"Our parks are like a child whose teeth have been neglected. Look at that smile, we say. See how white and pretty? Hardly any decay showing. But keep her away from the dentist another few years. Let maintenance and construction be postponed as they have been ever since the stand-by years of World War II. Put off renovating the museums, do without the extra rangers and naturalists. Don't bother moving the campgrounds, though they ought to be moved about as often as a turkey run, and for similar reasons. Let it all go, and pretty soon we will not ask the child to smile."
Wallace Stegner, one of the deans of conservation writing, penned that paragraph 50 years ago for Sports Illustrated in a story titled, "We Are Destroying Our National Parks." Sadly, despite Stegner's warning, we seem to have learned little as a nation about environmental stewardship in the past half-century.
In the article Stegner wrote of the over-crowding of parks, of Americans' penchant for littering and defacing public property, and of the threat commercialization held like a knife at the neck of our park system.
"A national park is not a playground and not a resort, though it may be ideal for such activities as hiking, riding, climbing, hunting with a camera, fishing and cross-country skiing -- sports which demand no installations, attract no spectators and leave no scars," wrote Stegner. "The real purpose of the national parks -- to preserve scenery, beauty, geology, archeology, wildlife, for permanent use in living natural museums, is not affected by these, but it cannot be made compatible with weekend dances, ski tournaments, speedboat races and a million people a year."
It's time we as a nation had a very frank discussion on the future of our national parks. In recent months there has been talk about throwing the parks' doors open to motorized recreation, possibly mining and logging, and much more commercialization. We've heard top Interior Department officials talk of putting enjoyment of the parks on equal footing with preservation of the parks. And we all are well-familiar with the severe funding problems our parks face.
So where do we go from here? It's a valid question that deserves some serious thought.
During last week's congressional hearing on park funding in Flagstaff, Arizona, Representative Mark Souder of Indiana, who along with Congressman Brian Baird of Washington State has authored legislation intended to get the Park Service out of the red, came right out and guaranteed that "parks won't be sold."
However, he also wondered aloud what role further commercialization of the parks should play. "Commercialization in the parks is a very tough challenge," said Souder. "How far and where are we going to go in allowing it? It's a valid question."
Another member of Souder's committee, Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona, tossed out an even more foreboding comment after Rick Smith, a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, raised the issue of a blue-ribbon committee being appointed to study how our parks should be managed.
"I like the blue-ribbon committee idea," said Renzi. "Maybe they would find that the U.S. government running our parks is a dinosaur idea."
Let's Not Go Down the Commercialization Road
I think Smith's proposal for a blue-ribbon committee is a good one, although I fear that if we ever OK more commercialization in the parks than we currently have, it will open a Pandora's Box of problems that we'll never easily be able to contain. Stegner had it right 50 years ago: "A primeval park," he wrote, "offers values that are close to the values of religion."
Where would the Pombos and Hoffmans in Washington have us stop at commercializing the national parks? Should we erect a McDonald's or Pizza Hut at Old Faithful? How about an outlet at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton to buy snowmobiles? A powerboat dealer on Crater Lake? A Northface store on Mount McKinley?
Of course, these are absurd examples. Just as absurd as the proposals that we should open up the parks to more motorized recreation or that we should sell off a few park units to help generate funds for the federal government.
Time, I think, should stand fairly still in the parks. Absolutely we need lodgings in the parks, and restaurants and a minimum miles of roads so visitors can see and understand what it is that we're trying so hard to preserve. But those lodgings, and restaurants, and roads, and gift shops should be held at an absolute minimum, for if they're not, they begin to erode exactly what it is that Congress found so important nearly 90 years ago to adopt the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916.
When Stegner took pen to paper in 1955 to lament the fate of our national parks, he wondered how they would appear 20 years hence, in 1975.
"If Yosemite looks now like the rush hour at Hollywood and Vine, how will it be in 1975? And where shall we go then for our inexpensive and restorative family vacations? Not to Sequoia or Rocky Mountain or Lassen Volcanic," he wrote. "Their beauty will be lost to us, as Yosemite's is already to many because of the crowds. We will have to seek quieter and wilder places where there is rest for soul and eye. Such places are scarce now. They are getting rarer, and there are no more where they came from."
Revisions of Hoffman's Revisions Due Soon
Any day now we should hear how the "Career Park Professionals" did in rewriting Paul Hoffman's revisions to the National Park Services' Management Policies. The latest version could debut as soon as tomorrow, the 18th of October. While I haven't seen any of the latest draft, I've heard rumblings that most of Hoffman's most drastic changes were rejected.
And that would be a good thing.
We as a society cannot be so arrogant and vainglorious to think that we can improve on nature. Sure, we can plant and tend to colorful gardens in our own yards and city parks, but I've come across nothing so beautiful as a towering waterfall secluded in a thick forest far away from highways and subdivisions.
Just because we have found more ways to recreate via a gasoline engine doesn't mean that's what should govern all our recreation. And, while the government surely needs to do a better job of managing our tax dollars, that doesn't mean that congressmen should auction off our parks or sell sponsorships to those parks to make up for their lack of fiscal restraint.
For the nation that launched the world's national park movement back in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park, I find it a little more than ironic that we're struggling with how best to manage our national parks.
We seem to have stagnated with our national park mission. There are other countries that devote a much larger percentage of their landmass to preservation as national parks. And while we continue to talk about creating new national parks, we are doing a terrible job of managing, funding, and preserving the ones we've got.
We can do better.