I spent most of Saturday hiking up and down the impossibly steep trails of Muir Woods National Monument. The expanse of ancient redwood groves and lush pine forests near San Francisco Bay was set aside in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt and named in honor of the conservationist chiefly responsible for the existence of our National Parks, John Muir, whose tireless campaigning in support of this continent's most scenic natural places inaugurated our government's role in preserving land for the enjoyment of the people, rather than for the exploitation of industry.
The National Park Service is absolutely "America's Best Idea," a description originally coined by author Wallace Stegner and borrowed by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan for the title of their masterpiece documentary series. But even though the NPS is our nation's "best idea," the parks are definitely not invincible.
Throughout the NPS' history, the parks have been under almost constant attack. In some cases, such as the damming and flooding of Muir's beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide water to San Francisco, those attacks have succeeded. Historically speaking, however, funding cuts more than anything else is the weapon of choice against the parks, even though the NPS generates $10 for local economies for every dollar spent to support them.
That's a spectacular return on investment and yet Congress after Congress has fought to undermine the system, an effort that's almost always helmed by Republicans in spite of the fact that many parks are set aside to preserve battlefields and to establish patriotic memorials -- including the Tea Party's favorite government shut-down prop back in October. Speaking of which, during the shutdown and the subsequent closure of the parks, the government lost $414 million in visitor revenue due to the fiasco.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who was one of the first congressional Republicans to exploit the closing of the World War II Memorial, joined Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in proposing draconian, slash-and-burn spending cuts including a 78 percent reduction in the Interior Department's budget. A 78 percent cut. That's damn close to eliminating it. Nearly the entire House GOP voted for Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget last March, which would've cut $380 million from the NPS budget -- every year.
And so it goes. In 2011, the House Appropriations Committee, with its Republican majority, voted to cut the NPS by $51 million annually. Later in the year, Appropriations voted to cut another $11.5 million from the NPS's Historic Preservation Fund. In 2011 and 2012, the NPS struggled to handle increased tourism while confronting six percent budget cuts in each of those years. Meanwhile, the first time the GOP played brinksmanship with the debt ceiling in 2011, the result was a $153.4 million annual cut to the NPS via sequestration.
And now there's another attack against the parks underway, once again spearheaded by the GOP.
Today, the House is expected to vote on H.R. 1459, the "Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act," also known as "EPIC." The law would, in effect, reverse the 106-year-old Antiquities Act, which gave the chief executive power to conveniently, expediently and single-handedly establish national monuments like Muir Woods or the Statue of Liberty or, originally, the Grand Canyon.
Muir Woods National Monument, viewed from the Sun Trail. Photo: Bob Cesca.
Not only would the bill require congressional authorization for the establishment of a national monument (again, Congress has always been the largest obstacle in setting aside park land), but the EPIC bill would also limit the number of monuments the president could propose and it would allow local communities to study the environmental impact of the monument, weirdly enough. Yes, setting aside natural places would totally harm the environment.
Had it not been for the Antiquities Act, and if Teddy Roosevelt had been required to beg Congress to establish a National Park, Muir Woods would likely never have been set aside and ultimately flooded by the Tamalpais Land and Water Company, destroying the landscape and killing the redwoods, many of which had been growing there for more than a thousand years.
By the way, this isn't the first time Congress has tried to gut the Antiquities Act. They successfully stripped away presidential powers to create monuments in both Wyoming, back in 1943, and in Alaska in 1979. Setting aside land as a national monument in either state requires congressional approval, and this new EPIC law would expand that rule across-the-board.
Why are the Republicans doing this?
The bill was introduced in response to President Obama establishing the California Coastal National Monument along the rocky coast of Mendocino County. Why the Antiquities Act and a national monument? Well, for the same reason as everything he's doing these days: because the House Republicans have obstructed the entire White House legislative agenda.
So naturally the bill was sponsored by a California Republican who objected to the monument in his or her home state, right?
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah). That's right, Utah, because all of that coastline Utah shares with California. Once again, this appears to be another Republican effort to not only attack the parks but to suggest that the president is abusing his power, establishing monuments and signing executive orders using ink created from the charred ashes of the U.S. Constitution.
The congressional GOP is so infected with Obama Derangement Syndrome, they don't even care that creating and preserving national parks enjoys a supermajority of 70 percent support among traditionally Republican-supporting voters in the West, and 66 percent support among voters in the rest of the nation. Clearly, the GOP is only concerned with scoring points with fringe wackadoodles who can't seem to remember anything that happened prior to January 20, 2009.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the EPIC bill is unlikely to clear the Democratic Senate, and it'll absolutely never be signed by this president.
In order to build the NPS for posterity, we all have to make at least a small effort to block similar attempts to destroy the system. The National Park Service is not just about conserving natural splendor, it also illustrates the benevolence of government; the idea that government is about more than collecting taxes and declaring war. Government -- We The People -- can be a force for good, acting to protect land, water and wild animals for the enjoyment and education of the people.