Guest column: To protect our parks, invest in infrastructure, don’t limit public access
| April 14, 2022 7:00 AM
National Park Week was April 16-22, a timely reminder to get outdoors and appreciate the beauty that God bestowed upon our country and in particular, Montana. Our national parks system has been hailed as America’s “best idea,” and it’s easy to see why when you ascend Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier, or experience the power of Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of our National Parks, as inscribed in stone on the gate of Yellowstone, was “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Washington, D.C. must keep this front of mind.
Our parks are seeing record visitation year after year, and recent crowding has created challenges. To preserve our parks, the answer is not restricting access. Instead, D.C. should make investments in infrastructure and better management practices to include fire mitigation and integration of federal and state trail systems to expand public access.
Long lines, no parking and crowded trails have become the norm. In extreme cases, reservation systems have been instituted to “ration” resources. For locals, we can no longer decide to take the day off of work and hop in the car with the kids for a day in the park. Now, under the Biden Administration, you need to go online months ahead of time to try and reserve a rare vehicle reservation or have a tourism experience booked. Instead of shutting down public access under the guise of protecting resources, we must continue strategic investments in park infrastructure.
This ranges from upgrading sewer and water systems so the environment is protected and bathrooms are clean, to thinking out of the box to invest in transportation systems that improve visitors’ experience, and rebuild, expand and fully integrate other public lands trails systems to provide greater access and recreational opportunity.
As secretary of the Interior, the No. 1 issue I heard from park superintendents was failing infrastructure. Our parks were literally falling apart. In response, I proposed the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund to dedicate 50 percent of revenues from energy production on federal lands and offshore to address the backlog. This later became the bipartisan “National Parks Restoration Act,” ultimately renamed as the “Great American Outdoors Act,” which was signed into law in 2020. It is the largest investment in public lands in the history of our country and permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
I have never been an advocate for selling or transferring public land. And never will be. I am, however, a strong advocate for better management. It takes resources, political courage and commitment to manage. As Montana’s Congressman, I will seek a position on the House Appropriations Committee to ensure the Biden Administration and Congress actually make those investments, rather than redirect the money elsewhere.
There is a small group of radical environmentalists who disagree with expanding access and instead want to stop the public from enjoying THEIR lands by closing roads, trails and limiting access. Masquerading as conservationists, their real objective is to keep the public out.
Take the historic Sperry Chalet built by the Great Northern Railroad in 1906 in Glacier Park. When the iconic chalet was destroyed by a late season fire, radicals demanded a “return to nature” policy and urged the NPS not to rebuild. Working with the Glacier Conservancy I was able to break through the resistance and quickly stabilize Sperry to survive the winter and be rebuilt the following summer so future generations could have the same experience I did. Had the forest been better managed by using best practices such as controlled burns and early suppression, it is likely that Sperry would have not burned down in the first place.
Going forward, policymakers in D.C. must protect our parks as well as our public access in order to ensure the experience that future generations deserve. But that can only happen with proper management rather than neglect or radical policies that rely on limiting public access. As your Congressman, I have and always will subscribe to Roosevelt’s American Conservation Ethic. Anything less is just wishful thinking and puts at risk Montana’s special wild places, watersheds, and our way of life.
Ryan Zinke is former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and a Republican candidate for Montana’s first congressional district.