By Tommy Hough
Visiting a National Park shouldn't be seen as a political statement or an act of self-actualizing resistance. Ordinarily, I would never advocate for such a thing in relation to America's Best Idea, or as a means to symbolically push back against a corrupt and cruel regime – even one as vile as this administration.
But at this moment, our National Park Service (NPS) could use some love and attention. It could also use some respect – and you and I can demonstrate that respect.
Our National Parks and Wilderness areas are places where Americans can, should, and frequently do, come together without obsessing over what political stripe they identify with. Our outdoors have always been part of what binds us together as Americans, serving as a common symbol of pride and expression of humility at the foot of our nation's most remarkable landscapes.
As humans we are naturally imperfect, and therefore, we are an imperfect nation. But as a nation, we also have the capacity within our founding documents to improve upon ourselves, and rise above our egos to get things right. Jefferson called this the pursuit of "a more perfect union." Conservation policy is a marvelous expression of that ideal. The benefits to humankind and our planet in doing so are self-evident, and abundant.
But today we have a president who is a liar, a destructive fool, and a resentful braggart. He has never wanted for anything, but has never felt he had enough. He is an agent of abject and malicious cruelty, like a child who stomps on snails or tortures animals because there's no one to stop him, despite having the immense power of his office at his fingertips to be the world's greatest advocate of peace and kindness. This president is not an engaged caretaker of our special places, nor does he have any interest in being one.
It's astounding that, for a man so desperate to be loved, this president can be counted upon to make the most hateful, unpopular decision even worse by twisting his knife into groups he perceives as isolated, vulnerable, or powerless along the way. He will never make a decision that isn't utterly self-centered and based upon his most immediate need to dominate. Yet he sincerely wonders why no one likes him.
He makes absurd exaggerations and fabricates conversations, like a child, about what our mayor might have said about his border policies behind closed doors, or how many people attended his inauguration. Those who fall into his orbit are irreparably damaged, and will remain marked by their association with him for the rest of their days. That he is an insatiable, emotional black hole is transparently clear, yet so many, perhaps blinded by his alleged wealth or some other odd attraction, fail to see it.
Which brings us to today. The only way this president seems to feel he receives the respect he believes is due is by ordering the military and weapons of war to surround him like a Soviet politburo stooge. His rally saw a U.S. president break with 243 years of tradition, of resistance to indulging in empty, vain military braggadocio. Today, we have a president so emotionally insecure he can't even perceive the idea that to boast shows weakness and insecurity – two things no chief executive should ever reveal.
Whether a few tanks or a few jet flyovers, the United States – the strongest military power in the world, if that means anything – has no need to parade our might before the world in a wasteful, impotent show of force that utilizes the authoritarian May Day displays of North Korea or the Soviet Union as inspiration, even though the president argues he was inspired by Bastille Day. These displays are not, and have never been, who we are as Americans.
According to historian Michael Beschloss, who wrote a book about wartime presidents, President Eisenhower – the general who held the coalition of Western Allies together and led them to victory over Germany and Italy in World War II – had no problem reviewing military parades as a general, or reviewing formations as president when visiting military bases.
But when asked by his staff during the era of large Soviet military parades if he wanted to arrange something similar, Eisenhower said:
"To have a military parade without the end of a war or an inaugural or some big reason in Washington, D.C., that is out of our tradition."
According to Beschloss, Eisenhower also said:
"We are the preeminent power on Earth. For us, to try to imitate what the Soviets are doing in Red Square, would make us look weak."
Eisenhower also famously cut defense spending during his administration, something only a war-winning general could have done in the midst of the Cold War, and famously warned the nation about the military-industrial complex upon leaving office in January 1961.
But even shortly after taking office in 1953, as the Korean War was heading into its final, bloody months before a cease-fire, the 34th president said:
"The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."
Those days, of course, are very much over. Today our president insists on "rebuilding our Navy," without any awareness it is no longer 1945.
Today, what interests our president isn't doing the right thing or abiding by the rational tradition observed by individuals clearly more decent and wise than he. What interests this president is the only thing that has ever motivated him – more. The question is, who does he cheat, rob, or steal from to get more.
In the case of today's display on the National Mall, where Martin Luther King gave his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, and where Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the segregated Washington, D.C., of 1939, the president spent millions in seven military flyovers, with 24 aircraft costing at least $560,000 per hour, along with a variety of "unknown costs" that the White House will probably never clarify. A Defense Department estimate for a proposed military parade last year came to $92 million, but the event was scuttled once the costs were made public.
While the "unknown costs" for the president's spectacle remain, what is known is the administration snatched $2.5 million in visitor fees from the National Park Service to fully fund the "Salute to America," even as park service officers were ordered to police the event.
An agency long-maligned by this administration, the park service relies upon visitor fees collected at NPS sites to cover the shortfall politicians of both parties fail to provide, year after year, for maintenance, visitor services, law enforcement, wildlife habitat and recreation access.
That this money is being "appropriated" from the NPS at a time when parks face a massive financial shortfall, including $12 billion in backlogged maintenance aggravated by the government shutdown earlier this year, and while the administration is actively undoing the sanctity of National Monuments even at a time of renewed interest in parks and an influx of visitors, is contemptible.
That today's self-congratulatory display is taking place at a time when children have been forcibly separated from their parents and kept in cages, devoid of the love and touch any child needs, and held in filthy, unsanitary concentration camps "housing" migrants legally seeking asylum, is similarly extraordinary and intolerable. This administration continues to undo the capability of our courts, our operating agencies, and remains dead set on pitting Americans against each other in order to enhance the president's power.
The rot that this administration has enabled, with the naked aid of a foreign power has, in two-and-a-half short years, radically altered the basic tenets of our republic and weakened our democracy to the breaking point.
So with the administration's theft of the park service budgetary supplement in mind, I would encourage you to make a trip this weekend to one of our nation's National Parks, and tell the rangers and employees and volunteers there thank you. Let them know you value them, and that you appreciate the unheralded work they do, day after day, maintaining and preserving our nation's natural and historical heritage. Say the same thing to U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) personnel too, and those who operate our state and regional parks.
Park professionals and volunteers work every day to not only give visitors an amazing experience, but to illustrate how our nation's legacies have affected the wild and the land. They preserve our resources, highlight moments when our nation has succeeded and faltered, and simply in being there stand as one of our nation's great success stories.
Granted, this isn't the kind of success a man like our president can comprehend or appreciate. The humility that goes into declaring a place, an ecosystem, a historic site, or a vast wilderness as off limits so as to enact preservation practices is an extraordinary feat of humanity, and one that is constantly set upon by the temptation of greed, prejudice, waste, and a desire among some to whitewash our nation's mistakes and heritage – to deny history – in order for it to conform to a curious perfection aligned with certain political desires.
When visiting a National Park Service site, consider the options before you. Instead of fighting the crowds at Muir Woods National Monument on a holiday weekend, find solace, silence and an extraordinary outdoor experience to the north at Point Reyes National Seashore. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to find parking among the campers and fifth wheels at Yosemite Valley, explore the basin and range geologic province and ancient bristlecones of Great Basin National Park. Savor the view from our Cabrillo National Monument, or revel in the majestic natural churches of the Redwoods.
Take a stand and resist by going out into our woodlands and wilderness and heed, as John Muir would say, the "good tidings" of the mountains. Visit our parks and special places, and embrace our collective natural and historic heritage that our president sees only as an ATM to fund embarrassing, self-aggrandizing spectacles that subvert our nation's earned patriotism.
Visit our National Parks, and protect what's yours from those who would privatize it or steal it away from you in the dead of night. This land is your land.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.
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