Since 1872, the year that America created the world’s first national park, the parks have been under threat. At first, the danger came from official indifference, but soon enough, it was because politicians couldn’t resist the temptation to exploit the parks.
It’s happening again, as President Trump threatens to ease restrictions on drilling in as many as 42 of the country’s national parks. Surely Americans can agree that there are enough places to drill and log and otherwise exploit our resources without invading the national parks – special places the country has set aside for the benefit of all, including generations yet unborn.
It’s happened in the past and, if recent history shows anything, it’s that no decision in America is ever final. What we wish to protect will require the vigilance and determination of its supporters.
The first, and certainly worst, of those decisions occurred in California in 1923, when the government agreed to flood a portion of Yosemite National Park in order to create a reservoir for San Francisco. A stunning valley was submerged and Americans learned a crucial lesson about the need to protect their parks.
The threat today comes via Trump’s executive order on energy. At the time he announced it, he made no reference to its effect on national parks, but it was there, buried in the 2,300-word document.
Under the order, the interior secretary is directed to review and then possibly rescind an Obama administration rule aimed at regulating drilling on national park land that previously had been exempt. Those rules also required energy companies to provide adequate bonding to cover potential spills and eventual restoration work. Who, besides monied interests, would want to support overturning rules such as these?
Killing this rule could undermine popular parks including Grand Teton in Wyoming, Mesa Verde in Colorado and the Everglades in Florida – three unique parks, each of which, in its own way, has captured the imagination of the public. What makes those parks different from Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, for example, is that while their enabling legislation provided surface land to the federal government for park use, they left underground mineral rights in private hands. That kind of activity is already underway in 12 park properties, where energy companies operate 534 oil and gas wells, according to the National Park Conservation Association.
Perhaps that concession was necessary as a political expedient, but it creates potentially mortal threats to the missions of those parks and related areas. At Big Cypress National Preserve west of Miami, for example, the owners of mineral rights want to pound the ground with heavy steel plates, creating vibrations that can help detect oil deposits. Opponents say the tests could damage water supplies and harm threatened species, including panthers and wood storks.
If that is allowed under the terms that created the preserve, it’s unfortunate, but perhaps there is no way to prevent it. At a minium, though, the Obama rules should stay in place, to reduce the chances of damage that cannot be repaired.
Trump is a fossil fuel president, to be sure. But the standard can’t be all or nothing. When it comes to properties under the protection of the National Park Service, there must be a countervailing force that explains to politicians and business people that other values are important and are decidedly and vocally at play.