October 15, 2013

Making Social Structure Visible: America's National Parks

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By Karen Sternheimer

One of the most challenging aspects to learning about social structure is that it is often difficult to see the ways that social institutions shape our lives. The federal government shutdown of 2013 helps make some aspects of social structure visible.

Social structure’s impact is clearest when these structures change or stop working as they usually do. Take the closure of the nation’s national parks, which show us that even nature is shaped by social structure. People who planned vacations around visiting a national park and the businesses supported by tourists felt the government shutdown’s impact immediately.

Protests around the country reveal both the importance of the parks, and also some confusion about the importance of social structure. If a park is just open space, preserved for the public, why can’t people just go in on their own? What role does social structure play here?

The National Park Service employs rangers who do more than take money at park entrances or give tours. If visitors are in trouble, rangers are vital in emergency situations and have specialized knowledge about the unique environments in which the parks are located. For people who are lost, having a ranger team that knows the terrain ready to respond can be the difference between life and death. In Yosemite National Park, for instance, a search and rescue team responded to an average of 236 incidents between 2005 and 2009; many of these rescues required the use of a helicopter and other expensive equipment. Rangers also work to preserve the grounds, most centrally by spotting wildfires. Rangers may close roads that become dangerous and monitor the number of visitors in the park for safety and preservation purposes.

The very creation of a national park system also highlights the importance of social structure. Without legislation by Congress in 1916, the land that is now protected might have been used for development and become privatized. Who knows—maybe the Grand Canyon would have been parceled and sold as an ultra-exclusive community? Okay, the terrain might not be amenable to development there, but certainly some of the dramatic vistas now open to the public might not be accessible to all.

The Department of the Interior oversees the National Park Service, and it too is shaped by structural conditions, such as changes in funding or the shifting views on conservation that may fall in or out of political favor at any given time. These structural shifts impact how much admission fees cost, whether private developers may create businesses inside the park, or whether mining and other companies can use federal land for exploratory purposes.

Ken Burns’ documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea details the history of the parks, including the political process of getting land set aside and what happens when parks are not well maintained. The film also considers what happens when parks are too popular—ironically the very thing that draws visitors, natural beauty, can be ruined by cars and crowds.

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I had the opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park last year. Due to the weather, the rangers IMG_0031monitored road conditions and at certain points required tire chains on cars, likely preventing numerous accidents. They were quickly on the scene when a tree fell, blocking a main road to Badger Pass, the main ski area in the park. 

The government shutdown has even influenced web access; the National Park Service and other government websites are down or have limited information due to shutdown created furloughs. While economists debate the costs of the shutdown and its effects on the economy and political scientists ponder the political fallout for elected officials, sociologists can demonstrate the importance of social structure—especially when some of it disappears.

What else can the government shutdown teach us about social structure?


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Karen, you are spot on. Despite undesired political brouhaha, the Federal Government is indeed a NECESSESITY in protecting our nation's most treasured places. America's "Best Idea" was birthed for both man and beast. If the Park system were to fall into the hands of private commercialization, the enjoyment for and by the people and the protection of all the wild creatures within (including our spirits), would undoubtedly deteriorate. Sure, improvements are desired on many fronts but few recognize everything the National Park Service does with its under-funded budget (thank you for highlighting above). In conjunction with incredible non-profit organizations, the NPS and those that provide service to our country's greatest tangible assets deserve praise well beyond the contrary. That being said, our National Parks are in a losing battle with the constant threat of sequestration and a limping economy. While capitalism certainly isn't the answer pertaining to the administration of the National Parks, conscious business can play a significant role in filling the gap of much needed additional funding. All it takes is a little innovation and a whole lot of passion!

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