Have National Parks Become Passe?

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.

Comments

Kurt, your comments are well taken and most sobering that it should provoke a response from every park lover in the United States...perhaps aboard. I agree, the vision of Stephen Mather has lost it soul purpose what the National Parks should be today. The National Parks are no longer the "crown jewels" of this country, but a crown door mat for a society that wipes it feet into the parks, and leaves with very little comprehension about it's arduous journey how it became established...and what it's soul purpose and intent was to be. Who's fault is that? We don't teach are children the importance, or the respect for are natural resources or it's heritage. We don't even emphasize enough to are children the importance of good physical conditioning so that they can hike and enjoy the great outdoors. We are a fat lazy sedated culture that rather sit in a OVR vehicle, then hike through the wilderness and learn something profound and beautiful about nature. I would advocate teaching are youth that there's more to life then sitting in front of a computer burning their eyes out, instead should be burning their eyes out looking across the peaks of Yosemite...and hiking it's majestic miles of beauty. Now, that's vision!
A nephew is never without the "10 Essentials" since reading "My Side of the Mountain" Another watches "Animal Planet" worrying about the Panda's habitat. Santa gave nephew number 3 a copy of "My Side of the Mountain." He is researching Alaska for an adventure. A niece is scrambling up rock walls following (and scaring) mom and dad. Give these kids today an inch and they think they’re rulers. I can see them now with they’re kids wandering away from the car, through a young forest that is taking over a decrepit “visitor’s center” towards the canyons edge… “ …adventure, without regard to prudence, profit, self – improvement, learning or any other serious thing.” -Aldo Leopold-
When folks are forced to ride shuttles and busses and sit next to and smell the awful body-odor stench of unbathed hippies/leftists, they will stay away. I have also talked to many people where I live who say that they wouldn't mind the parks sold to the highest bidder because they can't get into the park anymore because existing roads have been closed and turned to trails by treehuggers. We Americans are blessed to have the luxurious autos and SUVs of today and we prefer them (which also carry our day's needs)over a smelly bus full of smelly people. On a light note: When I am asked by a tree-huggin' liberal why I have that "big, gas-guzzling" SUV, I say slowly with emphasis: BECAUSE...I...CAN.....it really makes 'em angry *snicker*! LOL!
Hey Snowbird...I bet you eat your share of Big Macs!! LOL!!!
Hey Snowbird...what's an "OVR vehicle"??? Dontcha mean ORV...Off Road Vehicle?? Get your terms straight if you're gonna trash talk. ...and why are you so angry?? All your posts are so angry! Have some peace and tolerance!
Dear Mustang Sally: Not angry! I just have alot of fire in the belly and compassion to save a few precious things that your grandchildren can enjoy, like a National Park system that can fulfill it's responsibilties to it's visitors which has been mandated by Congress...not to be run on chicken feed. Sally, I really feel sorry for you. You know why? It's because, I believe your afraid that there's some beautiful hippies, or liberals out there that can teach you a few things, like loving the environment more and less your SUV. Talk about tolerance, look who's being a hypocrite! Trash talking about those who wish not to live inside a gasoline can. Really Sally, there's some very clean and decent, law abiding liberal hippies out there that are model citizens that can, and do tolerate ultra right wing whacko's like you. Peace to you baby!
Hey Kurt-- It has been years since I have heard anti-hippie rhetoric like that coming from Sally. It makes you long for the good old days, doesn't it? Back then, everyone with longer hair was a nature-loving liberal. Sounds like Sally is tracking down the same path. By God, we ought to close those parks to people who hike, ride shuttle buses, and hug trees. Then real Americans could use our parks.
Rick, my lost soul brother. Yap! back in those day's Rick, I wore Jesus boots and had long hair while suantering through the mighty Sierra's. Damn, I miss those day's! Oh, yes Sally, and I wasn't on dope either...didn't have to be with all that clean mountain air.
