Maybe Handing Over America’s National Parks Is a Bad Idea

Zion National Park, Utah (evenfh/Getty Images)
The park system is, even with its bloody past in tow, a national endowment — not another front in the expanding culture wars.

What happens when the cultures of a great melting pot can no longer abide the historical sins of one another? The question is hardly theoretical. The Middle East provides an immediate answer: Resentment and warfare in perpetuity over territory, tribal affiliation, religion, and past wrongs.

Yet that question is applicable in surveying the brush fire of grievance that has broken out in the U.S., gradually but inexorably, in recent years. This month, The Atlantic sprayed a new accelerant on the cultural conflagration with its cover story, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes.”

The premise of the piece, written by David Treuer, a prolific author and member of the Ojibwe tribe, is that white settlers and arms of the U.S. government violently drove the Native American tribes off their land and created national parks on this territory starting in the 19th century. The details of these campaigns are jarring. On the bloodshed preceding the creation of Yosemite:

The Mariposa Battalion had come to Yosemite to kill Indians. Yosemite’s Miwok tribes, like many of California’s Native peoples, were obstructing a frenzy of extraction brought on by the Gold Rush. . . .

When the roughly 200 men of the Mariposa Battalion marched into Yosemite, armed with rifles, they did not find the Miwok eager for battle. . . . They used embers from the tribe’s own campfires to set the wigwams aflame and shot at the villagers indiscriminately as they fled, murdering 23 of them. By the time the militia’s campaign ended, many of the Miwok who survived had been driven from Yosemite, their homeland for millennia, and forced onto reservations.

Thirty-nine years later, Yosemite became the fifth national park.

And that preceding Yellowstone’s:

In 1864, on the Plains’ opposite edge, at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory, Colonel John Chivington massacred and mutilated as many as 500 Native Americans. In 1868, just four years before the creation of Yellowstone, Native Americans, led by Red Cloud, fought the U.S. government to a standstill, then forced concessions from the Americans at the treaty table, though these, too, were eventually unmade.

The proposed solution is made plain: “For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend — and protect and preserve — these favored gardens again.”

To be sure, it is indisputable that as part of the formation and expansion of the United States, the tribes were forced off their lands, killed, humiliated, and swindled. Further, The Atlantic’s more commendable qualities include its historical willingness to challenge conventional partisan wisdom, though this tendency has waned in recent years, and otherwise shake things up. The current cover story is akin to the 2014 Ta-Nehisi Coates cover making the case for reparations. If we may borrow the favorite dodge of Kamala Harris, it was meant to “start a conversation.”

In reality, though, we’re already having that conversation. A shouting match, really, complete with riots, widespread distrust of institutions, and demands for recompense. The latest entry will escalate the melee still.

Among the problems with this specific, and rather extreme, proposal is that the sins of the parks are interwoven with the sins of America itself. Indeed, the same piece hints at the true theft that presumably should be righted under the same logical framework: “In 1491, Native people controlled all of the 2.4 billion acres that would become the United States. Now we control about 56 million acres, or roughly 2 percent.”

Should entire generations — who, incidentally, are generations removed from the violent ends of America’s westworld — vacate the suburbs and cities to restore the other 98 percent?

Why, no. That would set off a civil war.

Alternatively, would returning 85 million acres of national parkland to “a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States,” as the piece prescribes, suffice to address these wrongs? Mathematically speaking, it would address 3.5 percent of these wrongs. It’s both too much, and not enough.

I presume this will not be seriously entertained on any policy level, though can’t say I’m confident. The piece already has met rapturous social-media approval. Return the land! It feels good to say, doesn’t it? The “conversation” has been joined.

Shenandoah National Park, Va. (AppalachianViews/Getty Images)

Yet this refrain hardly comes in a vacuum. Earlier this month, a House committee advanced legislation creating a commission to study reparations for black Americans. Weeks earlier, the Biden White House backed the idea. Last month, the city of Evanston, Ill., became the first in the country to approve reparations, pledging $10 million over ten years. Virginia will also require several public universities built on slave labor to compensate their descendants. Reparations for Native Americans came up, briefly, during the 2020 presidential campaign.

