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Are Our National Parks No Longer for the People?

Chesler Park, Canyonlands National Park, Kurt Repanshek photo.

What role do we, as a society, want our national parks to play? Chesler Park, Canyonlands National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Are national parks no longer for the people? Have environmental groups succeeded in legally creating roadblocks to prevent their enjoyment? An Ohio man believes so. But what do you think?

Perhaps the biggest problem in our parks system goes back to the '70s when the focus of park management went from visitors experience balanced with conservation to predominantly environmental/wildlife management. This shift also brought in "top-down, one-size-fits-all" management of our parks with far more focus on the environment than the visitors. Simply put, the parks are no longer for people.

Dennis Gray, of Dayton, Ohio, wrote that in response to a New York Times columnist's suggestion that all the national parks need to boost visitation is a high-profile booster, such as First Lady Michelle Obama.

Here's part of what that columnist, Timothy Egan, wrote: The parks need Obama-era branding. So, the first family should go ahead and spend that week at Martha’s Vineyard in August, playing scrabble with Hillary and Bill, clamming with Spike Lee. But it would not take much for Michelle and her brood to visit the people’s land. Maybe an overnight in Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi.

And here's the opening of Mr. Gray's response: Timothy Egan's blog, "We Need Michelle Obama to Rescue National Parks," makes some good points about the declining visitation to our national parks and seashores. Unfortunately, he terribly misses the mark about the cause of and solution to this problem.

Is Mr. Gray right? Have environmental and conservation groups essentially locked up the parks for wildlife and preservation to the detriment of human recreation? Here are some examples he cites to illustrate his contention: When you ban rock climbing from Devils Tower National Monument, does visitation go up or down? When you ban snowmobiles from all parts of Yellowstone National Park, does visitation go up or down? When you close off miles of the best beaches in Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area, does visitation go up or down?

From Mr. Gray's viewpoint, all national parks can't be managed under the same set of guidelines. Each superintendent, he says, should have autonomy "in the management of each park that would allow it to better reflect the unique history, character, and natural settings of each, as well as the historic lifestyles of the people who live there."

"Our parks are becoming museums, roped off expanses with 'Don't touch' or 'People stay out' signs all over them," he contends.

Here's a larger section of his response to the Times columnist:

This centralized bureaucratic management has also made the parks system more malleable to the whims of special interest groups through litigation. The desire of these groups is to make our national parks more like our national wildlife refuge system, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As this shift has been forced on the National Park Service, its managers have had to redirect their money and resources away from visiting guests to wildlife management. Accordingly the campgrounds, visitation centers, and other infrastructure have fallen into decay.

And they wonder why visitation is down?

If people can't get out and actually experience the great outdoors, how can they ever learn to appreciate it?

What's really interesting is that the original supporters of our parks system were hunters, fishermen, skiers, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts. They not only supported the parks as a way to conserve spaces for their activities as a concept decades before today’s environmentalists, but they have also supported the parks financially through their user fees, license fees, and surtaxes paid on the sporting equipment used in their endeavors. These recreational groups have long favored reasonable conservation, balanced with the needs of the visitors -- the sensible belief that there is plenty of space for all types of activities. Today these are the very people the environmentalists wish to ban as part of their own narrow-minded, preservationist views of the purpose of our park system.

These environmental groups -- such as Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, and the World Wildlife Federation -- contribute little if anything monetarily toward the operation of our parks, but will spend millions in legal fees to force the Park Service’s hand on management issues. Even worse, in many of these lawsuits, the Park Service has to reimburse these groups their legal fees, more money that could have gone toward the operation of our parks.

Now, I wouldn't agree entirely with Mr. Egan, nor entirely with Mr. Gray. While it'd be great exposure for the national parks to have the First Family hiking up Cadillac Mountain or taking in Old Faithful or floating the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park, that's not the key to energizing Americans in the parks. If that's all it took, why didn't First Lady Laura Bush's hikes in the parks, or President Clinton's support of the parks (remember how his administration stopped the New World Mine from going in next door to Yellowstone?), or even President Bush's attempted bolstering of the parks through his Centennial Initiative generate a rise among Americans?

As for Devil's Tower, true, it's off-limits to climbers for a short period in summer to pay reverence to Native American beliefs. And there has been more than a little pressure to limit snowmobile access to Yellowstone due to resource damage, and off-road-vehicle access to Cape Hatteras and even Cape Cod national seashores during certain seasons to protect nesting shorebirds and sea turtles. But really, the number of climbers, snowmobilers, and ORV enthusiasts who look to the national parks for recreation are minuscule, and lifting these restrictions won't send park visitation skyrocketing.

As for groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, the Audubon Society, and the World Wildlife Federation, (and don't forget the National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resource Defense Council), these are special-interest groups just as are the Blue Ribbon Coalition, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association, and all these have their own agendas for how national parks should be managed.

As for superintendents and autonomy, they and regional directors actually do have a great deal of latitude, but politics -- and lawsuits -- often force their hands.

The overriding question that we as a society have to reach some consensus over is how we want the National Park System managed, and not just for today but for tomorrow. Do we value flora and fauna that are finding it harder and harder to survive outside national parks due to increasing urbanization and fragmentation of habitat? Would we rather have the parks turned into visitor-centric recreational playgrounds where we don't worry about the needs of plants and animals or the landscapes themselves?

