Has the national park system lost its relevancy? That largely is a rhetorical question. Of course it hasn't. Not exactly. But how we view the national parks does indeed seem to be changing, and I fear that's not such a good thing.
Step back for a minute and take an objective look around. On these pages banter in recent months has gotten quite acrimonious on such issues as whether motorized rec is a good thing in the parks, whether you should be able to carry a concealed weapon in the parks, and whether religious points of view should dare to take up space on bookshelves in the gift shops.
If you've visited Gadling in recent days, you know one of its bloggers has been smitten by "the sky is falling" syndrome that's been spread the past year or so over national park visitation. Never mind that in 2005 some 274 million visitors were counted in the park system. How many are too many? Is that a question we're afraid to ask?
What I fear is that beneath this chatter we're losing our collective mindset of the significance and vision of the national parks movement. Perhaps it's already been lost.
I'm not alone in this concern. Jeremy at Park Remark has cobbled for debate a short list of the top three threats
facing the national park system while my favorite gadfly, Jim MacDonald, is waxing about the wolf at the door -- privatization -- that threatens Yellowstone. At Wild Wilderness, Scott Silver also drives that point home, in a most personal demonstration.
And yet we seem to get caught up not in the threats to the parks, not in concern over their upkeep, not in their underfunding, but rather in a slackening of crowds, in why motorized recreation isn't given unfettered access to all of our public lands, and in diverging views of life itself.
Eighty-two years ago Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, in two sentences succinctly summed up the fledgling agency's mission:
"The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks and national monuments under its jurisdiction and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done in view of the fact that access to them must be provided in order that they may be used and enjoyed. All other activities of the bureau must be secondary (but not incidental) to this fundamental function relating to care and protection of all areas subject to its control."
I would hope that those two sentences would ring as true today as they did when Mather first gave them life in February 1925. Instead, though, I fear they have become overburdened and weighed down these past eight decades by the hubris of self-gratification, of our society's over-sized capitalistic appetite, of our unquenchable litigious appetite for righting things we perceive to be wrong, not that actually are wrong.
I too would hope that Mather's words still would carry an inherent responsibility within the federal government to faithfully and sufficiently maintain the national park system, not to let units wither on the vine as some tainted grapes because they incur the costs of maintenance and operation so that "they may be used and enjoyed."
That, of course, is not the case. The National Park Service is billions of dollars in the hole when it comes to maintenance, and its annual shortfall is somewhere around $800 million. And yet folks argue over visitation levels, over motorized recreation access, over an obscure book that has been vaulted to prominence, momentarily for sure, because of the words on its pages.
In his list of the top three threats to the national park system, Jeremy cites 1) "massive disinterest" by the general public, as he infers through dwindling visitation; 2) the threat of privatization, and; 3) motorized recreation.
Good points, all, but as I commented on his site I fear a greater threat is that which I broached early on in this post: that we our losing our collective mindset of the significance and vision of the national parks movement.
I continue to believe the fears over visitation are overblown. As I noted last April, 2005 recreation visitation across the system totaled 273.5 million. True, that was a slight drop from 2004's 276.9 million visitors, but it was a 7.5 million increase from 2003's total of 266 million.
And surely 2005's total would have surpassed 2004's number had hurricanes not dropped visitation to Gulf Islands National Seashore by some 2.5 million and had international visitation to the U.S. not been at or near a record low.
Too, simply because a person hasn't visited a national park, does that lessen their desire to see that park exist? I have yet to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but am glad it exists and think a horrible mistake would be made to salt its surface with drilling rigs.
And, really, wouldn't it be a delight to visit Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone in the high season and not have to endure traffic jams or time-sapping hunts for parking? That seems to be the thinking of Ranger X, who on his "Without a Park to Range" blog you'll find an entirely different spin on declining visitation levels at Yosemite as he argues that, hey, perhaps fewer people in the parks isn't such a bad thing.
Privatization is a concern, because of the baggage it carries in the potential of pricing these magnificent places out of reach of some Americans and of cluttering their vistas with commercials. So, too, is motorized recreation for the pollution it spreads and the damage it can exact if not properly controlled.
But if we lose sight of Mather's words, then we've already lost the war and all these other debates and discussions are simply a practice in dividing the spoils.