Relevancy in the Parks Today

Sekitokopahfalls_copy In Sequoia National Park there's a short hike from the Lodgepole Campground that leads not quite two miles along the boulder-crowded Marble Fork of the Kaweah River to a tumbling stream of water known as Tokopah Falls. It's a pretty easy hike along the river's edge, fairly level, perfect for young kids exploring nature.
Now, most times when you think of a waterfall you conjure a vision of a free-falling stream of water. But that's not Tokopah Falls. No, while the water pitches and leaps out of the Sierra, plummeting 1,200 feet, it does so mostly by slipping, sliding, and plunging down the face of a granite cliff. Still, it's a wondrous destination.
I found myself at the base of the falls in the summer of 2000 while researching a national parks guidebook. It was a gorgeous summer day, with few clouds in the blue sky. It wasn't too hot, and the mist from the falls was cooling. The only sound was from the plunging water the filled the Marble Fork.
Though I was less than two miles from the campground with its picnicking families and bounding, laughing children, lying there on a flat-topped boulder near the base of the falls I might have been deep in the backcountry.

It's a scene that national park visitors repeat time after time after time year-in and year-out. It's one that comes with countless backdrops. You might find yourself across from Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park, or at any one of the numerous waterfalls that tumble off the wooded-flanks of the Appalachian Mountains in Shenandoah National Park, or strolling the cobble-covered beaches of Olympic National Park.
And the beauty of these outings....is the intrinsic beauty of nature.
Spotting birds, marveling at the scenery, watching wildlife. True, some hikes require more effort and more time than others, but that's part of the lure of the national parks. You can push yourself as little or as much as you want.
You can relax with a picnic beside a backcountry lake or spend weeks hiking the John Muir Trail. And you don't give a thought to whether the Park Service's prime mandate is protecting these landscapes, or allowing folks to enjoy them. Because at the moment, that's not what's relevant. It's the setting and how you've inserted yourself into it that's relevant.
The other day I broached the question of whether we were losing sight of the relevancy of the national park system. It was a post that generated some discussion on this site, and much more on a private listserve. On this site, two comments stood out, for their very divergent viewpoints.
Random Walker talked of her nephews and niece and their love of the out-of-doors, enjoying, as Aldo Leopold once said, "...adventure, without regard to prudence, profit, self – improvement, learning or any other serious thing.”
Conversely, Sally ridiculed "unbathed hippies/leftists" and 'treehuggers." She evidently finds her glory not in a backcountry campfire beneath a starry canopy but rather in a "big gas-guzzling SUV."
In my original post, I worried that we as a society are
losing our collective mindset of the significance and vision of the national parks movement, that we're confusing the purpose of the national parks.
A companion question that went unasked is why have we come to this crossroads, how did we get here? Why do some seem to believe that parks can only be enjoyed with motorized accessories, be they snowmobiles, personal watercraft, ATVs, or other off-road vehicles, that interpretation should be multi-media and downloadable onto your iPod or cell phone?
I'm pretty sure national parks were never intended to be theme parks, places where you "pay to play," where you look for instant gratification, whether it be found in the thrills of a roller-coaster or a ride that mimics a white-water raft trip.
As he neared his retirement from the National Park Service, where he last worked as chief naturalist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Bill Tweed pondered the differences between theme parks and national parks and, in my opinion, succeeded in explaining why today's theme parks are more popular than national parks.
I've reprinted what he's said before, but believe his words are so valuable in this discussion of relevancy that they deserve another shot. Here are a few of them:

Comments

Quite right, there is a big difference in the way the term "relevant" is being applied to the park experience. ARC seems to be using it in a macro sense, willing to transform parks to match consumer expectations, while park traditionalist use it in a micro sense, applying the term on a per-person basis. The other day I noted "massive disinterest" as a top threat to the National Park Service. But I think I can clarify that a little today, I think a better way to express that is, in a broad sense, we are losing the sense of personal relevance that parks have represented for so many, for so long. ARC would claim that the loss of relevance is because I can't go 4-wheelin' through the wilderness, like I can elsewhere. But I would say the loss of relevance comes from somewhere else, and cannot be attributed to any single thing. As Rick Smith says in your article, people arrive at the park hoping to find park interpreters to reveal the deeper meaning of place, to find that which makes the park relevant to their lives. But those personal experiences are being replaced as the park budget shrinks. Unfortunately, the well connected and well funded group ARC has the loudest voice in this argument. They have had good success defining the issue of relevancy on their terms. And because we have lost personal relevancy, we will accept ARCs suggestions for change.
"If we have to resort to games, gizmos and gasoline to make our national parks relevant, to get children interested in stepping into nature, to enjoy spotting a herd of elk in the soft evening light or giggle as the mud squishes between their toes when they step barefoot into a stream, then we surely will have made the national park concept irrelevant." Amen! This is so well written. On a side note, did you ever meet Tweed? I worked for him for three summers. He's such a great writer.
Good issue. But as National Parks become more crowded the experience there becomes more and more like a theme park. For instance, when I was there two years ago, the Grand Canyon had built a new visitor's center staging area for park visitors. From there you get on a tram to go the the rim. There are tram tours in Yosemite Valley. The whole thing reminds me of the Universal Studios backlot tour. "On your right is the famed Bridalveil Falls" and "if you look quickly to the left you'll spot one of our furry little creatures". Enough with the trams, the tours, the herding of large groups of people around. And Kurt, the times I've been on the Tokopah Falls trail, it's resembled the Hollywood Freeway. I don't feel too compelled to wring my hands over visitation numbers going down at the National Parks. To those who love a little solitude, it's something to celebrate.
Ranger X: So, your a Bill Tweed fan, I've met him several times through the Sequoia Natural History Association. Yes indeed, he's a good prolific writer. I read one of his masterpieces (in my view) "Challenge Of The Big Trees"...very well researched and written. In regards to Kurt's article, this man writes from the bottom of his soul here...I sense this man is on a real mission to bring back the true spirit what the National Parks should and meant to be...a place to contemplate the soul in a sacred place without frivolous intrusion from the outside world of corporate influence. Good work Kurt!
Kath, hot spots such as the South Rim during the summer months, Old Faithful, the Yosemite Valley, etc, are always going to be crowded, even if visitation were halved. And places such as Tokopah Falls, while perhaps too crowded for your comfort, I think are valuable in how they can quickly expose park newcomers and young families to the beauty that lies within the parks. And, frankly, some folks fear the solitude found in true backcountry areas. There are plenty of incredible places to venture in the parks where you're not likely to encounter swarms, places like the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky, the Carbon River Entrance of Mount Rainier, the Queets Valley in Olympic, the Bechler region of Yellowstone and on and on. Too, go out earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon or visit on the shoulder season, either spring or fall, and you'll avoid the crowds. But I'm sure you know that. Somehow we must find a balance between having enough visitation to breed more park advocates and generate support for the parks and yet not too much that will overrun the parks.
It is a dilemma isn't it. Because as parks become more and more overrun and transportation in the parks becomes more and more regimented, I'm less likely to go. It's the 'nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded' conundrum.