Upon Further Review: Preferential Treatment for Local Residents at National Parks?

reserved parking sign

Reserved parking in parks for local residents? Not this week.

A basic principle of national parks is that they're just that—national, rather than local sites—so a family from Houston has the same opportunity to enjoy the Great Smoky Mountains as one from Gatlinburg. Officially, there's no preferential treatment in national parks for local residents, but it's only human nature for some people who live near a park and use it on a regular basis to develop a sense of "ownership" of the area.

The same can be said of people who enjoy visiting a favorite park or campground year after year; perhaps they even like to stay in the same campsite whenever possible.

Whether they're local residents or repeat visitors, the fact that people view a place as "my park" isn't necessarily bad. Such attitudes can encourage people to take better care of the area, or perhaps get involved and help out as volunteers. Proprietary interest can, of course, get out of hand, and in at least one situation it caused a classic case of foot-in-mouth disease.

Willow Beach is a popular fishing area in the far northwestern corner of Arizona, within Lake Mead National Recreation Area. That's a rather sparsely populated part of the country, and during my years there as a ranger more of our visitors came from the Las Vegas area and even southern California than from Arizona. We also had a high percentage of repeat visitors, some of whom had been coming to that same location for many years.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, the sun shone brightly from cloudless skies, a gentle breeze helped cool the desert air, and the sparkling blue water of the lake beckoned to a host of boaters lined up for their turn at the launch ramp. Parking spaces near the ramp were filled to capacity, and latecomers were relegated to an overflow lot some distance away.

One of our regulars had arrived early and found a prime parking space, immediately adjacent to the marina. His spot afforded a good view of the hustle and bustle and occasional unintended entertainment that occurs when too many people are in a hurry to launch their boats at the same time.

The man in question was well-known to other locals for his rather grouchy disposition, so I'll just call him Oscar in honor of a famous character on the children's television program Sesame Street. Oscar was slouched against his pickup truck and surveying the busy scene as I walked by. He spotted me and decided to offer a comment about the world in general and the crowded conditions in particular.

"Hey Ranger!"

I recognized him immediately, greeted him in return, and paused briefly to see if he actually needed some help or just wanted to make conversation.

"Looks like you've got your hands full today," Oscar observed astutely.

"Yes sir, it's a typical Saturday for this time of the year," I replied.

Oscar scanned the sea of cars, trucks, RV's and boat trailers in the jammed parking lot and the line of vehicles waiting their turn on the boat ramp. He then glanced back at me and made the Comment of the Week: "Well, this place would be pretty nice if all these yahoos from out-of-state would just stay at home."

Since we happened to be standing in Arizona at the time, the irony of this remark wasn't lost on another group of visitors who overhead Oscar's remark as they happened to be walking past. They'd almost completed their hike back to the boat ramp from the overflow parking area, and had worked up a respectable sweat in the process.

One of them stopped, wiped his brow, glanced first at the Nevada license plate on Oscar's truck, and then back at our self-appointed philosopher.

"Man, you're exactly right! Maybe we ought to ask the park to reserve these prime parking spaces for people like us who live right here in Arizona." He paused briefly for effect, and then tossed the zinger. "What state are you from, by the way?"

I don't think the distinct reddish tinge that suddenly appeared on Oscar's face was entirely due to the abundant desert sunshine.

"Well," he huffed, "I'm from just up the road in Vegas. I was talking about all them Californians." Pointing across the water to the cliffs on the opposite shore, he wrapped up his defense. "That's Nevada, just across the river. All the same here at Lake Mead…Nevada and Arizona."

"Oh, okay," concluded the new arrival as his group resumed their walk. "I thought maybe you were from the State of Confusion!"

This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger 2: More True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from the Great Outdoors © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.


If stupid was a crime, we've had even more of the parks and wilderness to ourselves...If you have never read "Deaths in Yellowstone," try and pick it up (I understand it's a big seller at the park itself. I always thought the true title should be "Stupid Deaths in Yellowstone." P.S. Your codes are nearly impossible for us old people to figure out...how about giving us a break and make them stop looking like tea leaves?

What about preferential treatment for employees? I have been in many parks where the employees break rules for which they give the public tickets. Drive through the housing area at a place like Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, for example. You will see employees walking their dogs off leash (or on leashes longer than the 6 foot regulation) gardens and landscaping around the houses full of non-native plants (that would get you arrested if you tried to plant them elsewhere in the park) and more. Someday, someone who gets a ticket from a ranger is going to call attention to this kind of double standard and the flood gates will open.

Jim wrote: "...it's only human nature for some people who live near a park and use it on a regular basis to
develop a sense of 'ownership' of the area." Rangertoo replied concerning some NPS staffers: "Someday,
someone ...is going to call attention to this kind of double standard...".

Here just outside Mount Rainier NP, outraged locals had to listen to buddies of the rangers bragging of their
40-50 ski days at Paradise during the bogus six-month closure in 2006-07 while the public (except for
concession clients) was excluded. The newly completed VC construction project hardly missed a beat during
this period. This week they have used relatively minor road damage from the recent storms as an excuse to
again bar the public from Paradise on weekdays.

Park media propaganda first claimed this was because of "avalanche hazard" at the damage site on Glacier
Hill. The road closes nightly and does not reopen at all on days when the Northwest Avalanche Center
forecast is "Extreme" and on many, if not most, days when the hazard forecast is "High". Literally millions
of vehicles have passed this point in the past several decades and the number of incidents involving the
public can be counted on one hand with fingers left over. You and I have hundreds of times higher statistical
chance of being hit by an NPS vehicle than an avalanche on this road.

Now they are claiming they can't afford to post flaggers for the light weekday traffic and even refuse to allow access to the trailheads below the damage. I can see the need for traffic control on busy weekends and holidays. It seems to me timed traffic lights on utility trailers (used on the Stevens Canyon road repair last summer) would serve just as well. The damage has left a one-lane section about a hundred feet long with good sightlines for half a mile in both directions. A simple sign on a barricade: "One-lane Section--Yield to Downhill Traffic" would provide adequate safety. Scroll down to the seventh archived article for photos at: http://blogs.thenewstribune.com/adventure/?cat=731

Much of the reason weekday traffic is so light (and weekend visitation is declining) is that for many years
the gate at Longmire has opened at eleven or even after noon with just a few inches of new snow. People have
learned not to waste their precious time and money playing 'waitgate'. I hope Rangertoo is correct and "someday... the floodgates will open." Probably a flood of taxpayer protest will be needed for the Paradise gate to open as well. It appears Park management here can't be bothered with something so mundane as allowing the pesky public access to their Park. Talk about proprietary interest getting out of hand!

I realize there's always more to an issue than meets the eye, but it sounds like there's room for improvement on the Mount Rainier access question. Hopefully the park staff will take another look at the balance between safety, liability and costs vs. visitor access.

As far as a double standard for employees (park, concessioner and others) living in a park, no doubt that exists at times, as it does anyplace you have similar isolated communities or "company towns." Ideally, that wouldn't be the case, but I didn't see major abuses during my years of living in several parks.

The "Oscars" of the world, as described in the original story, are a different set of challenges, but it comes down to the same aspect of human nature. One area where I worked had a large campground, and one family came every year on the same weekend in the fall. The patriarch of the bunch was unhappy if they didn't get site #42 - even if #41 or #43 were vacant, and looked pretty much the same. His position was "we always camp in this spot."

People are always, if nothing else, interesting!

Apologies for hijacking your thread, Jim. I just had to vent some of my frustration with the situation here. I do appreciate the challenges NPS staff can face dealing with a wide variety of Park visitors. Your articles are excellent and entertaining examples!