The words "heavy artillery" and "national park" aren't usually uttered in the same sentence. Get used to it. National parks are under fire " both literally and metaphorically. First, let's talk about the literal blasting. It's proposed in one of America's grand old parks, Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad skirts the southern boundary of this million-acre wilderness. It's one of the busiest rail routes across North America, train after train hauling grain and consumer goods back and forth over the Continental Divide.
A symbiosis between the railroad and the park dates back nearly 100 years, to when tourists first rode to visit Glacier and railroad tycoons were the parks' biggest boosters. Recently, though, the railroad is pushing for permission to blast the mountains with howitzers to control avalanches that might hit trains. Certainly, stopping avalanches from derailing and burying trains is a praiseworthy goal.
Trouble is, the railroad simply wants to do it the cheapest possible way: firing cannons into the unstable snowpack.
It is easy to propose a better, literally less explosive, way to solve this problem. That is, expanding the network of snowsheds that already cover the most avalanche-prone segments of the rails. If designed creatively, additional snowsheds have the side benefit of keeping animals such as the threatened grizzly bear from getting run over by the trains, as happens several times a year. Snowsheds are more expensive than lobbing mortars.
It's a dirty secret that, behind the screen of trees, our national parks are increasingly threadbare. Uncompleted projects pile up like junk behind a shed. Some estimates put the maintenance backlog at $9 billion. Old septic systems leak into otherwise pristine waters. Scenic roadways crumble off the sides of mountains. The rare wildlife that folks come to enjoy are rarely surveyed and studied, let alone actively managed.
When then-candidate George W. Bush campaigned back in 2000, he praised the national park system and pledged a healthy investment. Specifically he pledged to eliminate the maintenance backlog, which was then pegged at $5 billion. But that turned out to be campaign hype. This year, President Bush has proposed to slash national park funding by $100 million.
In my local park, Glacier park managers will no longer provide clean drinking water at three campgrounds due to budget cuts that will only get worse under the president's budget. I fear that park managers will be so busy scrambling to make ends meet that they will fail to provide an alternative to the bottom-line attitude of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad. The cheapest option will be the path of least resistance.
In my more cynical moments, I think that may be part of the plan. There is a certain faction with significant influence in Washington, D.C. these days that simply believes that government is bad and "private enterprise" is good. These folks are galled by the idea of a popular government program that, while imperfect, functions fairly well. Social Security, is one. National parks are another. If they lack the political support to kill a popular program outright, they'll starve it gradually. They will cut its budget until it falters, then: Abracadabra; getting rid of it or "privatizing" it is no great loss anymore.
To these zealots, the 100-year legacy of public lands set aside by Theodore Roosevelt was a big mistake they are hell-bent to correct.
Americans who love their Great Outdoors " and isn't that most all of us? " stand to lose much by this steady erosion of responsible management backed up by responsible funding. Americans enjoy world-class national parks, and it's time the American people woke up to radical ideologues who merely talk about the good they're doing on the ground. Those of us who live in the West get to see the damage close up, whether it's from blasting by a howitzer or another year of neglect.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a
service of High Country News in Paonia (hcn.org). He is a reporter in Kalispell, Mont.