranger. They would need a degree. There was now a reason. The high school guidance counselor could now do his job of removing obstacles to these goals.

The State of Hawaii was very much interested in the success of Native Hawaiians. You could go to the University of Hawaii tuition-free if you had Hawaiian blood. There are grants and scholarships available to those who have the will. The park staff at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park helped nurture that will. Just one of the many advantages of national parks.

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This is a question often raised by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party when faced by non-utilitarian public land use.

Really? Would you care to document that? Its a question I have never heard from a Tea Party supporter.

EC, perhaps not in the form of a question, but Rep. Michelle Bachmann's words and actions in the past go to PJ's point.

When she was fighting to secure (by earmark, no less) hundreds of millions of federal dollars for a bridge over the St. Croix River, a wild and scenic river, Rep. Bachmann drafted legislation that said, in part, "(C)onstruction of a four-lane highway bridge over the Lower St. Croix River ... is hereby deemed to be consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act."

And when she was running for president she told the AP: "The United States needs to be less dependent on foreign sources of energy and more dependent upon American resourcefulness. Whether that is in the Everglades, or whether that is in the eastern Gulf region, or whether that's in North Dakota, we need to go where the energy is," she said.

but Rep. Michelle Bachmann's words and actions in the past go to PJ's point.

Hardly. That Bachmann (and many others in and out of the Tea Party) have different views about appropriate activities within park boundaries hardly constitute the belief that parks have no "good".

I think reasonable people could, and would, disagree with you, ec.

Thank you Traveler, another interesting post by PJ Ryan, exactly what we should be doing more of in our National Parks. This "View From the Overlook" really made my day.

I think reasonable people could, and would, disagree with you, ec.

Really? You think it is reasonable to translate a disagreement as to a specific use in one or two parks to a blanket statement that Bachmann thinks there is no "good" in National Parks as a whole? If you really believe that then (as I have long argued) you have a total misunderstanding of (or want to intentially misrepresent) what the Tea Party represents and reasonable people could and would disagree with you.

[edit] - That is a group "you" and not specifically or solely aimed at Kurt.

Another terrific gem from the Thunderbear! Wonderful!

Best of all was the story of success for those kids. This is something that should be spread far and wide throughout the park system. I can think of five national parks and a few national monuments right here in Utah where there are crying needs for this kind of thing in surrounding communities.

This should be exactly the kind of thing the Tea Party and pachyderms everywhere should enthusiastically endorse and support.

But, unfortunately, it makes too much sense for that to happen and there probably isn't enough monetary incentive to line the pockets of those powerful folks who could make it happen if they wanted to. For those of us who have a totally clear understanding of what the Tea Party represents -- one that is not fogged by the outlandishly foolish greed it preaches -- it's clear that this is an idea they must oppose because it could actually be helpful to the 47% of Americans they love to hate.

Thanks again, PJ. Only you would come up with Jesus Christ as the first environmentalist. It's a shame, but the Judean Sheep and Goat Association is still with us. It has just morphed and multiplied into a pantheon of special interests that covet anything and any place that might turn a profit for them.

Well, ec, remember Joe Miller of Alaska? He ran against Sen. Murkowski. He wanted the federal government to turn over all the national parks in Alaska to the state so it could develop their resources for revenues.

And then there's Rep. Cliff Stearns, a member of the Tea Party caucus, who said "we don’t need any more national parks in this country” and that we need to “actually sell off some of our national parks."(

And don't forget Sen. Rand Paul's proposal to greatly reduce the size of the Interior Department. Within that plan, on the topic of national parks, he said, "returning these public lands back to the states and or the private sector would allow an increase in quality, safety, and a reduction in government spending each year."


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