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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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I agree with Dennis Gray's characterization of the NPS as a very "top-down" organization, but think it's too simplistic to attribute the visitation decline of the past two decades to environmental groups or the much needed increased emphasis on resource management. Congress has become the most powerful "special interest group", changing the agency into the National 'Pork' Service by reducing operational funding, while adding too many new units and emphasizing expensive, attention-getting projects over true maintenance of existing facilities.

This has too often evolved a selfish type of manager more concerned with pleasing the pecking order above them than truly serving the public or the parks, Here's a simplified little parable to summarize how the Park Service management really operated during my career. Say you're the Buildings & Utilities Foreman, responsible for fifty outhouses. The surest path to promotion to Facility Manager or Chief of 'Maintenance' in this top-heavy outfit has been to only clean and restock toilet paper in half of them, while diverting money toward building more outhouses. Remember the half million dollar marble & slate outrage that got so much publicity some years back? This sort of thing is a much greater factor behind Gray's "deteriorating facilities" and the so-called maintenance backlog than environmentalism.

I'm pretty familiar with many of the western parks and worked in four of them. As a visitor, I encountered a few grumpy employees having bad days, but the vast majority did a good job at public contact. Considering that one is likely to encounter a hastily trained seasonal or volunteer, most are cheerful and helpful, if not always well-informed. I did notice a strong tendency in the parks I worked in for permanent employees to avoid the public as much as possible, unlike Parks Canada, where even supervisors regularly spent time at the visitor center front desks.

Despite this superficial appearance of serving people well, there is often a kind of institutionalized contempt for the public and a discounting of their input. A common opinion I heard repeatedly is that the Park Service has to manage for the "lowest common denominator" because the average visitor is an idiot. For example, I recently tried to report a forest fire near the Mount Rainier boundary and was told "Oh, we know about that, it's actually twenty miles south of the park." I knew the exact location and elevation of the new fire and persevered until I thought I had finally gotten through. Waking up the next day with a bad feeling, I called the adjoining USFS office and was told it was the first they'd heard of it. I had a similar experience trying to report a grizzly sighting a decade earlier. (Yes, they're here!) It was necessary to go through the FOIA office in "the lesser Washington" just to get copies of Rainier's annual budget and organization chart. They appear to think they're the CIA and that is none of the public's business. It seems to me this information should be on every park's website.

I don't think this arrogance and paternalism is being taught in schools; it is more often learned internally from old hands in BS sessions. This attitude is not just limited to the public. In many parks, the usually better educated 'rangers' resent and look down on the maintenance staff, often rural locals who are sometimes more highly paid because their wages are tied to the regional union scale. Often these locals are more knowledgeable about their parks than managers who transfer every few years in order to get promoted.

Most rank & file NPS employees and some supervisors I worked alongside in the field were incredibly concientious and dedicated. Unfortunately, petty corruption and irregular hiring and promotion practices by managers were quite common as well. I had roommates in NPS housing who were the sons of high-ranking Interior Department nabobs. For years at Olympic, seasonal laborers were hired from a student hiring authority list that only the children and friends of maintenance supervisors seemed to know about. A fellow seasonal at Rainier was promoted to upper management over a few years after pulling our drunken superintendent out of the ditch a couple times. That super later suddenly retired because of sexual harrassment charges by an employee. Management fubars were always covered up as much as possible, or blamed on the public and external causes, while critics and whistleblowers were routinely punished and purged. Favoritism regarding contracts and concessions were apparent, even from the ranks. Such experiences convinced me that more serious corruption probably existed and still exists behind closed management doors.

I wouldn't go so far as Frank C and Beamis, but my experience was that the National Park Service is a much more deeply flawed agency than the true believers think. Jon Jarvis had an excellent reputation here in the Northwest and I remain hopeful he can begin to restore integrity to NPS management after being confirmed as Director.

"does the level of national park visitation even matter? Shouldn't it suffice that we protect these unique places"

I couldn't agree more.

John Lison--

Thanks for your insightful comments. I will be returning to Yellowstone next week to serve as a volunteer in the Ranger Museum at Norris Jct.. I too find the vast majority of visitors to be inquisitive and respectful of their parks. And, the ranger staff--both protection and interpretation--that I have come in contact with as a volunteer are corteous, friendly, and helpful. I felt the same way during my career as an NPS employee. There are boneheads as visitors and as employees. But they are a miniscule minority.

