Wednesday, 12 March 2014

On Question Periods and State Park Closures

By Jessica DeWitt

I find the most difficult part of presenting at conferences to be the question section. There is something about being put on-the-spot that causes one to completely forget the entirety of one’s knowledge base. One frantically searches the suddenly blank depths of one’s mind for a semi-intelligent response. The ability to gracefully answer on-the-spot questions must be an acquired skill, one that is honed over time. Of course, most of the question-period agony is purely psychological; (unless you’re epically bombing) the struggle to recall is likely unnoticeable to the audience. I had one of these experiences this past Friday when I presented at the University of Saskatchewan Graduate Student Association’s 2014 Conference, “Curiosity.” My two of my colleagues, Glenn Iceton and Laura Larsen, and I spoke about our respective dissertation topics, why they interest us, and how these topics connect to contemporary society. I focused largely on the growing trend in the United States for state governments to propose state park closures as means by which to deal with growing budgetary restraints. I juxtaposed this trend with the rhetoric of the early twentieth-century, when state parks were referred to as “necessities,” access to which was considered a basic human right. 

            The question that spawned this post was asked by fellow history graduate student, Fedir Razumenko. Informed by some recent comps reading he has been doing in his environmental history field, Fedir asked me something to the effect of how parks, which have been central to preservation, could now be deemed disposable by government when preservation is such a focal point of today’s society, he followed up by asking whether parks are indeed economically defunct, as state government actions would suggest. As I remember it, I sputtered, though fairly smoothly I think, something about conservative governments and general cuts, and the disconnect between bureaucracy and rural communities. Although it was a decent, passable answer, it was certainly not the well-informed, expert commentary I would have liked to have sprung forth from my mouth. And being the neurotic individual that I am, I obsessed all weekend about what I should have said. Thus, I decided to write this post in order to talk a bit more about the trend of state park closures and facilities cuts. 

            In all actuality, the topic is immensely complex and I do not have a concrete answer for Fedir—the ability to answer this question is, after all, partially why I am pursuing my dissertation topic. However, there are a few ideas that I would like to muse over. Firstly, most of the state park closures, both enacted and proposed, such as California and New York, are in those states where the state park systems are rather large, 100+ parks, and expanded rapidly in the early-to-mid-twentieth-century. There was such enthusiasm for state park system expansion that people thought little of the future effects of adding dozens, even hundreds of parks. Parks were beneficial, plain and simple. Yet, there were those that recognized the folly early on. For instance, I found in my research a letter[1] from Herbert Evison, Executive Secretary for the National Conference on State Parks, to W.F. Aiken, Secretary of the Alberta Provincial Parks Board, in 1932, warning Aiken to not let Alberta make the same mistake as many states and load up on many small parks, but rather to focus on establishing several large parks.

And indeed, many states are now finding these parks to be an expensive luxury. Perhaps Evison was ultimately correct. Perhaps state park systems as they exist now are not sustainable. Though much more analysis needs to be done on how and when this shift from describing state parks as necessity to expendable occurred. The main problem is that communities and individuals have become dependent on the existence of many of these parks. Very few of us want to see them go or even evolve into something new. 

            Secondly, I wanted to address state parks as important instruments of preservation and how their closure will effect preservation efforts. I would contend that state parks, for the most part, are not primarily in the business of preservation. Recreation and accessibility have always been the primary concern for state parks with preservation being a positive parallel effect. When a state park is closed the state still owns the land, what changes is that there is no longer a dedicated staff and the facilities, from restrooms to trails, are no longer maintained. People can still access the park land at their own risk. Since over-visitation is likely the greatest threat to the ecological integrity of our parklands, would the land now held in state parks not benefit from park closure? In a sense, the land would just become conservation land. So, perhaps, the negative effect of state park closures is only social and economic, not environmental. Of course this is assuming that the states do not start finding means by which to divest themselves of the former park land and that rates of illegal poaching, logging, littering, etc. do not rise on the newly unsupervised land. If states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are trying to find means by which to frack in and extract other natural resources in their state parks right now, getting rid of the lands park status would also likely make the land even more vulnerable to resource extraction schemes. Just something to ponder.