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How Can We Build Advocates for the National Parks?
Where do your interests in the National Park System lie? That's a pretty straightforward and seemingly simple question, but is the answer?
Do you care about the health and welfare of the entire 84-million-acre system, or just about the handful of parks you typically visit? Is your concern more for the collective National Park System, or rather for your specific recreational pursuits? Are those two things mutually exclusive?
Why on the Traveler is it that gun issues and deaths inevitably draw attention to the national parks, but stories of insufficient budgets and deteriorating infrastructure and harsh impacts on the "parkscape" draw comparatively scant notice? Why does it seem as if folks are so much less passionate about protecting the parks as a whole than they are about protecting their personal privileges to do the things they like in the parks?
If the creation of a national park is indeed “a pact between generations, a promise from the past to the future,” then we must ask whether Americans today are failing to uphold their end of the bargain. This is not to suggest that Americans are turning their backs on the parks, but rather that they’ve become indifferent to their stewardship, a slight that future generations will suffer.
With the centennial of the National Park Service in sight just eight years off, it seems only fitting that the future of the National Park System be assessed. Such an assessment can't be made without first looking to the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 so we can better understand the purpose of the National Park System. That document so very clearly established the purpose of the national parks: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
While there has been much debate over exactly what that mission statement means -- does it place conservation of resources above enjoyment of those resources? -- it's been clear, and courts have agreed, that the National Park Service's overriding mission is to conserve the resources. That was reinforced by the Redwood National Park Expansion Act of 1978, which reemphasized the Organic Act’s stewardship provisions and affirmed that they are to be applied on a system-wide basis.
National parks clearly are very different animals than national forests and public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Those landscapes are intended to be managed for multiple-use, whether that's recreation, mining, logging or grazing. National parks are to be managed for different purposes...but not necessarily for different audiences. With that understood, it's important to recognize that the intent of the Organic Act was to see that national park vistas would remain protected for time immemorial. As a result, not all activities allowed on U.S. Forest Service or BLM lands are permitted within the national parks. And certainly that can be a point of contention.
But if you accept the mandates, and some would say wisdom, of the National Park Organic Act, what is the key to getting all those who look to the national parks for recreational pursuits, whether they involve birding, or boating, or mountain biking, or ORV pursuits where allowed, concerned about the overall health of the National Park System? How do you accomplish that without any backbiting, without various groups pegging others as "elitist" for their views on what is or isn't appropriate in a national park setting?
What is the key to getting someone who is deeply concerned about access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore concerned about access in Yellowstone? How do you persuade someone who is worried about climate change at Everglades National Park that it's just as important to be concerned about climate change at Glacier? Why are some incredibly concerned about their ability to bring a concealed weapon into the park system, and yet seemingly not concerned about ranger staffing levels?
Granted, there are polarizing issues: Guns, ORVs, snowmobiling just to name three. It's understandable that in many instances not everyone will see eye-to-eye on these. But if the on-the-ground health of the national parks isn't maintained, how will that impact the future of these pursuits in the parks? Shouldn't all who turn to the national parks for recreation and enjoyment, regardless of how that might be pursued, be concerned about dwindling park budgets, about higher and higher user fees in the parks, about management issues that are central to how the National Park System will be run, not just today, but for many years to come?
After all, these are the stories that go to how we enjoy the parks, today and tomorrow.
At the Traveler we're constantly intrigued by which stories draw the most interest. Those about park visitors who get lost or die in accidents never fail to attract readers. Usually travel-related stories are popular as well. But stories such as the recent one concerning the fate of an in-holding surrounded on three sides by Valley Forge National Historic Park, the one about the backroom-deal cut to continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars the Park Service doesn't have and to place park employees and visitors in danger's path along Yellowstone's Sylvan Pass in winter, or others about the National Park Service's lack of fiscal fitness, draw comparatively little interest and comment.
All these involve tough issues that directly affect how the National Park System operates for our collective benefit. There are countless others that time and space don't allow to be listed.
As the saying goes, "those who show up make the decisions." The Traveler's intent is to raise the national dialog of how the parks are managed and, along the way, hopefully educate, generate, and nurture more park advocates for today and tomorrow. By approaching the myriad issues that swirl around the national parks, we aim to increase the public consciousness about how the parks are being managed.
The end goal? It's not whether you agree with the Traveler's positions, but rather that you, the national park enthusiast, not only become better informed on how the parks are being managed but take the time to speak up for how you'd like to see them managed. Hopefully, along the way the parks will regain their health so future generations can benefit from them.
But what's the best way of accomplishing that goal? How can national attention to the plight of the National Park System as a whole be raised? Look out across the 391 units of the National Park System and, if you enjoy heading to a park to hike, boat, learn about America's history, or partake in any of the multitude of activities available, you should be alarmed by what you find:
• Science at times is trumped by recreation and politics – witness the Bush administration’s decision to allow recreational snowmobilers to continue to roam Yellowstone despite roughly $10 million worth of environmental studies that stated unequivocally that snowcoaches would have less impact on the park’s resources.
• More and more parks are becoming ecological islands, genetic outcrops surrounded by development, be it gated communities such as those near Great Smoky Mountains, ranchettes around Yellowstone, energy development, or merely suburbia.
• More than a handful of park lodges – Lake McDonald Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park are key examples -- are worn and weary historic structures that have become too expensive for their concession operators to repair. The conundrum is that they’re too historic for the financially overwhelmed Park Service to let collapse.
• Economics are battling the environment across the “parkscape,” as gateway communities are demanding more and more from the parks in terms of economic development.
These are meaty issues, all that affect how you enjoy and experience the parks, ones that can't be solved overnight. But as the number of park advocates grows and demands better attention from Congress to the National Park System and National Park Service, hopefully we can make meaningful headway.