Kurt, I think when it comes to Mather's vision, which is derived from the very foundational act of Yellowstone and the National Park Service, the reason I for one don't emphasize it is that I don't believe in it. I have a project I'm going to work on and write related to John Locke, the so called right to private property, and how that relates to Yellowstone specifically, but of course parks in general. As part of that work, I am going to be very critical of the thinking that went into the act that created Yellowstone National Park. Yes, I know I've argued quite cynically about the motives for creating the park, but there are quite intrinsic reasons in the legislation and the debate itself which lends itself to criticism. The park's foundational act is not some great testament to the intrinsic value of land, or some testament to the relationship of public enjoyment and land protection, it arises from some of the misguided and ill-conceived notions that were so dominant in American expansion and that relate directly to Locke's philosophy. Many have noted the tension between public enjoyment and preservation of resources, which is one reason why it's easy to lose track of Mather. You can't very easily walk that line without choosing a preference. But, I think actually the issue is more profound than that. Why a parks movement? Isn't that already a sad state of affairs? Are we so negative about our place in this universe that the best we can do is spare some places from absolute ruin? And, if so, why should we be so positive that we can do that AND understand issues related to access? It seems either we can do much better, or we can't hope to do even that well. I must admit that I'm not a parks enthusiast, though I am certainly enthusiastic about the places we call parks. I'm pretty sure that thought makes sense. If we find our inspiration in the Mathers and the Albrights and the George Graham Vests and the people like that, I won't be at all surprised that people are going to lose sight of the parks vision. It's not tenable for a whole host of reasons I hope we all can talk about. For what it's worth, I think declining visitation is only a barometer of other things, not much of an issue in itself. I would love to see very few people in the parks, but I don't want to see only the rich in those parks. I don't want that access controlled by means of a law enforcement management policy. All of those desires may right now be pretty impractical all at once, and so I would rather not focus on it but rather on some of the air pressure that gives us this barometer reading. I think we agree on that much. So, to Locke I go...after a trip to Miami...see you all next week. Wasting not enough space, Jim
Jim, good as always to hear from you. Thanks for the sneak peek of your thinking. Enjoy Miami and then get back to us. Be sure to read my next post on relevancy before you finish your response, though, as I'm sure it'll give you more fodder to respond to! Kurt
Uh...Snowbirdie...that's SIERRA not Sierra's...buy yourself a Harbrace!*snicker*
Kurt, looking forward to your follow up blog on Jim's critique pertaining to your article: Have National Parks Become Passe. Should be interesting!...and can you dear Mustang Sally, learn to finish a sentence without interjecting some kind of malicious hate towards someone who disagrees with you. Peace to you baby!!
About John Locke: it seems to me, if you read Locke in his entirety, you see his focus is on a belief that it is better for everything should be held in commons, not private property, that then CONCEDES that's impractical in the selfish culture in which he lived, so adopted more of a "if you can't stop this cultural path you can at least try to minimize its damages"--but still advocated that everyone's basic needs should be met first by the society as a whole, then things divided up into private property. That's what the parks do--help meet basic human needs in ways private property ownership never can, because part of the experience of the parks is that it is a SHARED experience--an experience of our natural and cultural history, a collective education--and ongoing discussion--of what it means to be American. In my interpretation of Locke, he'd most definitely would have been in favor of the national parks movement. Sadly, it's pretty clear that most humans are, for the most part, short-sighted, stupid and excessively selfish, especially those of us in capitalist cultures. A good example of how this is part of OUR culture, pershaps more than other cultures, is the fact that the Arabic language/culture has no word or concept for "privacy;" the nearest word means "anti-social." I think John Locke understood this anti-social/privacy relationship better than his modern interpreters reading him through entrenched capitalistic mores and culture. Mather is also too narrowly interpreted. Like Locke, he realized the need to make concessions to modern capitalistic thinking in order to accomplish his underlying goals. The parks were even more underfunded in his time than now. (For years he paid Albright out of his own pocket and used much of his own money to lobby for the formation of the Park Service.) He also got involved in some commercial schemes that would be seen as corrupt and anti-park by today's park supporters. But he also understood the need for publicity, visitation, and made deals with the devils--such as the biggest capitalists of his day, the railroads-- and others that would now be ridiculed by park purists but resulted in the end goals of a great deal of preservation. Yep, both Locke and Mather were concerned with the Greater Good-- a concept that barely makes on blip on modern capitalistic psyches. (In response to "I drive an SUV because I can, I imagine they might have reminded that person that thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi citizens are dying so she can indulge herself so selfishly, with no concern for the Greater Good.) So, like Locke and Mather, we need to take this modern psyche--along with modern lifestyles, to include the prevalence of single parent families, modern technology, changes in the way people spend free time, etc, into the modern planning process for the protection and preservation of the parks. But one thing Mather knew and capitalized on like no other: get people INTO the parks--not just the overlooks and gift shops, but really into the parks--and the rest is relatively easy. To that end, I think someone should re-enact the Mather Mountain Party of 1915--bring the editor of the NY Times, Congress people, other movers and shakers on the same trek....see what happens...
