Going Above and Beyond; Stewardship in the National Parks

Yosemite National Park, El Capitan with Clouds; Jim Brekke Photo

El Capitan, Yosemite's famous rock climbing destination. The climbing comunity will gather in September to clean up junk left behind by others at the base of the mountain. Jim Brekke photo, found via Flickr

Sing along if you know these words from Woodie Guthry

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

A recent commenter made sure to point out the distinction between the national park system and the National Park Service. One represents the collection of land and cultural assets that are an essential part of the fabric of this nation, the other is the designated government agency in charge of maintaining these assets for future generations. I think frequently the designation between the two is munged together in our minds, so that we consider the two as being one and the same. Which is why, from time to time, it is important for us to step back and remember that if we want to see change in the parks, as "owners", it is as much our individual responsibility as it is the responsibility of those who manage these places. The distinction here is being a steward of the land, not just a consumer of it.

Recently, the well known rock climber Lynn Hill wrote about the importance of stewardship and personal responsibility for the climbing community in an artcile, "Big Wall Trash a Big Problem in Yosemite". The big walls of Yosemite are a draw for climbers from around the world. Climbing the walls of El Capitan is not only technically challenging, but can take more than a day to accomplish. It isn't that uncommon to spend the night half-way up the face, strapped to the side of the mountain with webbing and carabiners. As climbers climb, their trash, including pee and poop, are frequently discarded and fall down to the base of the mountain. Gross! For some, it is easy to head home after the climb and let others clean up their trash. But for other responsible climbers, after completing their course, they make their way back to the bottom and clean up after themselves. That's where Lynn Hill is coming from, asking the rock climbing stewards out there to spread the word, to clean up after a big climb, and to go above and beyond as an "owner" and clean up after those who don't have the same respect for the mountain.

There is an annual cleanup event for the rock climbing community (although, I'm sure non-climbers are very welcome too) called the Yosemite Facelift. Last year, the 5 day event collected over 25,000 pounds of trash with the help of over 1,000 volunteers. Everything that could be recycled was. The event is happening again this year starting on September 25th. They have fifty free camping spots available, for those spending multiple days to help out.

Sometimes trash isn't the problem, as is the case in Olympic National Park. I spoke recently with David Graves of the National Parks and Conservation Association. This summer he has been coordinating volunteers to help with the removal of exotic species along the Elwha River. For volunteers, it is an opportunity to look beyond just recreating in this natural wonder and help restore the natural ecosystem. The National Park is involved in a very long, very slow process to remove the Elwha Dam, which backs up the Elwha River into the park. Someday, the dam will be gone, and the water level will return to its traditional channel, leaving disturbed soil as it retreats. The issue for the ecosystem is that exotic species like "herb robert" (a.k.a. "stinky bob") spread very quickly in these disturbed areas. The NPCA has set up special weekends this summer to reduce, as much as possible, the exotic species so that they won't compete against the plants natural to the park. So far they've cleared many acres of area, but there is still work to be done. There are two more weekend projects planned for this summer. One, an overnight hiking trip, will occur pretty soon, from August 17th to the 19th. The last one will be on September 8th. David says these trips are a lot of fun. Its a chance for folks to develop a connection to the park, and provide a personal investment in the much larger project involving the dam removal. To get involved, drop David an email at

Being a steward isn't restricted to the west coast, or even to adults. Our friend Chance Finegan (a.k.a. jr_ranger) is coordinating a big event at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The event is targeted for student participation. More than 900 kids from area middle schools, high schools, and even colleges are expected to turn out for the first-ever "Big South Fork NRRA Volunteer Day", on October 27th this year. Says Chance, "there are so many of us in Kentucky and Tennessee who love the Big South Fork. We take our families there on the weekends, hike to the ancient rock arches, and enjoy the peaceful serenity of the river gorge. We [the members of Cookeville High School Students Promoting Environmental Action and Knowledge] were looking for a way to give back, and this seemed perfect." You can learn more about this event at this blog they've set up.

The management role the National Park Service plays in our parks cannot be understated, but the responsibility of protecting the parks does not lie with them alone. You and I have the same responsibility to pass the resources of our park system to future generations, just as it was passed to us by preceding generations. For those wishing to get involved, volunteering is one way to preserve the gift of the parks.