Coburn park views must be tempered by info, perspective

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, has caught the attention of many Michigan residents with his new report critical of congressional spending priorities related to the nation’s national parks.

The report has local significance because Coburn -noted for detailing places government could trim budget fat or pork if it so desired- listed Isle Royale National Park and the Keweenaw National Historical Park as places where spending is misplaced and costly.

In his report, “Parked! How Congress’ Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures.” Coburn argues that Isle Royale has the lowest visitation of any park in the continental U.S. and complains that the Park Service doesn’t track visitors at the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

Coburn seems to justify a lot of his conclusions based on annual visitation to the parks. This is only one single facet to consider in our opinion. There could only be one visitor every 10 years to Yellowstone and it would be worth preserving for the national interest.

Coburn also ties in a government subsidy given to the Houghton County Memorial Airport through the Essential Air Service program to Isle Royale’s government cost. This is a clear misrepresentation.

In a news release, Coburn said, “Members of Congress have used the Park Service to advance parochial interests while ignoring billions in maintenance backlog at our nation’s most prized national parks, and outlines areas of low-priority and wasteful spending by the Park Service.”

He continued, “For years, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have put their parochial desires ahead of the nation’s best interest. Funding for low-priority and obscure parks earmarked by lawmakers has come at the cost of caring for our national treasures like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the National Mall and Independence Park in Philadelphia.

“Last year alone, the National Park Service put off more than a quarter billion dollars in much needed maintenance projects, adding to the $11.5 billion maintenance backlog already threatening the health, safety and accessibility of park visitors. I hope this report inspires my colleagues to set common-sense priorities and make sure our parks reflect our nation’s greatness rather than Washington’s incompetence.”

While we commend Sen. Coburn for his attempts to identify places to cut government spending, and we think our national parks need to have their funding analyzed and perhaps adjusted to meet the maintenance backlog, we think some of the conclusions he draws are off base. We also think there is a case to be made for more parks spending.

A national park is not unnecessary or without merit just because it is obscure or visited by only a small segment of the population. Nor is a park one of our nation’s “most prized” just because it happens to be heavily visited.

We also can’t help but point out that Oklahoma is not known as one of the country’s states steeped in national parks. National parks are important to Michigan for tourism and to protect and showcase special natural or historical areas.

Again, while we think Sen. Coburn makes some good points, like the potential costs to the National Park Service of cleaning up polluted sites associated with the Keweenaw National Historical Park or the fact that government workers outnumber the average daily visitors to Isle Royale. However, we think the report makes some relatively strong conclusions based on a limited number of facts or perspectives.