Contributed by Will Rice
That the power to tax involves the power to destroy; that the power to destroy may defeat and render useless the power to create; that there is a plain repugnance in conferring on one Government a power to control the constitutional measures of another, which other, with respect to those very measures, is declared to be supreme over that which exerts the control, are propositions not to be denied.
This is the immortal, albeit slightly dry sentiment of John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, in his opinion of McCulloch v. Maryland, a landmark case in American constitutional law. This excerpt is widely cited (arguably out of context) on hundreds of fiscally conservative blogs across the internet, especially around this time of year. If you were to, for some sad reason, study the Google Trends of folks searching for Marshall, you would find that searches for his name spike upward around April 15th each year. For our international readers, all three of you, it might be helpful to point out that April 15th marks the last date each year when Americans must file their taxes.
John Marshall found his way into my head late last week as I walked out the door of my neighborhood H&R Block, brooding over his words. The experience of filing my taxes was rather pleasant. Diane, a 1970s trail crew junkie turned tax pro, walked me through the process and the office was painted in a friendly bullfrog green that gave the whole affair a feeling of boggy spontaneity, as though at any moment the accountants and I would, in a youthful fit, begin hopping around the office furniture. Or at least this was the fantasy my mind wandered to as Diane kindly explained the complex soup of 1099s and W-2s I had created for myself by working seasonally across the country during the past year.
Then it was time to pay.
Margins of dollar signs began running down Diane’s computer screen. Federal. State. County. Fees to H&R Block. Refunds swallowed by fees. I began to sweat, much in the way I imagine a person selling an ill-advised purchase on eBay awaits the final bids—just hoping to break even. I found myself, remarkably, only about $200 in the red, nonetheless I walked out the door feeling a bit sulky and flustered.
I had a hard time letting the whole thing go. I began dreaming wistfully about my $200. Where did it go? What could it have been? A plane ticket? A roof rack? That backpack that’s been haunting my dreams for last six months? For the extent of about twenty minutes, I became a TEA party sympathizer. I considered getting a crew cut, asking my purist libertarian neighbor out for beers, and transferring my modest savings into the gold market. It was a dark afternoon.
Then I remembered parks exist.
National parks, wildlife refuges, conservation areas, and forests. Redwoods, lupines, ranger talks, dark night skies, clean alpine lakes, hot springs, black-footed ferrets, puffins, panthers, fresh powder, and pit toilets. All paid for, in part, by me.
In 2016, the cost of operating the National Park Service amounted to about $9.40 per American. Bureau of Land Mangement- $3.76. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service- $5.02. US Forest Service- $15.36. Just for contrast, annual military spending amounts to about $1,882.07 per American. Spending on national parks covers about 0.07% of all federal spending, the Department of Interior as a whole only accounts for just 0.3%.
This sliver of the federal budget goes a really long way, managing twenty-eight percent of the nation’s lands. To gain real sense of how far these dollars stretch, it may prove a useful (perhaps even therapeutic) exercise to dive into a small sample of agency press releases from the past year:
In 2016 humans visited America’s national parks 330,971,689 times, frolicking for a total of 1.4 billion hours. They learned to lace snow shoes in Voyageurs and listened to holiday music at Indiana Dunes. They attended a civil war day camp at Chickamauga Battlefield and decorated pillow cases for active duty military service members at Fort Vancouver. They learned about the night sky at Big Cypress, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Alibates Flint Quarries, and just about every other park. Some even became U.S. citizens.
Park Rangers searched for missing hikers in Sequoia, improved sea cave views at Apostle Islands, managed prescribed burns on the rim of the Grand Canyon, monitored elk reduction in Grand Teton, worked with visitors to create a transportation strategy for Acadia, rehabilitated a picnic area in Obed, hosted stakeholder meetings at Lake Roosevelt, reopened an airstrip in Death Valley, and awarded somewhere in the ballpark of three quarters of a million Junior Ranger badges.
Our U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists made huge strides in protecting jaguars, ocelots, Mexican Wolves, black-capped vireos, and, as surely you already well aware, the Kuenzler hedgehog cactus. Our dollars helped remove dams in Massachusetts, culverts in Alaska, and a flower from the endangered species list in Kentucky. The Service did all of that and more while managing 150 million acres of refuges across the country.
The US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management gained four new national monument designations in 2016. Thanks to our dollars, they were able to place greater protection and plan for responsible recreation on nearly three and a half million acres of stunning historic and natural landscapes in the American Southwest. Through their efforts, hunting in Sands to Snow, camping in Mojave Trails, backpacking in Bears Ears, and ghost town exploring in Gold Butte can be had without the drone of new oil wells or off-trail dune buggies.
We paid for it all, and that, in itself, is rather remarkable—that we as a nation could finance an undertaking so massive, with each person paying a few dollars. Even the high-minded John Marshall would be hard pressed to deny the beauty of this process.
As it turns out, he took advantage of it himself.
In 1812, Marshall, while still serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, led a group of men up a notorious whitewater torrent and into the American wilderness. Piled into a small, flat bottomed boat, Marshall and his men pressed towards the heart of Appalachia in search of the headwaters of the New River and passage to the Mississippi River and the American West just beyond.
It was a miserable failure. The whitewaters of what is today the New River Gorge National River wreaked havoc on the poorly equipped party. At one point they traveled just two miles over three days. It was a classic failed expedition to find an easy path to the West. They turned around shortly after the New turned to mayhem.
But what gives this story relevance is the fact that Marshall had to plead to the American taxpayer to make his trip a reality. In order to finance his expedition and his James River Company, Marshall wrote a plea to the people of Virginia:
It is with you, fellow-citizens, whether this great work shall succeed or totally fail. You are now to decide whether it shall raise us to our former rank among our sister states, or add one to the examples already given of the ruinous apathy with which we neglect the natural advantages which Providence has bestowed upon our country with so profuse a hand, while they are seized by others… Our commerce with the western states depends on you. Unless you will now come forward and make an effort to preserve your share of it, ’tis gone forever.
At the eleventh hour, the Virginia Legislature stepped in and allowed the state’s treasury to provide the remaining funds to Marshall’s trip—thus adding the slightest blemish to his modern, libertarian image.
We all have the government programs we care about. My friend Louise cares about health care, my mom cares about education, and John Marshall cared about publicly financed exploration. I happen to care about public lands. If you don’t care about your public lands, I encourage you to dig into the archaic government website of whatever agency you happen to love and find the stories and data that make you happy this tax season. Perhaps today more than ever, we must recognize what our government does right and advocate accordingly. Recently, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate to fund the $12 billion maintenance backlog of our national parks, and you can bet I am going to write my congress members in support of putting my dollars toward it.
John Marshall may be right in some respects. Our country was founded, in part, because of a government taxing to the point of tyranny. Taxes can destroy, sure, but they can also preserve. Whether powering the pens of policymakers or the crosscut saws of trail crews, the American tax payer’s capacity to preserve and protect is on full display in our public lands.
Photos courtesy of the National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons, and the Internal Revenue Service