In praise of parks, in fear of frats

By Ron Leir

This past Sunday, I attended a memorial event for a buddy of mine who, despite having been at an advanced age, rarely showed signs of slowing down, physically or mentally.

About 18 months ago, Arnie suffered a stroke and subsequently fell into a coma. But, months later, Arnie miraculously regained consciousness and there was hope he’d regain the full use of his lungs and limbs.

Those of us who knew him well thought he had a good chance because Arnie was a stubborn cuss. But his body was worn down and he didn’t make it.

I mention Arnie not only because I considered him a true friend but also because he advocated for the downtrodden as a New York social worker and also because he loved the outdoors — in particular, our national parks, which he never tired of visiting, some more than once.

As his closest companion, Laura, told me, “Arnie loved the natural world’s beauty but he also loved to move through it.” That was characteristic of Arnie’s driving force in pursuit of a goal. I can personally testify to that trait because I was with him in Death Valley National Park, straddling the California/Nevada border, where — despite the intense heat — he hiked up a small mountain trail while I stayed in our motel pool.

It was in this connection that I’d been thinking of Arnie in recent weeks after reading that the U.S. Interior Department plans to hike (no pun intended) the weekday admission fees at 17 national parks, mostly out west, to help pay for deferred maintenance and repairs. At some parks, the increase would be double; some triple, up to $70 for a weekly pass, instead of asking Congress to fund the work.

This could happen – despite the fact that the parks continue to draw record-breaking numbers of visitors – so it can’t be that the National Parks Service is lacking for revenues.

Parks that would be impacted are: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Zion, all in Utah; Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Joshua Tree, all in California; Grand Teton and Yellowstone, both in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain in Colorado; Mt. Rainier and Olympic, both in Washington; Shenandoah in Virginia; Acadia in Maine; and Denali in Alaska.

At the same time, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has talked about opening up lands in some national parks for fossil fuel exploration, both on land and off-shore. There are prospects for Congress lifting the current ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for oil and gas.

Meanwhile, funding for acquisition of additional national parklands would be frozen.

If Arnie were still with us, I know he’d be in the forefront of a campaign to protect our precious national resources before they’re put up for sale to the highest energy bidder.

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Speaking of parks, I see where the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection is seeking bids for a prospective concessions operator for Liberty State Park in Jersey City. What a disgrace that a park that overlooks the Statue of Liberty and attracts thousands of visitors annually can offer no on-site refreshments. The built-in vendor space at the park’s south end has remained empty for many years. Let’s hope this go-round will be more productive.

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When are our so-called institutions of higher learning going to crack down on the stupid and often dangerous hazing rituals perpetuated by fraternities on campuses across our nation?

How many needless deaths — like the 19-year-old engineering student at Penn State in February — have to happen before the madness ends?

Certainly the court system in Pennsylvania didn’t help the situation when a judge failed to hold the Beta Theta Pi frat brothers responsible for forcing their pledge to guzzle down alcohol, resulting in the teen losing his balance and toppling down stairs to his death.

The university did suspend that frat — and a second — and placed alcohol restrictions on all campus frats, but campus police this month filed charges against that second frat, Delta Tau Delta, after an 18-year-old student suspected of drinking there was found unconscious in the street and hospitalized.

Maybe every campus has its own version of “Animal House” but, short of forming a Temperance Society chapter, there must be a more enlightened way for uptight kids to let off steam. Let’s try and find it … to keep one more person alive.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.