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Amid Partisan Jousting And Talk Of Government Shutdown, Why National Parks Matter

One teenager's desperate pilgrimage to see Old Faithful erupt is reminder of why we need grown adults making decisions in Congress

Old Faithful & The Milky Way  NPS / Neal Herbert
Old Faithful & The Milky Way NPS / Neal Herbert
With yet another self-inflicted government shutdown under way—the last one, in 2013 having had disastrous consequences for public confidence in Congress' ability to function—I am reminded how stories can sometimes be complicated.

The one that follows, however, is not complicated, for it is a reminder of the extraordinary good things our federal government does—operating public lands—and how they hold inestimable value that does not exist on budget ledger sheets.

As I look back at the stories I've penned over the years, I think about the simple messages emerging from interviews; the long-lasting empathy that remains as strong today as the moment I lifted open the notepad.

This is a column about one of those, though I didn't have the pleasure to interview the subject. It's a a real-life cautionary tale for those presently in power and the risks they take when they allow partisan rancor to blur their vision of what matters.

Some 21 winters ago, just as it did in 2013, the U.S. government shut down.  Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich had control of Congress and Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, ruled the White House.  

Talks over passing a federal budget, just as they have today, turned nasty.

Both sides refused to budge, myopically playing chicken with the lives of citizens whose well-being and businesses count on the government staying open. Even national parks and national forests closed their gates because there wasn't money appropriated to pay the salaries of rangers.

While all this was happening, one young man named Randy Caulder had other, more mortal concerns. Caulder, a bright-eyed teenage school kid from Lumberton, North Carolina, was dying of terminal cancer. He didn't have time to worry about petty bickering and brinksmanship going on between grown adults in the nation's capital.

Among the few priorities left in Caulder's life was seeing Old Faithful Geyser erupt. 
           
Just once.

He dreamed of experiencing the impressive icon of Yellowstone firsthand.

Yes, of any place in the world and given the possiblity of meeting any celebrity or sports star, Caulder selected going to America's first national park in the middle of a cold winter.

Normally, it wouldn't be too logistically difficult. Yet serving as a roadblock to Caulder's last wish was the following decree issued by the Interior Department ordering no visitation to parks during the shutdown:

"Two things can happen to a person who violates the law," the internal memo likely handed down from department lawyers stated.  "First is prosecution resulting in a fine of up to $5,000, or two years in prison, or both.  Secondly, the Secretary (of Interior) is obligated to report immediately any such violation to the President and the Congress."

Yes, Congress created conditions by which pursuing one's desire to visit our national parks could be interpreted as act of criminal trespass.  

Caulder's health was failing rapidly.

When word reached Yellowstone of his dream and dire circumstances, civil servants led by Superintendent Mike Finley, his staff and concession employees at park headquarters in Mammoth responded with defiance. They decided they would break the law and quietly commit an act of civil disobedience.
When word reached Yellowstone of his dream and dire circumstances, civil servants ... responded with defiance. They decided they would break the law and quietly commit an act of civil disobedience.
"All of us wanted to do what was right," park spokesperson Marsha Karle told me at the time. "National parks exist for the people and here was a young man who rallied his last strength just to see the inside of Yellowstone."

Upon arrival, Caulder was bundled up on a sled pulled by snowmobile and ferried  to the Upper Geyser Basin. Rangers waiting for him at Old Faithful huddled at his side, no one else around, helping him predict the geyser's next eruption.  He was giddy as bison, elk and coyotes filled the frame of a spotting scope placed in front of him.

The teen, who struggled to raise up his body against the weight of disease pulling him down, fought off intense pain and rallied with a smile as he peered into the ethereal maw.

"Randy and I had a heart to heart talk during the trip to Yellowstone.  He was the type of kid who would not give up and his courage gave other people strength," said close family friend Ron Nye who escorted Caulder out West. "But he was preparing himself for the inevitable. He asked me, "If I should die, what is it going to be like on the other side?'"

Caulder arrived at the conclusion on his own that maybe Heaven looked something like Yellowstone. At least he hoped it was.
Caulder arrived at the conclusion on his own that maybe Heaven looked something like Yellowstone. At least he hoped it was.
"I was extremely moved by his visit because rather than going to Disneyland, this young person came here—and to think we can't even keep the place open," park staffer Rod Robey remarked afterward.  "In making Caulder's wish come true, a very important statement was made about values.  At a time when morale is an issue, mine was lifted.  At a time when our leader-politicians refer to our children's future and then close the parks, this is the reason they should be open."

Fortunately, the Interior Department memo proved to be a bluff charge.  No one was hauled off in handcuffs, accused of insubordination or prosecuted for breaking the law.

Randy Neil Caulder made it home to North Carolina and felt as if he had been on top of the world. Within hours of his visit to Yellowstone, he passed away at five in the morning on Jan. 11, 1996.

His story remains a lesson for the ages and it's one every member of Congress should be required to learn.

EPILOGUE: At midnight on Friday, January 19, 2018, the U.S. federal government shut down again. As Congress remained at odds, and the Trump Administration watched agencies closing their doors, Mick Mulvaney, the president's director of Office of Management and Budget and Interior Department spokesperson Heather Swift, tried to downplay the effects without fully comprehending them. 

What price lost citizen confidence in the ability of elected officials to govern?

National forests and wildlife refuges would be shuttered. Mulvaney and Swift issued public statements saying that if a government shutdown occurred national parks would remain open, though experts say it would create a nightmare of liability issues and what about protection of resources without paid professionals caretaking them?

According to the federal Antideficiency Act, federal public employees, in the case of a shutdown, are put on mandatory furlough. Roads can remain open, but employees are forbidden from reporting to work. Campgrounds, restrooms and visitor centers would close. Employees can't even volunteer to do their jobs if it means they are carrying out official government duties.

A shutdown essentially puts employees, park concessionaires, and park gateway communities in a state of limbo. And, one prominent National Park Service official in Washington D.C. told me, a shutdown and the uncertainly it creates for employees is yet another blow to falling agency morale.

The two-week government shutdown in autumn 2013 had significant impacts in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. It resulted in lost economic tourism revenue estimated to be tens of millions of dollars.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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