All right, I'll admit it: I've always wondered what's the deal with Wall Drug. Green stickers with old-fashioned white lettering stuck on muddy Subaru wagons and rusty Suburbans in ski area parking lots all across the Rocky Mountains and the Northwest.
Driving from Pierce, S.D., west a few days ago, having been forewarned by hundreds of billboards lining the last hundred miles, just off the freeway, I was greeted by Wall's 80-foot-long, concrete two-tone giant dinosaur, staring at me with its white light bulb eyes, entering the Wall Drug store vortex. Nickel coffee, touristy stuffed jackalopes and enough key chains and tee shirts to satisfy the most thirsty tchotchke devotee, alas, Wall Drug. The town of Wall, S.D., is the gateway to the Badlands National Park, which I've always wanted to see at sunset, and here I was, en route, driving my rent-a-wreck to Mt. Rushmore at the perfect time of day.
Neither disappointed, sunset or the next morning coffee with the presidents. In fact, in person, Mt. Rushmore is so much more touching, emotionally, than that picture in Encyclopedia Britannica I grew up looking at. Patriotism wrapped in the natural environment of a perfectly run National Park. The four grand leaders of our country (George, Tom, Abe and "T.R.," among friends) are much bigger in person than I expected. Maybe that picture and my childhood View-Master limited my expectations. Even the size of the rubble pile was captivating. That rubble being its own monument to the years of invested lives, determination and dynamite liberating these figures from the mountainside. They loom large in the pages of history and literally tower at Mr. Rushmore.
All 50 states and territories are represented there, with their flags and dates admitted to the U.S. etched in stone. I grinned a little wider finding Oregon's name in marble, telling myself how much better my state's placement was than the other 49. Donning my Teddy Roosevelt hat with the pride of a child wearing mouse ears to Disneyland, I had my picture taken and posted it to Facebook, where my little grandmother in Sacramento gushed about me as if I were still a young boy and shared her pleasure in seeing Mt. Rushmore, even though she's never been there herself. And isn't that what protected lands provide Americans: the security that public parks and monuments are open, that our forests and rangelands are well-managed, even if you never get a chance to visit?
Driving around Custer State Park looking for buffalo, which is downright exotic to a Northwesterner, I was trying to decipher how this year's dwindling pheasant population is hurting South Dakota's economy. I've chased wild pheasants all over Oregon, fulfilling the employment act to the retrievers who live with me, and on this trip, I was privileged to hunt with the Governor Daugaard and a smiling, deaf English Springer, aptly named "Hunter." Sadly, this year in the Great Plains, the Governor had to call state leaders together to grapple with the effects of an unusually low wild bird population, and, therefore, unusually low out-of-state-hunter-tourist population. Well, at least they have one of the crown jewels in the National Park system.
I understand politics. The Legislative shortens a budget; the Executive finds something to scare and make the public feel the pain. For Newt, it was school lunches; for Boehner, it was National Parks a few weeks ago. Closing National Parks was a partisan blunder that instilled even greater fear into western states as to whether or not the federal government can manage federal lands -- no small concern, considering that the U.S. government is the largest landowner in the west. In today's budget environment it's an easy step to think national parks should be turned over to the states, removing the threat of Congressional politics. In South Dakota, the state runs at a budget surplus, but could you imagine California's legislators considering selling off parts of Yosemite to balance their budget? National parks, monuments, and the like belong to all of us. T.R. had it right: federal policy can protect places from short-term pressures, whether it is hunting species to near collapse or today's partisan budget battles, be that state or Congressional. (1)
A recent report, "Protected Lands: A Government-lite Approach," is trying to reframe the issue and its economics. The policy's premise is that keeping American's public lands and National Parks open must be consistent with the long-term health of the parks and public land and be founded on a strong working relationship with local communities, as well. No more winners vs. losers, left vs. right, environmental vs. the communities near that environment. The theory is to create federal policy with sustainable economic benefits in both "gateway" communities and the nation as a whole, while preserving America's natural heritage. (2)
I'm not too sure Wall Drug is the sort of gateway argued for, but Rapid City certainly is. As an Oregonian playing tourist, I was impressed how vibrant Rapid City is -- hotels, restaurants, and full-scale Cabalas stores filled with out-of-state license plates. National parks are wonderful, and for many visitors, the only time they ever experience the natural United States. The concept of "government-lite" extends beyond just parks. I like to apply the concept to areas of our country where the public lands debate is still couched in terms of who has a job and who votes against local police levies.
In Oregon, Forest Service and BLM ground was teased back and forth to the logging industry during the spotted owl wars of the 1980s. As a result, several counties are on the brink of bankruptcy today because their budgets were built on a federal payment for not harvesting trees. Oregonians in those counties know the short shrift of trusting their federal government and the all too familiar pain of living in hurting communities. There is a balance that has not been struck.
Government-lite suggests to wounded counties, like Curry County, Oregon, with more than half their land base owned by the federal government, that their federal elected and agency leaders are equally interested in national policies protecting our national treasures as they are in diverse local economies with timber jobs as well as recreational dollars. Sustainability needs to be stable, not a partisan gamble.
I came home proud, and friends said I was "lucky" to have been there a few weeks after the shut out -- I mean shutdown. I would have had a pretty good mad on to have driven all those miles to find myself locked outside the gate to property that is as much mine as yours. Luck should never be a factor in visiting America's greatest national assets, and chance should never be part of living next door to public land.
Jason Atkinson served 14 years in the Oregon Legislature and is now making a documentary called A River Between Us, part of the Why the Klamath Matters project. He is a Rodel Fellow with the Aspen Institute. He is an avid spey caster, has two retrievers on payroll, and bought a jackalope tee shirt for his son Pomp at Wall Drug.