Have We Lost The Romance of a National Park Visit?
Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.
Those are John Muir's words, as published in 1901 in Our National Parks. I referred to them once before, in the post that launched this blog back in August 2005. I return to them now as kind of a gut-check with hopes that we don't get too carried away with the National Park Centennial Initiative.
Perhaps I'm wrong, and I certainly hope I am, but there seems to be a feeling in some high circles that we need to at least alter, if not outright change, the face of the parks to ensure they remain appealing. We're seeing more and more parks adopt podcasts and "Roving Rangers" as a means to somehow better connect with today's visitors. Mountain bikers believe they should have their own trails darting through the parks, and the snowmobile and personal watercraft industries feel entitled to zoom across the parkscapes as well.
It's almost as if the parks in their current state, with their forests, and lakes and stream and wildlife are, in a word, dull.
In truth, they're anything but. In her book, Super-Scenic Motorway, A Blue Ridge Parkway History (which I'll review down the road), Anne Mitchell Whisnant writes of
visits to the parkway as a teenager in the late 1970s and the vistas
that greeted her.
On a clear day, the views from the high southwestern end, where much of the road lies above five thousand feet, are breathtaking, the temperatures noticeably cooler than those down below. The rhododendrons at Craggy Gardens near Asheville burst into bloom in June; a few months later, the trees swirl into fall with a rolling display of color. The gentle farmland of southwest Virginia is peaceful and green. Even on misty and foggy days (all too frequent at higher elevations), close-in views beckon: wildflowers, solitary log cabins in fields, split-rail chestnut fences, Ed Mabry's restored gristmill. All the sites are set in a tranquil and apparently undisturbed natural landscape and are complemented by rustic wooden park buildings and rough-hewn directional and informational signs (often embellished by an evocative Kentucky long-rifle logo. Whatever the weather or season, the trappings of modernity and commerce -- power lines, billboards, snarled or speeding traffic, rumbling trucks, franchise restaurants, tract development -- barely intrude.
Today that setting remains. Similar settings pulled me into the parks as a young boy. Scrambling along the rocky coast of Acadia to search tide pools for sea urchins and sea stars and endure the spray from Thunder Hole, exploring the Mountain Farm Museum, trying to imagine living in a log cabin a century earlier, and climbing to the top of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains, cruising through Shenandoah on the family vacation, trying to spot alligators in the Everglades.
Back then, during those long road trips from our New Jersey home, my brothers and I occupied the hours in the car not with Gameboy or PSP but rather by reading or listing states by license plates spotted on the highway.
True, it'd be hard to turn today's youth back to such simple pleasures. But is there really a need to transform the parks into something they're not in the name of appeasement, which, after all, appears to be what some are trying to do in the name of making the parks more "attractive" to today's youth.
Such accommodations aren't limited to youth, of course. Gateway communities and big business that look upon the parks as economic engines regularly lobby Interior and Park Service officials with hopes of gaining a larger toehold in the parks. How would they want the parks made-over? When you look at the list of the corporations that were represented in a recent meeting with Dirk -- the Walt Disney Co., the Coleman Co., the American Recreation Coalition, two of the larger park concessionaires -- you have to wonder.
And to make you really wonder, check out Scott Silver's post from last September in which he questions the president's agenda for the national parks. Closely read the the Wise Use Agenda that's attached to his post, the one that talks of the need to build more lodgings, more "visitor service stores," and more campgrounds. Pay attention to the recommendation that the existing Park Service be reorganized because its domain in excess of 80 million acres has grown into a bureaucracy so huge and powerful that it can ignore the public will, the intent of Congress and direct orders of the Secretary of the Interior with impunity.
True, this document was penned in 1988, nearly 20 years ago. But reading it, and listening to some of the conversations of recent months, perhaps it's not entirely out-of-date. And when you look at what's happening to the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, you do have to wonder what's in store for the National Park Service and its wonderful park system.
Perhaps the struggle I have during these days stems from the vision I've long held of the "national parks," rustically romantic places that capture nature at their best, and their worst, and largely without human intervention. To think that we could improve upon nature is more than a little presumptuous, no?
There is just no way that a person can see the Grand Canyon or Balanced Rock in Arches or the wild flowers at Paradise in Mt. Rainier or Shi Shi Beach in Olympic or the grizzly bears of Yellowstone and not be mindful of the vast indifference of nature and our insignificant part in it.
So writes Michael D. Yates in the Monthly Review, a New York City-based publication.
You can certainly sense that "insignificance" standing atop Half Dome in Yosemite, within the Temple of Sinawava in Zion, on either rim of the Grand Canyon, or on Logan Pass in Glacier. We are so insignificant that it makes such settings even that more magnificent.
With all our tinkering, with trying to figure out a way to cull elk in Rocky Mountain and deer in Teddy Roosevelt, to boost visitation with the latest in electronic gadgetry, to strive to keep the dollars that flow to businesses that reside in and around the parks on the rise, do we chance diminishing the very nature of national parks?
I'm not the first to raise that question, and surely won't be the last. Here's one of the latest responses, from Rick Smith, a three-decade veteran of the NPS who knows a little about change in the parks and what sets parks aside from the rest of the world:
How about the idea that a park stops being a park when it becomes just like everywhere else? I always felt that boundaries of a park should mean something. You were entering a place that wasn't just like where you came from. It's a place where we can unhook from our Blackberries, turn off the iPods, unplug the computers, turn off the cell phones and live life according to the rhythms of nature, not the pace of human enterprise.
Parks were places where you could think what it meant to be an American, to get in touch with places and events that shaped our culture and made us who we are. Damn it, they're different, special, unique. And we ought to keep them that way. And if there is anything that ought to come out in the listening sessions, that's what it ought to be. That's why I am not for open hunting in Rocky Mountain or Teddy Roosevelt. Then they are just like everywhere else.