Monday, October 14, 2013

Smokey Bear, Shutdown Scapegoat

Will the Republican party punish the National Park Service for the shutdown?

The question appears ridiculous on the face of it. The NPS did not cause the government shutdown--the Republican party did. The NPS had no choice in the matter, their orders came from outside the agency, and those orders only followed federal law (specifically, the Anti Deficiency Act of 1884). The NPS is not at fault.

However, in the hyper-partisan political atmosphere of the moment facts and logic have little sway. The images of closed National Parks have served as the dominant visual representation of our failure of government. Reporters looking for a clip to illustrate their shutdown stories could hardly do better than send a camera person over to the nearest national monument to shoot some video of the closed signs. Bonus points for including an NPS employee (working without pay) turning away a visitor.

NPS sites in Washington D.C. quickly became proxy battlefields in a partisan war. This picked up steam when a group of awesome old veterans refused to accept the closure of the World War Two Monument on the National Mall and walked past the barricades. Cliche-addled reporters quickly turned this into a "veterans storm the monument" meme. On the right this scene was transformed into an act of resistance to President Obama. One Republican congressman, Randy Neugebauer from Texas got the bright idea that it would be good publicity to go down there and shame one of the NPS rangers in front of the TV cameras. It did not go well for him:

Though Neugebauer was widely condemned for his attempted bullying, the right doubled down on their anti-Park Service rhetoric and have found an audience in doing so.

Don't believe it? Check out the stunning comments on the National Park Service Facebook page post announcing the NPS closure. Some are supportive, but hundreds are crude insults and ideological attacks from confused people who seem to blame the National Park Service for the shutdown. Just in the little slice of comments captured below, park rangers are equated with Hitler's brown shirts and worse:

...and it goes for 1200 comments, more than half identical to the ones above. The commenters are apparently being whipped up the right wing internet sites. Mark Steyn penned a piece, Park Service Paramilitaries for National Review. "The NPS has spent the last two weeks behaving as the paramilitary wing of the DNC," Steyn writes. He plays with phrases like "shock troops" to accuse Park Service rangers of being Nazis without actually saying it. 

National Review is the flagship of American conservative thought, and does not have to be explicit to point the way, they know that others will follow. I don't have the heart to link to examples, but a search for "park service" + gestapo gets 43,000 hits. Similar results are obtained when you swap out gestapo for "brown shirts" or "Hitler youth." 

So a substantial part of the American population is irrationally angry at the National Park Service right now. What will the results be?

Long before the shutdown, the National Park Service was in the sights of certain politicians. Talk of privatizing the National Parks was commonplace during the Bush years, but still considered a fringe idea. Now it has come roaring back with a vengeance. Alternatives to outright privatization include turning the parks over to the states. One can easily imagine the fate of many of western parks under the management of deep red states, with reduced funding, hunting seasons, increased private concessions, greater motor vehicle and airplane access, and maybe a few clear cuts for good measure. 

Privatization probably won't happen, but the fact remains that conservatives have identified the National Park Service as the enemy, moving the agency into an ideological category that they had previously reserved for labor unions, ACORN, and the Environmental Protection Agency. At the very least we can expect that, even when the shutdown is over, Republicans will push to slash NPS funding even further, install greater political "oversight" on the agency, and fight tooth and nail against the creation of additional park units. 

The shutdown will be over soon, but the Park Service may feel the effects for years to come.


Dutchie said...

Excellent analysis of a very troubling situation.

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks. Now let's hope I am completely wrong!

Dave said...

Smokey the Bear is the Forest Service, not the National Park Service.

Larry Cebula said...

Dave, every Forest Service employee tries to claim Smokey, but every Parkie answers: "Oh yeah, well LOOK AT THE HAT!"

Larry Cebula said...