Dear Carol, so beautifully put and eloquently expressed. I'm waiting for Kurt's profound wisdom on the subject and Jim McDonalds comments. Should be interesting! Carol, I agree whole heartedly with your comments pertaining to the selfish subject who drives the SUV. My closes buddy, his dear son is in Iraq (marine corp) so that she can drive her 10 gallon per mile SUV...with pig selfishness. Your point is well taken!!
The "I'm better than you because..." attitude serves only to isolate the real issues. We are all to blame when it comes to environmental degradation, no matter what, or if, we drive. I used to feel better than others when I didn't own a car for four years. Then after returning from the Peace Corps, I took an NPS job that required a 4x4 to get to my duty station. So now I have a Jeep with off road tires. I get 16 in the city and 22 on the freeway. Once, a girl walking down the street called me an asshole as I drove past. But we're ALL to blame. Sure, I drive a Jeep, but I drive 5000 miles a year, three times less than the national average. If you have a car that gets twice my Jeep's gas mileage and drive 15,000 miles per year, you're putting more carbon into the air than I. Even if you don't drive, you eat food that was grown with fertilizer created with fossil fuels, harvested by fossil fuel burning equipment, and shipped and processed using, you guessed it, fossil fuels. (It takes a barrel of oil to grow one acre of corn. Cattle are fed corn. If you eat beef, you're eating oil energy.) If you use biodiesel, you're burning plant products that were grown with oil. Even if you don't drive, you probably throw away 5 pounds of trash a day. Your trash contributes to greenhouse gas generation in landfills. Even if you drive a hybrid, it still uses oil and it took massive amounts of energy and oil to manufacture. The manufacturer kept it light by using plastic, which is made from oil. Its tires will eventually add to the stockpile of billions of junk tires. Even if you get good gas mileage, do you use electricity that comes from a coal-fired plant, or are you using "green", renewable energy? Even if you use public transit, you're still using a system that depends on fossil fuels. I could go on, but hopefully you get the point: We're all to blame, and change can only come from inside the system. Change will come when we stop pointing fingers, accept our hypocrisy, and work TOGETHER to solve our collective environmental problems.
Ranger X, I agree with your concept of thinking here. However, there some whom graze the land far more than others and far more than their fair share...and needs. The question is how much is enough? I wish we all could (which I endorse) live like you in spartan simplicity...less of everything but the bare necessities for a reasonable comfortable living. I look and I see how the world reviews are overly bloated consumptious society, and were not well received in how we burn the carbon ratios in the air. Is it possible to have a society that can develope less of a appetite for the non essentials things in life that are meaningless and frivolous. I think if we let that play into are every day attitudes, just perhaps the National Parks won't such be a corporate junk yard issue.
Ranger X, I agree with you that Locke would have agreed with the national parks movement; as I mentioned, I don't. I believe in the places; I believe in a love for and duty to those places. I don't believe in national parks. I also read Locke as saying something akin to your interpretation, but that actually is consistent with the problem. The commons of modern society arise out of the consortium of private properties; they are still rooted in the same thing. So, I don't really care whether the property rights nuts or the parks nuts are more Lockean; I think they both root in the same fundamental errors of his philosophy. But, that's for another time. Perhaps, this weekend...I need the time to write, which at the moment I don't have. Jim
Sorry, I meant Carol... I have been a bit disoriented -