In one of its most thought-provoking issues in recent memory, National Geographic Magazine has dedicated its October issue to national parks of the world. It's an issue that not only reveres these magical places, from Yellowstone here in America to Serra dos Oragaos National Park in Brazil to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, but touches on some of the critical issues confronting these places.
"To examine the state of the world's protected areas is a pressing mandate," Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns writes in introducing the issue. "Will they be there for future generations? In this 118th year of the magazine's publication, we at National Geographic are redoubling our commitment to 'Places We Must Save.'"
It's a commitment we all must make, for I seriously question whether our parks can survive in the standard set down through the National Park Organic Act in 1916 without a concerted effort.
In recent weeks I've generated a fair amount of reaction by raising questions about park entrance fees, altruism, and visitation levels in the parks, among other topics. It has been good to see so many people lend their voices to my thoughts, because it reflects the concern that exists for how our parks are being managed.
On visitation, many agreed with me that current visitor levels really aren't a problem, and in fact might be a blessing as they, perhaps in the smallest of measurements, take some of the pressure off parks that quite a few think are overcrowded. Others thought that only by encouraging more visitors could the park system, through its at times indescribable beauty, nurture future champions for its existence. There is much truth and optimism in that belief.
Yet, if the myth that park visitation is in a serious state of decline is taken to heart and we gin up ways to reverse that perceived trend, we chance overrunning the very places that we cherish. That much was realized five years ago by the National Park System Advisory Board.
"It is time to re-examine the 'enjoyment equals support' equation and to encourage public support of resource protection at a higher level of understanding," the board noted in "Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century." "In giving priority to visitor services, the Park Service has paid less attention to the resources it is obliged to protect for future generations."
Unfortunately, as National Geographic writer John Mitchell points out in his thoughtful essay, "Threatened Sanctuaries," it didn't take long for the Bush administration, particularly then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and outgoing Park Service Director Fran Mainella, to toss that report in the trash.
"Though Park Service Director Fran Mainella initially supported the report, it later became evident that it was not her agenda, and before long the Department of Interior, under Secretary Norton, was suggesting the opposite of what the board had concluded: Preservation was trumping recreation; the Clinton administration had taken the fun out of the national parks. Now the stage was set for a clash of values."
This issue of National Geographic, particularly the essays by Mitchell and David Quammen, is one to read thoroughly, and to hold onto for at least another decade to see whether we as a society have learned a lesson and reacted properly to the many dire issues that confront our parks, be they pollution, underfunding, or, as Mitchell so adroitly puts it, "an atmosphere of veiled hostility created by political appointees at the highest levels of" the Interior Department and the Park Service.
In opening his essay, Mitchell ponders whether, in 2016 when the Park Service marks its centennial, we will break out the champagne to celebrate the birthday, asking whether "there'll be enough high standards left untrampled to justify the toast."
I would offer that an equally important question is whether you and me, the folks who treasure these parks, can instill the wonderment, the awe, and the love for the parks we experience and hold to in our trailing generations to ensure that they demand from their political leaders that our park system truly thrive unimpaired for, as the Organic Act put it back in 1916, the "enjoyment of future generations."
For, as Quammen so succinctly summarizes the plight at hand, "Our national parks are as good, only as good, as the instensity with which we treasure them."