Our presidents are good at praising America's magnificent national park system, but they're lousy at maintaining it. Bill Clinton-the-candidate, for example, spoke of how lucky he was to have Hot Springs National Park as a childhood playground. Yet Clinton-the-president sat idle as that park's natural wonders and facilities deteriorated — and as the National Park Service's maintenance backlog soared to $5 billion.
Likewise, in his 2000 campaign, a khaki-clad George W. posed in the majestic Cascade Range. He wailed that parks were "at the breaking point" and vowed to eliminate Clinton's backlog. Instead, he slashed the Park Service budget (including a 40 percent cut in needed repair funds for the Cascade parklands he'd used as a political prop). The maintenance backlog ballooned to nearly $9 billion under his presidency.
Ranger George did make one fix, however — a PR fix. Bush operatives instructed park superintendents to make budget cuts in "areas that won't cause public or political controversy." When discussing park deterioration, they were to avoid the phrase "budget cutbacks" and say instead that parks were undergoing "service level adjustments."
Under Obama, who speaks movingly of a childhood Greyhound bus trip with his family to see some of our parks, another 12 percent has been chopped from the Park Service budget — bumping the deferred maintenance bill to a staggering $11.5 billion!
To his credit, Obama has proposed a 2016 "Centennial Budget" for Park Service, mitigating years of destructive underfunding and calling for $1 billion to address the backlog. Good for him. But that still leaves a $10 billion shortfall, and the sour duo of Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner will oppose even that increase for the maintenance of these invaluable public assets. Hidebound by their twisted corporate ideology, they dismiss public parks as government intrusion into the private realms of Disneyland and SeaWorld.
So, while we Americans celebrate the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service, Washington is literally stripping "service" out of the National Park Service. And, by refusing to fund essential upkeep year after year, America's so-called "leaders" are guaranteeing that this invaluable national asset — deemed America's "best idea" by novelist and historian Wallace Stegner — will fall into acute disrepair. The only solution, they say, is to commercialize, industrialize and privatize our parks, converting these jewels of the common good into just another corporate cash cow.
The corporatization process started with "co-branding" agreements, rationalized by Park Service officials as "aligning the economic and historical legacies" of parks with advertisers. In other words, they're selling the Park Service's proud public brand — as well as its soul.
First in line was Coca-Cola. In 2007, the multibillion-dollar colossus became a "Proud Partner" with Park Service by donating a mere $2.5 million (tax-deductible, meaning we taxpayers subsidized the deal) to the Park Service fundraising arm. In return, not only did Coke get exclusive rights to use park logos in its ads, but it was allowed to veto a Park Service plan to ban sales of bottled water in the Grand Canyon park. Disposable plastic bottles are that park's biggest source of trash, but Coke owns Dasani, the top-selling water, so bye-bye, ban. Public outrage forced officials to reverse this crass move, but the Park Service's integrity has yet to recover.
Then this April, Park Service abandoned its longstanding policy of disallowing any links to alcohol or tobacco products when it entered a partnership with Anheuser-Busch after the company donated a $2.5 million tax-deductible "gift." In turn, its Budweiser brand was given the Statue of Liberty. Not literally, but symbolically — Bud now has the right to plaster Lady Liberty, the iconic symbol of the USA itself, on its cans.
Never mind that Busch is now Belgian-owned; the real hypocrisy is the claim that such co-branding is a philanthropic service to the commons. Creeping commercialization of our public parks no longer creeps: it's running rampant, with brands such as Disney, L.L. Bean and Subaru buying their pieces of Park Service integrity.
And get a whiff of this: Air Wick has also paid to become a Park Service partner, so it's now marketing a new fragrance collection that's advertised as being "uniquely inspired by America's national parks."
To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.