Rick Smith

John Lison

I'm an NPS volunteer, working my third summer tour of duty in my third year since retiring from active employment. I have always loved the National Parks and visited whenever I could over the past 50+ years. Now , I generally spend 21 weeks a year as a VIP ( a volunteer in the Parks). I've worked a different Park for each of my three years as a volunteer and hope to work many more until old age renders me unable to continue to do so.

Many of the above posters either are unaware or have ignored the DUAL mission under which the NPS administers the National Treasures known as the National Park System. The Organic Service Act of the NPS requires the NPS " to promote and regulate the use of the .....national parks... which purpose is to conserve the scenery and 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."

Thus a difficult and often controversial balance is required of the NPS. Certainly there are many different views as people generally see the world differently but my opinion from the front line, is that the NPS does an excellent job of walking what is very difficult line to determine. The Interpretive side of the NPS ( the part of the Service which deals with visitors and of which I am a part) works very hard to assure that the public enjoys every opportunity to experience and enjoy the Parks. The Law Enforcement side works very hard to assure that our visitors , while enjoying the Parks, follow the rules to assure that our Grandchildren's grandchildren are also able to enjoy the Parks as we are able to do.

It may interest those who bemoan staffing levels within the Parks to note that there are 139,000 of us volunteers who go out and actually work along side the 20,000 paid employees of the NPS. I have no idea how many visitors I've interacted with over the past several years but firmly believe that 99% of the visitors to the Parks are wonderful but the other 1% occupies most of the discussion. Just as there are some less than enthusiatic NPS personnel , there are some real bonehead visitors. However, I don't find those to be among our foreign visitors but rather among some folks that wouldn't be happy about what the NPS did whatever it decided to do. As some may know , the NPS polls the public each year, unit by unit, and uses the results to improve upon direction and execution of its mission. Those poll results indicate a very high level of customer satisfaction.

Wasn't the original intention of the formation of national parks so that these wild places could remain undamaged by human intervention? These places used to be open and anyone could venture in to destroy whatever they wanted. This behavior needed to be stopped, so the NPS was founded.
There needs to be a balance between conservation and pleasure. I noticed that most people in this discussion seem to be frequenting the parks on the western half of the US. So, maybe I just have a different perspective because I have grown up next to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I have been told that the eastern parks are much more lax and where you can go and what you can do in the park. Anyway, I have seen many people acting stupidly in the GSMNP. People leave food out around camp sites and are upset when the black bears forage through camp! If someone is injured by a bear, it has to be tracked and euthanized. Wouldn't a better solution be to educate people about the park before they enter?
I know this seems a bit strenous, but what if everyone had to get a pass to enter the park? The reguirements for getting this pass would be passing a day long course on the delicate ecosystems in the park and how human involvement can be minimized. Surely the problem is not that people just do not care.
This page has had a lot of bashing on the younger generations. It is true that most people in my age group (I am 23) only venture into the park when family members require them to or when they want to perform illegal activities in the park. If a requirement to get in the park is a course on ecosystem management and conservation of our natural resources, it would cut down on the number of people in the park (which needs to be done), would educate people, and would decrease the wear and tear on the park.
Unfortunatly, it has gotten to the point where the parks need to closed for a time to allow the land to heal. It is sad that drastic actions need to be taken, but our national parks are falling apart at an exponential rate.
The GSMNP used to be know for the smoking mountains, but they are starting to produce less of their own haze and are now only smoky because of all the cars driving around the park.
If people can't learn to appreciate the park for what it is, they should not be allowed to enjoy it at all.

Umm, no videos at that site, MikeD. Got another link?


I find Matthew's response to be pretty incoherent. I am not sure what he's getting at to be honest. To be fair, I'll admit that the type of people who would like to allow very high impact activities on the parks are probably people I might prefer to have out of the parks all together. But I can't recall any lawsuit either aimed at preventing access per se.

There is a guy on Youtube whose videos I enjoy. He currently lives in a remote canyon in New Mexico, if I understand correctly. Check out his Going Ferral series of videos for advice on a "loophole" on how to live on federal lands indefinitely. In any case, he has an interesting take on national parks, which may or may not be his version of extreme sarcasm (he appears to be pretty far left politically, just to clarify):

I agree completely. We live in a large Eastern city but are National Park junkies. We too have been to many NP's and have hiked and done many ranger activities but have been appalled at the disrespect people have for the parks. The park rules are really pretty simple. Stay on the trails, don't step on endangered plants, don't throw trash, don't touch endangered species. How hard is that.

Most of the people that we saw only wanted to stay in their cars and see just a few sites and the gift shops. THe National Parks are extremely visitor friendly. All of the rangers I have met have been extremely helpful and gracious.

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