Sunday, October 26, 2008

An Expose of the National Park Service

From Bill Bryson's great book, A Walk in the Woods:

"The National Park Service actually has something of a tradition of making things extinct. Bryce Canyon National Park is perhaps the most interesting -- certainly the most striking -- example. It was founded in 1923 and in less than half a century under the Park Service's stewardship lost seven species of mammal... Quite an achievement when you consider that these animals had survived in Bryce Canyon for tens of millions of years before the Park Service took an interest in them. Altogether, forty-two species of mammal have disappeared from America's national parks this century.

"...The Park Service in 1957 decided to 'reclaim' Abrams Creek, a tributary of the Little Tennessee River, for rainbow trout, even though rainbow trout had never been native to Abrams Creek. To that end, biologists dumped several drums of a poison called rotenone into fifteen miles of creek. Within hours, tens of thousands of dead fish were floating on the surface like autumn leaves. Among the thirty-one species of Abrams Creek fish that were wiped out was one called the smoky madtom, which scientists had never seen before. Thus, Park Service biologists managed the wonderfully unusual accomplishment of discovering and eradication in the same instant a new species of fish.

"Today the National Park Service employs a more casual approach to endangering wildlife: neglect. It spends almost nothing -- less than 3 percent of its budget -- on research of any type...

"...consider the grassy balds -- treeless, meadowy expanses of mountaintop, up to 250 acres in extent, which are quite unique to the southern Appalachians. No one knows why the balds are there, or how long they have existed, or why they appear on some mountains and not others. Some believe they are natural features, perhaps relics of lightning fires, and some believe that they are man-made, burned or cleared to provide land for summer grazing. What is certain is that they are central to the character of the Smokies... For unknown numbers of years they were used first by Indians and then by European settlers for grazing summer livestock, but now, with graziers banished and the Park Service doing nothing, woody species are steadily reclaiming the mountaintops. Within twenty years, there may be no balds left in the Smokies. Ninety plant species have disappeared from the balds since the park was opened in the 1930s. At least twenty-five more are expected to go in the next few years.

"In constant dollars, the Park Service budget today is $200 million a year less than it was a decade ago. In consequence, even as visitor numbers have soared -- from 79 million in 1960 to almost 270 million today -- campsites and interpretation centers have been shut, warden numbers slashed, and essential maintenance deferred to a positively ludicrous degree. By 1997, the repair backlog for the national parks had reached $6 billion. All quite scandalous. But consider this. In 1991 as its trees were dying, its building crumbling, its visitors being turned away from campgrounds it could not afford to keep open, and its employees being laid off in record numbers, the National Park Service threw a seventy-fifth anniversary party for itself in Vail, Colorado. It spent $500,000 on the event. That may not be quite as moronically negligent as tipping hundreds of gallons of poison into a wilderness stream, but it is certainly in the right spirit."

Besides being interesting, I think this is a good illustration of the gross inefficiencies of government ownership. I'm sure Rothbard would enjoy reading that chapter.

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