At least one reader thinks National Geographic's articles about national parks, particularly John Mitchell's eloquent essay, "Threatened Sanctuaries," are "over the top."
"You often cite the statistic that 95% of Americans are satisfied with the National Parks. Are we really going to go from 95% satisfaction to wondering 'will the National Parks be there for future generations' and wondering 'will it be worth toasting the National Parks' in just 10 years from now in 2016?" comments Sabbatis."I find it difficult, no, impossible, to believe."
Fair comment, as most of Sabbatis' are. But context is important, too.
John Mitchell has been following the national parks for a long, long time, and has seen much evolve in these special places over not just years, but decades. His thoughts no doubt are not based solely on what transpired in the parks from 2000 to 2005.
Keep that in mind when you read his words. While change is not so obvious close up, when viewed over the collective of 30 or 40 or 50 years, well, things stand out.
I don't think anyone who has closely followed national parks and the issues that swirl around them for 20 years or more can doubt there are significant threats at play that, if left unchallenged, will greatly alter the parks' existence from the vision held by Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, and others who pushed through the National Park Organic Act in 1916.
Park purists, and I'll admit I'm one, would like to see the actual "national parks," the Yellowstones, Yosemites, Sequoias and Glaciers, largely frozen in time. To be able to preserve a part of this country's natural heritage -- its dense forests, feathery waterfalls, soaring granite peaks, towering sandstone cliffs, deep and dark grottoes, stark, unforgiving dune fields, shimmering high-country lakes and all the creatures that occupy these places -- for future generations, whether they be 10 years down the road or 100, I think would not only be a magnificent thing, but one those generations would immensely appreciate.
If it's selfish to want to retreat to a place that appears much as it did 150 years ago is selfish, well, I'll bear that criticism.
At the same time, I'm realistic enough to understand that time can't be frozen, that as our population continues to rise there will be more demands for space, more generators of pollution, and more requests for activities in the national parks. And that's why there must be some "push back."
Are parks truly being so trampled, as Mr. Mitchell suggests, that they might not be worth toasting in 2016? In a decade's time, probably not, but let's not deny his use of hyperbole. After all, just in the last year I've touched on the following:
* At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the superintendent doesn't have enough money to properly maintain a collection of historically significant lighthouses;
* In Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, rangers dressed in camos and armed with automatic weapons confront booby-trapped marijuana farms;
* At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, similarly garbed rangers seized nearly eight tons of pot from smugglers during 2005 and arrested nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants and their "mules." Researchers are recommended to go out in the field only with armed support;
* Yosemite Valley is a zoo at the height of summer, and Curry Village's tent camp is an insult not only to the landscape but to many of the folks who have to endure the experience for a night;
* Sprawl around the borders of many national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and Everglades, are turning these places into biological islands that one day soon, if it's not already occurring, could jeopardize the genetic diversity of many of their terrestrial species;
* At Cape Lookout National Seashore, park officials have permitted the use of personal watercraft inside the park's waters, even though they have studies pinpointing the threats these gas-fueled toys pose to the seashore's wildlife;
* Air pollution is a substantial problem facing the parks today, with as many as 150 park units being located in parts of the country that "fail to meet one or more national healthy air standards";
* Historic buildings at Gateway National Recreation Area are in danger of being turned over to a private developer because the Park Service can't afford their upkeep;
* At Gettysburg, they've lost their preservation specialist to funding cuts;
* On average eighty percent -- 80%!-- of an individual park's budget goes for salaries and benefits, leaving precious little for resource management, interpretation and maintenance;
* At a time when summer time traffic jams and parking woes are commonplace in Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Rainier, Sequoia and other parks, when booking a room in a park lodge for the summer months requires making plans four or more months in advance, some in Congress think more needs to be done to boost park visitation.
For more examples, spend some time perusing my "Plight of the Parks" archive. And remember that many of these issues arose just in the past few years, not the past decade or half-century. At this rate, I think Mr. Mitchell's question of how the parks' landscapes and experiences will appear in 2016 is a good one to ponder.
As for the 95 percent approval rating given the Park Service that I have cited in the past, what further data I'd like to see is how many of the folks who gave their approval were visiting a national park for the very first time, or even just the tenth time? If I was visiting Yellowstone or Yosemite for the very first time, I'd no doubt come away awestruck. But over the course of time the warts become more visible, don't you think?
The national parks protect a small slice of America's natural landscape that can't be recreated. I don't think they were intended merely to be only slightly wilder versions of New York City's Central Park. They were intended, I like to think, to capture and preserve spectacular settings and ecosystems, places we shouldn't denigrate, places we intend to hand down to future generations so they can come to understand and appreciate, if only for a long weekend, how truly magnificent nature can be.
I fear that if we dismiss Mr. Mitchell's essay, and the above cited areas of concern, as so much alarmist over-reaction, we'll awake one day to realize we've lost something we can never get back.
Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.
- John Muir, "The National Parks and Forest Reservations," Sierra Club Bulletin, v. 1, no. 7, January 1896.