Are Our National Parks No Longer for the People?
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?