A Nightmare or a Dream Come True: Which Will Congress Choose for America?

The Grand Canyon is one of 58 parks that could close if the government shuts down.

Rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is a trip few Americans ever get to make. Unless you have the money to pay for a commercial trip, which can cost upwards of $2500 a person, you must possess either a great amount of luck or plenty of patience to obtain one of the coveted private permits handed out by the National Park Service.

These golden tickets, I mean permits, are so hard to come by that before a 2006 transition to a weighted lottery, the National Park Service used to maintain a waiting list of more than 8,000 applicants waiting up to 20 years for a launch date.

For my friend and colleague Dr. Sterling Miller, the chance to ride a raft through one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World has been a lifelong wish. Naturally, when a friend asked him this past December to captain one of three rafts on a private trip this spring, Sterling jumped at the opportunity.

“Going on the Grand Canyon trip is a dream of a lifetime,” said Sterling. “I love being on the water more than anything.”

Unfortunately for Sterling, his 14 trip mates and the thousands of Americans planning to visit to a National Park this spring, the budget showdown in Congress has put into question whether the parks will be open to visitors come March 18.

Attack on America’s Outdoor Economy

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of a Continuing Resolution – a bill designed to make sure the U.S. government stays open for business for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year. However, rather than focus on responsible spending cuts, the GOP-led House used the bill as cover to mount a reckless and irresponsible sneak attack on the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act and to slash investment in key land and wildlife conservation programs.

It is now left to the Senate to stand up for our values and stop this shameful attack on the laws that protect our country’s water, air, wildlife and public health. Unless the House, Senate and White House can come to a compromise soon over the budget, the federal government will shut down.

The closing of our National Parks is just one of the ways Americans would be impacted by a shutdown, yet it is representative of what is at stake in this fight. In addition to the campers, hikers, bird watchers, and other outdoor recreationists who may see vacations canceled, the shuttering of National Parks would be devastating for those communities that depend on tourism dollars generated by park goers.

Likewise, if the House-passed version of the Continuing Resolution were signed into law, it would directly impact America’s $730 billion outdoor recreation economy.

By slashing funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, State and Tribal Wildlife Grants, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service — programs that work to  maintain healthy wildlife populations, keep parks running and open new areas to outdoor recreation — the House has essentially launched an assault on America’s outdoor economy. At risk are the livelihoods of the outfitters, guides, restaurants, bed and breakfasts and other family-owned small business that depend on healthy wildlife and wild places.

Take Stand for American Values

I took this photo of Sterling on a recent work trip to Churchill, Manitoba.

The battle over the budget boils down to this: is Congress going to stand up for the things we value as Americans or will they choose to give big polluters free reign at the expense of our health, our wildlife and our public lands?

Essentially, will they help us make our dreams come true — dreams like rafting down a river, opening up a bait and tackle shop, and having safe drinking water for our families — or will they give us a nightmare.

For Sterling, the idea that his whitewater rafting trip could be canceled is not as painful as the idea that Congress might move forward with cuts to our bedrock conservation programs.

“I will be terribly disappointed personally,” he said. “However, it would be worse if the Senate were to destroy decades worth of progress on environmental issues by agreeing with the reckless choices made by the House. The current budget crisis was not the fault of the middle class, but it is the middle class that is being asked to pay for the excesses of the past.”

If you are like Sterling and the rest of us who value clean water, clean air, healthy parks, abundant wildlife and unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities, please take action today to help stop this attack on America’s conservation programs.