Last week when the US government shutdown began, a nightly news show glibly reported that “there would be no show this fall” in America’s first and quite possibly favorite national park. Yellowstone National Park is known for its incredible beauty year-round. In spring and summer, crowds are drawn to the meadows filled with wildflowers, the geothermal features, and wildlife sightings that might include newborn fawns, bison calves, and wolves. Fall brings another spectacular viewing season with brilliant foliage and bugling elk. Visitation continues through the winter for those who appreciate the subtleties of a landscape covered in snow.
I was perplexed to hear the newsman’s assurance that the “show” would not occur because the park would be closed. National parks in the US are set aside to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Numerous research studies support the value of national parks in terms of health, education, and economic benefits, so I find it more than disturbing that our national park system and the people who work there are not considered “essential.”
The newsman’s nonchalant statement struck me as a serious indicator of the ever-widening disconnect between the American people and the natural and cultural heritage that national parks are designed to preserve. Are we really so egocentric that we believe the “show” exists only for humans? I’m reminded of a small child who sees his or her teacher as existing only in the school building during school hours. Imagine the surprise when the child first encounters the teacher at a grocery store or at a movie theatre on a weekend and realizes the teacher has a life beyond the classroom. Yes, trees still fall in the forest and they still make a sound, even if there is no human around to see or hear it. Life goes on with or without human beings. In fact, some would argue that it may be a much better “show” without any humans around.
I’ve been a park user all my life, thanks to the foresight of my parents who insisted on taking us camping our way through national parks and forests throughout my childhood. These wild places and their non-human inhabitants inspired and enchanted me from an early age. They created my career path as an interpreter, planner, and conservationist. I know the importance of the people who work to protect these places by connecting the hearts and minds of those who might not fully understand the value of our public lands to what is real in this world.
Nature prevails, though we may do our best to ignore or alter it. No matter what Congress does or does not do, Old Faithful will still burst from the earth and bull elk will continue to split the air with their shrill mating calls. The leaves will go from green to gold and fall to the earth according to their own schedule. The government may shut down public access, but they cannot shut down the show.
– Lisa Brochu