And really, haven't we already created a system by which different public lands are managed for different purposes? After all, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management long have managed their landscapes for multiple use, for both the birder and the dirt biker, for the cross-country skier and the snowmobiler, for the hiker and mountain biker. Shouldn't the National Park System continue to be managed with an emphasis on conservation and preservation, as well as enjoyment ... but with limits on what forms of recreation should be allowed?

Going a step further, does the level of national park visitation even matter? Shouldn't it suffice that we protect these unique places -- the landscapes, the culture, the history -- and all they harbor so future generations can appreciate and understand them by visiting them, if they desire, rather than reading a book or watching Ken Burns' documentary and so having their imaginations piqued but left unfulfilled because those responsible for sound stewardship in the past failed and these landscapes are no more?

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A sure way to evaporate common sense is to mix politics and money and I agree with Mr. Gray.

Kurt, has this exactly right. I have pictures of climbers on Devil's tower. The reason people want to snow mobile in Yellowstone rather than Ohio is because of the wildlife and scenery they might encounter. Mr Gray needs to realize that the area is for everyone, and that means (take care of it). The Obama's sailing in Cape Hatteras or horseback riding in Yellowstone, or even hiking Half Dome would show a responsible visit that preserves our park for everyone.

There is a definite mindset among many NPS rank & file employees that tends towards misanthropy. The focus of their careers more and more seems to be a holy crusade to save the parks from the ravages of humanity who are seen to be the ultimate destroyer of nature and all that is wild and beautiful.

This attitude is coming from a variety of sources, not the least of which is the educational training prospective rangers receive in our government funded universities which strongly stress radical ecosystem management, gloom and doom environmental education, draconian law enforcement and all sorts of other agenda laden programs that have gradually replaced an old-fashioned grounding in natural science, history and regional culture. The young ranger to be comes out of these politically correct gulags on a mission to preserve and save the land from the pestilence that is humanity and as a testament to this I often hear modern day rangers refer to developed areas of a park as a "sacrifice area" that is there to bait the masses into concentration so that the rest of the park can be wrapped in a protective cocoon of strict preservation, i.e. NO HUMANS ALLOWED!

Preservation is obviously an important concept but the instilled and institutionalized disdain of your fellow homo sapiens is not only wrong but downright dangerous as a concept. The modern NPS needs to be more open to encouraging human contact with the entirety of its holdings and to maybe turn back the clock to a warmer and more friendly era of hospitality and human interaction.

Nice photo of Chesler Park, Kurt!

"museums roped off" ?? In the past year and a half, my family has visited over 50 National Parks. In that time we have:

taken rock climbing classes in Joshua Tree
kayaked in caves at Channel Islands
ridden bikes all through Acadia
hiked all around Rocky Mountain
watched a sea turtle release at North Padre Island
canoed through Big Thicket
water skied in Lake Powell
walked to Rainbow Bridge
watched fireworks at Mount Rushmore
toured Tall Grass Prairie
gone on many hikes in undeveloped caves in Carlsbad Caverns
watched a full moon in White Sands
went windsurfing at North Padre Island
hiked in Grand Canyon
walked miles of pristine seashore in Cumberland Island NS
gone rafting in Dinosaur
gone jeeping in Canyonlands
attended the wildflower festival in Cedar Breaks
visited countless sites in the DC area

and visited countless smaller National Parks where we have hiked, attended ranger programs, walked through museums and enjoyed history, scenery and wildlife. What part of this is a "museum not to be touched"?

In addition, I have watched people throw coins in thermal pools in Yellowstone, through trash in canyons, climb fences "because the picture will be better 10 inches closer", walk off trails destroying cryptobiotic soil, pick HUGE bouquets of wildflowers, pet wildlife, feed wildlife, and the list goes on and on. No wonder we have to keep other parts of the parks roped off...

I believe the National Parks offer a huge variety of ways to enjoy and experience our parks. A few rules and regulations to try and preserve our parks? Ok with me...

I think the premise is nonsense. The parks are a preservation system, not a recreation system, especially not a motorized recreation system.

Visitation is down because people's tastes have changed, not because of bans on snowmobiles.

Anonymous' post above mine is spot-on.


My travels through the National Park System:

As a frequent visitor to national park units, including national monuments, seashores, and recreation areas, especially here in California, I have always found the park staff to be very helpful and welcoming to visitors. Remember, people visit the parks to experience the natural qualities. They should not be administered as amusement parks. There are beaches near where I live that are closed at certain times of year to accomodate the nesting/breeding needs of birds and seals/sea lions. I have no problem with this. We humans need to realize that this world belongs to all species, not just our own.

I worked one Summer in 06 as a volunteer in Yosemite NP, for the most part the people working there are very nice and helpful, however I did find a lot of the Paid Rangers, if they had it their way would be happy if they could block the roads off and allow no one into the park. It would make their jobs much easier. Afterall then they would not have to do traffic stops on people doing 60 in 35 speed zones, they would be able to relax instead of having to scrape someones body off of the rocks at the foot of a cliff, they would not have to put down a bear that in the process of defending her young did away with an offending tourist.
It's like the one lady that asked me what did we do with the bears at night? When I said nothing, she replied don't you lock them up at night? Get real people this is not a Disney Movie.

The article would seem to imply that park managers are encouraged and rewarded when it comes to restricting visitor access and activities. That is rarely the case. Park managers who attempt to protect park resources and values, in part, by more closely managing visitor uses frequently face strong political and bureaucratic pressures to be more lenient. Properly managed parks should allow visitors 100 years in the future to see and experience the same resources and settings that gives today's visitors so much pleasure.

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