Playing Politics With Our Parks: Editor’s Letter, July 2012

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A couple of weeks ago, senior editor Abe Streep stopped by my office with a quick question. He'd been editing two stories for this issue—a Dispatches piece on the shuttering of state parks in California (“Access Denied“) and a Natural Intelligence column on the decade-long battle to create a new national park in Maine (“Hornet's Nest“)—and he had started to wonder: too many park stories for one issue? We have a ceiling of about 70 editorial pages each month, so we like to keep the topics diverse.

Given the era we're in, however, I don't think it's possible to say too much on the subject of public parks. The first piece, by Anna McCarthy, focuses on the potential closing of nearly 25 percent of California's 279 state parks this summer. It also provides a glimpse of a frightening national trend. In an era when nearly every state is facing budget shortfalls, parks have become a reliable target for cuts. McCarthy lays out a strong case that what we're witnessing now could be the first step toward privatizing huge swaths of state-owned public lands that are vital to recreation but simply don't enjoy the same brand-name cachet as national parks.

A few pages later, writer Brian Kevin outlines Burt's Bees cofounder Roxanne Quimby's 12-year campaign to donate a huge swath of land in northern Maine for a new national park. Her initial efforts were shot down, in large part because the move was viewed as a job killer for the local paper industry. Quimby persisted, and a decade later she has courted some of her fiercest critics with compelling evidence that a new park would be a significant job creator.

These stories highlight two disturbing truths about modern politics. The first is that the strength of the environmental lobby seems to be at an all-time low. Despite polling that shows overwhelming public support for keeping state parks open, there are louder and better-funded voices protecting other causes and pushing for park cuts. The second is that nearly every environmental issue is now framed as a battle pitting nature against human interests: state parks versus deficits or clean water versus jobs. These are often false choices—the Maine battle clearly demonstrates this—and when we accept them without challenge, especially in a weak economy, the jobs and budget balancing will always win.

—Christopher Keyes

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