Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called our national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than at our worst.”
That was the message of the recent Ken Burns series that aired on PBS (www.pbs.org/nationalparks), and I couldn’t agree more.
Watching this 12-hour documentary brought back memories of my own visits to national parks that span more than three decades.
Despite the afterglow of the series, however, the truth is our national parks are sick. Our 391 national parks, monuments and reserves are heavily used and under funded.
In 2006, the national park system hosted 272,623,980 visitors and operated with an annual budget of less than $2.5 billion. And according to a recent story in the Christian Science Monitor, there’s a maintenance backlog of $8 billion.
The Park Service is one of those agencies gets lost in the shuffle when many budget line items cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. It seems a shoddy way to treat “the best idea we ever had.”
I understand the demands placed on the federal budget by politicians, taxpayers and all governmental agencies, so maybe it’s time to reach back to the future for a great idea.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (www.ccclegacy.org) as part of his “New Deal.” It enrolled its first worker just 37 days after FDR’s inauguration.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was FDR’s civilian army charged with restoring heath to the nation’s natural resources that had been decimated by the Dust Bowl. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps put able-bodied, unemployed young men to work.
From 1933 to 1942, Civilian Conservation Corps workers planted 3 billion trees and built thousands of roads, bridges and fire towers. They fought forest fires, worked on flood control and soil control projects, and worked in forests to restore wildlife habitat and improve forest recreation.
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the concept of national service. Though experts tell us the recession is over, high unemployment will continue for an indefinite period of time. So let’s require two years of compulsory national service for all.
Qualifying service would include the military and other existing programs such as the Peace Corps, VISTA, AmeriCorps and the Youth Conservation Corps (a current National Park Service program for youth 15-18). And let’s resurrect the Civilian Conservation Corps for individuals who would prefer to have their service address conservation problems.
Recruits could be deployed to national, state, county or city parks to do all kinds of work.
Though compulsory registration for the military draft ended in 1973, it was reinstated in 1980. All 18-year-old males have since been required to register with Selective Service since then, so the infrastructure of such a program is in place. Simply expand it to include all 18-year old women. And service would also be open to older adults who wished to volunteer.
There are many ways such a system of compulsory service might be implemented. One would require two years of service between the ages of 18 and 26. High school graduates could choose to serve immediately, go to college or enter the work force for a few years.
College students could serve three months each summer and have only 12 months of service remaining upon graduation. Some positions might require a college education. All workers would be provided with room, board and health care, and upon completion of their service, each would receive a $20,000 stipend to get on their feet in the real world.
In addition to the manpower, mandatory national service would provide to involved agencies other benefits which might be even more important. It would engage the 18- to 26-year-old cohort in meaningful work and open private sector jobs to older workers.
It would instill a work ethic in young people who are probably are unfamiliar with the phrase. And upon completion, workers would have acquired real world experience and confidence in knowing what they are capable of doing.
This all sounds great to me, but I admit I’m wearing blinders. Tell me why I’m wrong, and why compulsory national service is a bad idea.