The past week has been a turbulent one on this page. The prospect of opening national parks to travelers toting concealed weapons brought forth much sound and fury, the issue of snowmobiles in Yellowstone not nearly as much.
Does the volume of comments on either issue mean much? Not really, other than to exemplify how polarizing these issues can be. What these individual debates sadly, and temporarily, overshadow but do not mute is the ongoing decline of the national park system and the shrinking of advocates for the parks.
Is the gun issue really about national parks? No, I don't think so. Rather, its focus is the 2nd Amendment and whether those who prefer to carry side arms should be given carte blanche to exercise that right wherever they choose. And the debate over snowmobiling in Yellowstone I think is not so much hinged on how one visits the park in winter as on where those who snowmobile believe they are entitled to go. Of course, that statement itself could precipitate a volume of comments.
But again, these debates take away from the much needed attention the park system should be receiving as it struggles with insufficient funding and, in some corners, indifference, to carry out its mandates of conserving these unique places and their natural, cultural and historical resources and providing enjoyment to visitors, today and tomorrow.
Granted, there’s a lengthy philosophical debate over how one should be able to “enjoy” the parks. But rather than delving into that weighty matter right now just let me say that it, too, detracts from the much more fundamental debate of how our national park system can be better funded and managed.
Scroll through my archive on “Plight of the Parks” and you’ll read post after post highlighting the woes of the park system: underfunding that reduces the ranks of uniformed rangers, both for interpretation and law enforcement; the reduction of interpretive programs; the leasing of park facilities to commercial entities; housing developments crowding park boundaries; drug operations. The list goes on and on.
Now, whether Congress allows the Park Service to continue to ban concealed weapons is not going to erode the 2nd Amendment in the least. We, in theory, are a society governed by laws our representatives enact. One of them allows those who choose to carry concealed weapons if their state allows it. Another allows the Park Service to ban concealed weapons within their borders, regardless of state law. The latter law is not going to rescind the former.
As for snowmobiles, wanting to preserve a park’s clean air, water and soils, and to protect its wildlife, employees, and visitors, from the pollution of a snowmobile is not elitist. It’s merely endeavoring to protect the environment, the national park setting and its resources, for future generations to marvel at, as the National Park Service Organic Act intended.
One, I suppose, could suggest the snowmobile manufacturers are elitist by not investigating an electric snowmobile. (If they are, I’d be interested in their reviews.) Already a prototype has been built by Raser Technologies, a Utah company that specializes in hybrid technologies. This prototype delivered 80 horsepower, the same as many 2-stroke snowmobile engines, but without the pollution and noise. Will it go as far and as long as a gas-powered engine? Probably not in its current form, but if the market demands it do so, it will.
And why hasn’t the Park Service, instead of advocating for a Winter Use Plan that it knows from its own science would impact Yellowstone’s air, water and soundscapes, embraced its mandates under the Organic Act and made it clear it expects the snowmobile industry to seriously consider this hybrid technology?
Moving forward, while issues such as concealed weapons and snowmobiles no doubt will continue to arise from time to time in connection with the parks, rather than becoming distracted by these individual debates I would hope we could focus more on the cumulative impact the parks are suffering and work to find a solution so the system can thrive. After all, if all we see in the parks is a place to carry weapons or ride a snowmobile, we’ve lost sight of the significance of national parks.