In the piece, McLeod argues that it is time to charge entrance fees to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the only question being whether or not it is legal to charge fees under current statutory construction. This is an incredibly cynical framing, although I’m certain it was not intended to be cynical. Mr. McLeod’s argument elides the very central question of what our national parks represent and moves directly to the transactional assumption that user fees are a fait accompli. This view, intentional or not, accepts the view that government is simply a business engaged in providing services and that those who wish to use those services should naturally pay for them.
That’s a troubling idea as it reduces national parks to the status of entertainment or recreational service rather than as part of our national heritage held communally. Unfortunately, this implicitly endorses a view of citizen as merely consumer or customer. This reductive view of citizenship has reached an apotheosis in our current national politics where everything is a deal and politicians polish their brands.
National parks are and exist as an element of national purpose and citizenship. Charging fees is another step towards making government a purely transactional entity, simply another business from which we purchase services. If we lack the common will to support national parks as an essential national enterprise, will the same logic apply to libraries or schools? What about police and fire? Are all these simply services we purchase? If that’s the case then the idea of government and by extension the law itself is not a matter of community and common purpose but a Randian enterprise in an every man for himself world of isolated individuals.
GSMNP is desperately in need of an infusion of money for maintenance and conservation. We must have the political will to recognize the importance of funding national parks generally. The simple fact of the matter is that the $247 million maintenance backlog for the park is a rounding error in the defense budget – literally .0004 percent. Rather than wander farther down the twisted path of perverting the concepts of government and citizenship into nothing more than transactional business arrangements we should take a step back. A good place to start would be amending statutes like the General Mining Act of 1872 and similar laws that set egregiously low rates for the extraction of resources from public lands.