In its July-August issue, National Geographic Traveler has a very interesting piece that examines the health of 55 of North America's national parks. It's a thought-provoking article that begs the question of whether we in America are properly managing our national parks.
The story divides parks into four categories: the top 16 that are doing great in just about all contexts; another 23 that are doing "OK," but have some issues to be dealt with; 13 that are in trouble, either ecologically or due to gateway-town developments, and; three that face what the magazine terms "destructive external pressures and major internal difficulties."
Among the bottom dwellers are some of our crown jewels: Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah.
What struck me is that of the ten Canadian parks included in the survey, eight scored above average and 60 percent made it into the top quarter, while just 22 percent of U.S. parks fared that well. Why the disparity? According to one of those who contributed to the story, "Canadians in general take their government's role in preserving parks more seriously."
Could that be true?
Could it be that Americans automatically think our park system is the best in the world simply because we kicked off the whole national parks movement back in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone? If that's the case, then we've got a lot of work to do to correct the flaws that exist. And there are many flaws.
The Yellowstone snowmobile issue is a well-worn, but prime, example. Despite three environmental studies since 1999 that state that Yellowstone's overall health would be much better off without snowmobiles, the Bush administration continues to push the issue by refusing to accept the science of its own Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency.
With millions of acres of national forest lands open to snowmobiling, why must we stress the health and ecology of our national park system by saying snowmobiles belong there? Could it be the administration is more interested in pandering to a special interest group than upholding the National Park Organic Act, the Park Service's own management guidelines, or even the Clean Air Act?
Lined up behind Yellowstone are many, many other parks with problems that have seemingly obvious solutions but that we somehow are struggling to solve. Grand Canyon's South Rim is overrun by automobiles and crowds and the related congestion and pollution. Why has it taken so long for Congress to buy into the mass transit system long proposed for the South Rim, a system that would help clean the air, erase road rage, and better manage people traffic on the rim?
The Yosemite Valley is another picture of misuse. Try to spend an enjoyable night in Camp Curry, that famous tent-cabin community that I found to be too loud, too crowded, and ill-equipped to meet the restroom and shower needs of the 2000 people who spend a night there most nights during the high season. When the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. "quiet period" translates in reality to 11 p.m. or midnight to 5 a.m., when tent dwellers curse one another to keep quiet, when garbage cans overflow onto the ground in this black bear habitat, and when long lines form at the filthy shower houses, the time has come for a change.
The famous "fire fall" that once was a nightly display from Glacier Point above Camp Curry was done away with to protect the park and visitors. The time has come, I believe, to address the problems of an overcrowded Curry Village. There's no need to do away with the camp, but a culling of tents would go a long way to improving a visit and protect the landscape of the Yosemite Valley floor, once a hallowed place of nature, an open-air cathedral where rock and water and sky meld into one, that now is overrun with people and their support infrastructure.
Americans have perfected capitalism. Everything has a price and value to it. That's evident in the gaudy gantlet of roadside sideshows one must run through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Sadly, though, it seems we've misplaced the value we once placed on the natural environment, landscape and wildlife that the national park system was intended by its creators to protect. It seems we don't want to nourish and preserve these places as much as we want to leverage them.
On May 13, 1918, Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane wrote Stephen Mather, the head of the newly created National Park Service, a lengthy letter outlining how he thought the park system should be managed. Near the very top of that letter Lane wrote, "Every activity of the Service is subordinate to the duties imposed upon it to faithfully preserve the parks for posterity in essentially their natural state."
Perhaps it's time for all of us -- the land-managers, politicians, and public -- to reread that letter, take a good, close look at the park system, and decide whether we're doing a good job as stewards. I think we can do better.