Local officials react to Oklahoma Senator’s remarks
CALUMET/ISLE ROYALE – The Copper Country’s national parks were among those singled out by an Oklahoma senator as symptomatic of a trend of “marginally significant and sporadically visited” parks in the national system.
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s report “Parked: How Congress’ Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures” lists Isle Royale National Park and Keweenaw National Historical Park. Coburn argues the park service’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog is caused by a proliferation of spending distracting from the NPS’s core mission. That includes parks created to satisfy “parochial political interests,” as he alleges of KNHP, and parks that are too inaccessible, as he says of Isle Royale.
“No one would purchase a new car while ignoring a leaking ceiling or broken pipes in their new home, but that is essentially what Washington is doing with our national parks,” he said in the report.
Federal and state officials quickly responded to Coburn’s report.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit said Coburn was “way off-target,” and invited him to see the parks for himself.
“Preserving natural treasures including our wilderness areas and our important cultural legacies isn’t a mistake,” said Levin, who was instrumental in creating the Keweenaw National Historical Park. “It’s right at the heart of our national park system’s mission and of who we are as a people.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Iron River, said the parks are “critically important” to the U.P.’s economy and way of life, adding that outdoor recreation generates more than $18 billion in consumer spending in the state.
“Preserving these very special places in the U.P. is not a waste,” he said. “We need to ensure the beauty of Isle Royale and the history of the Copper Country is available for our children and grandchildren to enjoy forever.”
Another offer to show Coburn the sights came from State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet.
“On behalf of Mother Nature, I would like to apologize to Sen. Coburn,” said Dianda. “It is clear that growing up in a place like Oklahoma has robbed the senator of any ability to imagine the natural rugged beauty of Isle Royale and the Keweenaw. Had he been exposed to natural beauty at a younger age, maybe he would understand its importance.”
Coburn contrasted maintenance failings at popular sites such as the National Mall with the spending on 37 national parks in the report, which he divided into “pork,” inaccessible to the public, important sites that could be highlighted in better ways and those lacking historical value. The Keweenaw’s two parks have maintenance backlogs of about $30 million, the report said.
Coburn’s recommendations include reforming recreational fees, re-evaluating the sites within the system and supporting new parks with endowments rather than annual appropriations.
Jeffrey Olson, chief spokesman for the NPS, said it would review Coburn’s report.
With the Keweenaw National Historical Park, the area has “moved from mining copper with mining federal largess,” Coburn said. The acquisition of the former Quincy Smelting Works was cited by the Congressional Budget Office as potentially leading to increased costs for the NPS, Coburn said.
Coburn also pointed to Isle Royale’s relative inaccessibility – it can only be reached by four ferries or by seaplane – and its status as the least-visited park in the lower 48 states.
Bill Fink, KNHP’s first superintendent, said Isle Royale’s visitor figures don’t reflect the length of stay; the average visitor to the park will stay for 3.5 days, as opposed to under half an hour at the Grand Canyon, he said.
It’s also one of “the world’s greatest outdoor laboratories,” he said, as the site of the long-running wolf-moose study.
“Isle Royale is far more important than just a place people come to recreate,” he said. “It’s also a place of spirit, place of mind, a place curious students of the national parks think is important to have even if they never get to see it.”
He also criticized the use of comments from former NPS director James Ridenour, who derided the KNHP as “another slab of pork.” Ridenour’s remarks were either “gross ignorance or deliberate misstatements,” Fink said.
The maintenance backlog is something the National Park Service’s wanted addressed for a long time, Fink said. But Coburn’s report twists that long-standing need out of political animosity, he said. He called Coburn’s focus on premier natural areas such as Yosemite and historical sites such as the National Mall a “narrow, selective, really a (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) perspective of what is important to America.”
In the current state of the National Park system, he said, the sites talk about not just the classic “Great White Man” narrative, but a range of American themes, ranging from slavery to voting rights.
“That system is the vivid, multi-colored tapestry we call the American experience,” he said. “Not just the inspirational points we find in the great natural areas of the west, but these sites of liberty, the prices of justice, and the fact that freedom isn’t free – fundamental American values, and they all are shown through the national park system.”
While Coburn’s argument is a coherent one, Fink said, it’s also “ruthless.”
“That’s cutting yourself off at the knees in order to lose weight,” he said.