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.

Amen.

Comments

Kurt, I have the original copy of John Muir's book: Our National Parks (published in November 1901). Remembering a passage about the twin flower (Linnaea borealis) that once bloomed in the Eastern part of the Rocky Mountains..."The lovely Linnaea borealis hangs her twin bells over the brink of the cliffs, forest and gardens extend their treasures in smiling confidence on either side, nuts and berries ripen well whatever may be on below; blind fears vanish"...If I'm not mistaken, I believe the twin flower no longer exists in the Eastern side of the Rockie's. This is truly romance of enjoyment that is so eloquently expressed by Muir in his book "Our National Parks". This book should be required reading by all high school students before they stick a i-Pod in their ear. Good commentary Kurt!
Thanks for the mention of my book, Kurt. And I should add that I have two young sons (ages 8 & 10) who absolutely *loved* the Big Meadows Lodge at Shenandoah NP when we visited last summer. It's rustic -- no TV, no Internet -- and, to be honest, somewhat run down (there's your budget issue again), but it had a special coziness that created a sense of adventure. Add to that a wonderful ranger who gave a great campfire program focused on what to do if you encountered a bear, and my boys were hooked on Shenandoah. I think we sometimes underestimate the continued ability of the parks to appeal to kids.
Can we really think that we can set places aside based on values that are quite different from those practiced by the public at large and believe that those places can live in relative isolation from those values without over time being infected? I think we know the answer to that. Ecologically, these places aren't isolated from the areas around them. Economically, they aren't isolated. How nice it would be if we could slice up land like a pie and say, "This land is for this purpose, but this land is only for this purpose." We try, but there are a zillion reasons why that doesn't work over time. I think people should check out skyblu's blog this week on Yellowstone wildlife at http://skyblu.wordpress.com/2007/03/18/yellowstone-wildlife-hypocrisy-or-dilemma/ because it suggests many of the things we are often unwilling to consider. We might be able to figure out places for snowmobiles and mountain bikes to go and places for hikers to go. That in itself isn't too much, but that's not all that's driving this. They are simply a couple of the gopher holes that will continue to keep coming up. At some point, we have to face the enigma of our national parks, places set aside out of the same values that have destroyed everything else around it in the hopes that these few places might be spared because they are so special. Can't we see how foolish that sounds? The national parks will be destroyed BECAUSE everything else has been destroyed, and we had better think about restoring everything else if we are to save the parks. If we only hold up the special values of the special places, of course that will become its own commodity. It already is for those animals that have taken refuge within them outside of their natural habitats. I hope we think about that as we become nostalgic and wonder what has gone wrong. It's no wonder to me what has gone wrong; I just don't have a sense of what to do about it except to think about attacking the engine that drives this. That might blow up and be worse than we imagine, but given that we know where this train is headed, I don't see what choice we have but to take these risks. Jim
The National Parks visitation is surely down due to high gas prices caused by excessive and radical environmentalism ! ( How irronic ) In addition to this, price gouging by the hotels, restaurants, and general stores are also a major deterrent. Al Gore may travel to a National Park for a photo shoot using his private jet and limousine , but it is not practical or cost effective for most of us.
So how do you balance all of this? Reduced improvements in the parks result in less accomodations resulting in higher prices thus eliteism. If you were to increase Yosemites visitation to 6 million then you must have infrastructure to support that i.e. bathrooms,eating establishments etc. Otherwise you limit visitation to no more than X number of people per day. Try sitting in the entrance station and telling the Station wagon loaded with the family from New York they can't get in today. Oh what a tangled web we weave.
"So how do you balance all of this?..." You can't balance it, and that's why I think you have to confront social problems and dynamics in the rest of society if you are going to do anything about parks. We should get out of the business of weaving webs and leave that to spiders. Our occupation authority over parks (stewarding it until nature can take care of itself) really doesn't seem all that different to me than what we do in Iraq. We don't have the management answers; we seem to be making things a heck of a lot more complicated by trying to pretend as if we do. But, of course, we manage parks because we know that the void will be filled by private interests, who will only do worse by them. So, in the meantime, we have to go after and change the culture that makes that true. Instead, we'll keep pretending that if we only had a few more romantics and a little less development, and just that perfect middle balance to create that nice little illusion that the Leopold Report called for, that vignette of primitive America, then we'll have it. We aren't going to find a balance, and we aren't going to be able to treat the parks issue as one in isolation of others. The world that Muir talked about simply never existed even in his own time. We might, however, find dreams which are even more compelling if we fight our incessant need to control every outcome. "We need new dreams tonight." Jim