It should be a fairly simple concept that we are not our fathers. Not strictly out of magnanimity but out of necessity, functional societies must demonstrate the capacity to move beyond the sins of the past. Though ours are particularly grievous, we are hardly alone in the community of nations containing groups with every right to hold a grudge against one another.

What sets America apart has been a willingness to integrate, to set about building something for ourselves, for our families, and each other, without feeling compelled to wave sectarian flags. Partisan and religious and racial tensions have not left us, certainly these past several years. But our leaders, our officials, and our esteemed media appear hellbent on making them worse by promoting the embrace of generational grievances, refusing to let the embers die out. This is a dangerous path. And the notion of allyship means that for every rallying cry like the one on the cover of The Atlantic, there’s an army of enablers willing to amplify it, if only to prove their mettle. This is happening now.

Granted, Native Americans are in a uniquely strained circumstance compared with other minority groups, even though, as the piece notes, their numbers have grown to roughly the level of the Jewish-American population. Aside from the oft-chronicled struggles with substance abuse and unemployment, many live on land held in trust and controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But which problem specifically would the handover of the national parks rectify? Considering the park proposal involves the same stringent conservation standards currently applied by the federal government, it would not provide the tribes space for additional development — of homes or businesses — to any significant degree. The plan would provide “unfettered access” to tribal homelands, but beyond that would represent a symbolic restoration above all else.

Yosemite National Park, Calif. (Bartfett/Getty Images)

The euphoria would soon give way to the drudgery of maintenance — let’s start with roughly 20,000 miles of trails, not to mention the sizable repairs backlog — the kind of task, say, a national government with the ability to deficit-finance is better equipped to handle. While Washington does many things poorly, broadly speaking and notwithstanding that backlog, the stewardship of the parks is not one of them. One NPS survey for 2019 found 98 percent of park visitors were satisfied with the “facilities, services, and recreational opportunities.” For comparison, congressional approval ratings are hovering in the 30s right now, and that’s after approving trillions in COVID relief.  

Practical complications follow. Treuer writes that, under his proposal, the federal government would continue to provide some funds for park maintenance and to keep visitor fees low, and the tribes would allow “universal access” for all time. Appreciated, but what happens if there’s a dispute over, for instance, the size of the federal payments? The new custodians could easily use their leverage and shut off access, without accountability to taxpayers. This kind of standoff would make the government shutdowns of the last decade look like, well, a walk in the park. (On this scenario, the article quotes one member of the MHA Nation who dismisses the worry that a tribe would ever block access.) Could consistent policies for forest management, wildlife management, and other routine functions of park administration be sustained under a “consortium” of tribes?

But the fundamental concern here is with the direction of our national debates — not toward solving problems but creating new ones. And rest assured, a wholesale handover of 85 million acres would create new ones. Just as would $14 trillion in reparations. We’ve come a long way from JFK’s “ask not” appeal to the national spirit. Where’s my piece? more aptly sums up the zeitgeist. Us versus Them. See this quote from the author, in high dudgeon for being told by a “white park ranger” how to interact with land “that’s been mine” longer than it’s been America’s.


Convenient, you might think, that privileged folks such as the author of this piece at National Review prefer the status quo. Yet there is no special privilege at play here. Only the ability to drive to a park, pay a nominal fee, and maybe rent a plot of dirt to serve as home base. Anyone, of any color, of any tribal affiliation or none at all, has that ability. The park system is, even with its bloody past in tow, a national endowment — not another front in the expanding culture wars. For their beauty and for their management, the parks are the best the world has to offer.

“America’s best idea” indeed. Have you seen the sun-bathed radiance of Bryce Canyon’s rusted hoodoos? The chiseled peaks at Zion? The Appalachian spine running through Shenandoah and the almost-spiritual vastness of Death Valley? If not, get out there. You really should. And you might start to think, in a nation as majestic and fortunate as this, perhaps it could be time for the descendants of our turbulent founding story to keep peace. Kinda’ like those “COEXIST” bumper stickers always tell us.


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