Our National Parks: Have We Lost Sight of Their Intended Legacy?

Spring of 1918 was a heady time for Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Legislation creating the new agency was in place, he had a budget, and it was time to marshal his fledgling agency into action, to put its arms around the growing number of national parks springing up in the western half of the country.
It was on one of those warm, muggy mid-May days in Washington, D.C., that Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane, cognizant of the task before Mather, presented him with three broad management objectives to hold fast to in managing the park system. First, wrote Lane, national parks "must be maintained in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations, as well as those of our own time." Second, he continued, they are "set apart for the use, observation, health and pleasure of the people." Lastly, wrote the interior secretary, "the national interest must dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks."
Down through the years Lane's dictates meshed well with the heart of the National Park Service Organic Act, which in 1916 charged the agency with conserving the parks' landscape unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations. But what neither Lane's directive nor the Organic Act necessarily anticipated was the degree of intrusion of politics and special-interest litigation upon the park system. And perhaps no park can measure up to Yellowstone, the world's first national park, when it comes to enduring those combined forces.
For a glimpse of what those forces are doing to our parks, read on.

Yellowstone has been a proverbial lightning rod for politics and lawsuits. Proof of that can be seen in the ongoing multi-million-dollar saga of whether snowmobiles should be permitted to zip through the park. Some thought this issue finally had been resolved by the Clinton administration, which issued a snowmobile ban for Yellowstone shortly before President Clinton left office.
But then George Bush, even before he was familiar with all the rooms in the White House, lifted the ban. Since Bush did that there have been two additional environmental impact studies -- and one environmental assessment -- examining snowmobiles in Yellowstone, and all came down against the machines.
When you're president, though, apparently no study is the final study unless it meets your desires, and so the Park Service yet again is embarking down the road on another costly environmental impact statement to analyze whether snowmobiles can jitterbug around Yellowstone without impairing its air quality, soundscape, wildlife, and visitor experience.
I'll take a longer look at this issue in the weeks and months to come, for it's an important matter that needs the full light of day to shine down upon the process.
But what's important -- even critical -- to realize is that our parks across the country, not just Yellowstone, face myriad plights. In Yosemite, officials are trying to "fix" the problems with Yosemite Valley. Much needs to be done, particularly in the name of overcrowding. Camp Curry is a prime example, one that needs to be addressed.
Nearby in Sequoia, plots of marijuana are being tended by armed guards. Back East, Great Smoky Mountains National Park gains much of its haze not from natural conditions, but from air pollution. Sequoia, Acadia, Joshua Tree, Mammoth Cave, Shenandoah, Yosemite and Cape Cod National Seashore also struggle with air pollution; each records days when ground-level ozone levels exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's upper limit of 85 parts per billion.
Many parks have lodging that needs to be rehabilitated or simply replaced, as well as roads that were not designed to handle today's fleets of RVs, fifth-wheels, tour buses, and delivery trucks.
There are wonderful stories, too.
Acadia's carraige paths, woods, ponds and rocky shores are as beautiful today as when I first encountered them nearly four decades ago. Sequoia has done a great job rehabilitating the Giant Forest area, and roadwork there is a sight to behold, both aesthetically and where the rubber meets the road. In Glacier, crews are rebuilding sections of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and there's talk of establishing a shuttle system, much like the great one that runs at Zion National Park.
More needs to be done. When he campaigned for his first term, President Bush said he would "ensure that the federal government meets its responsibilities by devoting $5 billion to eliminate the backlog in maintenance and improvements at our national parks."
Well, he might have been good-intentioned, but latest estimates from the Bush administration place the current backlog at somewhere between $4 billion and almost $7 billion.
There currently is an effort in Congress to pass the National Parks Centennial Act. As written, this measure intends to wipe out the Park Service's maintenance backlog by 2016, the year the National Park Service marks its 100th birthday. The bill would provide for a checkoff on your tax return that would allow you to donate money that would supplement the Park Service's annual appropriation, with 60 percent set aside specifically for maintenance and the rest for research.
These are just some of the issues that revolve around the national park system. They need more attention, and our U.S. senators and representatives need to be reminded of that on almost a daily basis. And they need to be reminded of what Interior Secretary Lane said nearly a century ago.
Perhaps they also should read a little John Muir, such as this passage that appeared in Our National Parks in 1901:
"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail."
In the weeks and months ahead I'll explore these and other issues, and welcome your thoughts.