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90 Years On, Dr. Michael Frome Continues To Lament The State of the National Parks


Dr. Michael Frome still has much to lament over the state of the national parks.

Nine decades of life understandably will slow a person down, if they're fortunate to count that many. And while Michael Frome, who reaches 90 on Tuesday, has understandably slowed a bit, he hasn't lost an ounce of his passion for the national parks.

The man who the late Gaylord Nelson said had no literary peer when it came to arguing for "a national ethic of environmental stewardship," who stood before a distinguished audience of top National Park Service managers gathered to celebrate the agency's 75th birthday and promptly scolded them for losing sight of their mission, and who long ago warned that commercialization of the national parks will turn them into "popcorn playgrounds," isn't about to let time's passage mollify his concern over the future of the national parks.

If anything, Dr. Frome, whose resume overflows with books that chronicle the country's environmental evolution and whose name graces an academy where the curriculum stresses environmental sustainability and leadership, believes the state of the parks has "gotten worse" since his appearance at the Park Service's birthday conference in Vail, Colorado.

"Twenty years or so ago, they were talking about carrying capacity. 'Let’s determine the carrying capacity of the parks,'" he said the other day from the Wisconsin home in the woods he shares with his wife, June. "Now, they’re talking about, 'Let’s get more people in, so we can get more money.' The carrying capacity is out the window, so, I would say the condition of our parks has definitely gotten worse."

Can that be?

In the past nine months we've seen a love affair rekindled around the national parks. Much like Ken Burns' marathon parkspalooza last fall, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, we recently saw National Parks Week deliver a burst of affection for the parks. We've had free entry, ranger programs, Junior Ranger programs, and generally a feel-good experience to whet our appetites for summer vacations.

But has it changed our appreciation for the parks, how we view them, what we envision them to be? That question seems highly timely both in light of what Dr. Frome is reflecting on as he works on revising Regreening the National Parks and the recent release of the fourth edition of Alfred Runte's work on the parks, National Parks, The American Experience.

Traveling back more than a century to how the seeds of the National Park System were planted, it's certainly entertaining to see how views of the parks have been altered by our growing appreciation for the iconic landscapes contained within Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, Glacier, and Grand Canyon national parks, just to name a few.

Early on, as Dr. Runte points out for us, Congress had to be convinced that the lands within these parks were "worthless," without economical ore bodies or agricultural lands, before they would set them aside as parks.

"I will state to the Senate that this bill proposes to make a grant of certain premises located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the state of California, that are for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world," Sen. John Coness of California said in urging his colleagues to create Yosemite National Park. "The property is of no value to the Government. I make this explanation that the Senate may understand what the purpose is."

Of course, today we realize the immense value that lies within the National Park System. The intoxicating scenery, the rich history, the cultural stories that are told. And yet, how should we measure the parks? In dollars and cents? Or in what they offer visitors in inspiration, relaxation, recreation, even solitude?

There is more than a small measure of irony in the fact that two decades ago, when annual national park visitation stood just under 268 million, that there were fears that we were " loving the parks to death," and now, with visitation just shy of 286 million, there's concern that Americans are losing interest in the parks.

With the ever-growing commercialization of the national parks, are the parks being viewed more and more as just another landscape to drive local economies, something former NPS Director James Ridenour dubbed "park barrel," and not the special places they were considered to be by many of those behind the national park movement of a century ago?

Of course, there were dollar-chasers a century and more ago, as Dr. Runte points out.

Nathaniel Langford's own vision for Yellowstone Lake was closer to Lake Como or the French Riviera. "How can I sum up its wonderful attraction!" he exclaimed. "It is dotted with islands of great beauty, as yet unvisited by man, but which at no remote period will be adorned with villas and the ornaments of civilized life." Certainly, he confided to his diary, Yellowstone Lake "poses adaptabilities for the highest display of artificial culture, amid the greatest wonders of Nature that the world affords." The country need not wait long, he predicted, "before the march of civil improvements will reclaim this delightful solitude, and garnish it with all the attractions of cultivated taste and refinement."

Fortunately, Mr. Langford's vision did not come entirely true. But it does point out that, then and now, many view the parks as commercial outposts, not necessarily for the very landscapes, history, and culture they were intended to protect and preserve. Should we invest in them because of downstream economics, or rather to showcase and preserve that which lies within their borders for today's generations as well as those to come?

Strip away the economics and the national parks remain in so many ways touchstones of this country, and surely they should be valued for that. And shouldn't they be preserved as such? Those questions more and more are becoming more pointed in the sprawling landscape parks of the West and in Alaska, for as technology evolves, it is placing more and more pressures on the national parks. That's evidenced in the demand for more cellphone towers in the parks, for Wi-Fi, for backcountry surveillance, for earlier spring openings -- if not year-round access -- of Yellowstone's roads.

Nineteen years ago, from the dais at the Vail conference, Dr. Frome tried to steer the park managers back on course.

National parks cannot be all things and still be national parks. Prudent, intelligent people must realize that unrestrained pressure is not progress. It may satisfy expediency today but will impoverish the future. I find the preservation and protection of wild nature, including vanishing species of wildlife driven to their last refuge in the national parks, not nearly as important as opening the parks for extraneous uses ranging from military maneuvers in Acadia to a juvenile detention center in the Delaware Water GAP and to sheer commercial-driven play and pleasure in most of the rest.

The heart of Yellowstone, the so-called "flagship" national park, has been reduced to an urban ghetto, complete with crime, litter, defacement and vandalism. In winter, rangers cater more to snowmobiles than to protection of wildlife. Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota in the grand design of nature was meant for wolves, but in its current administration snowmobiles come first -- that place could easily be renamed Snowmobile National Park. In Virgin Islands National Park several years ago I saw beautiful palm trees uprooted to make way for pavement and parking, a hillside bulldozed so that a quiet road meant for leisurely touring could be "upgraded" into a high-speed highway. These examples are not exceptions; they are too much of the rule.

Such cases exemplify what I call "thinning of the blood." When the superintendent of Mount Rushmore rejects an appeal from the local Sierra Club chapter for an environmental impact statement covering a proposed $40 million construction project, that to me is "thinning the blood." When an associate director of the National Park Service testifies before a congressional committee in opposition to establishing a tallgrass national monument in Kansas, disregarding the long, hard years of effort to save some fragment of the vanishing tallgrass, that to me is "thinning the blood." When administrations fail to speak forcefully, if at all, about jets overflying national parks in Hawaii, Alaska, the West, and in Florida, that is "thinning the blood."

While two decades have passed since Dr. Frome's broadside, the years have not tempered his belief that the Park Service has gone astray, has lost sight of its mission to preserve nature.

"I would say they’ve found a different set of allies and supporters," he said when we talked about the sway of politics and politicians over the agency. "The concessionaires are their senior silent partners. And so are the tourist boosters. We don’t use the word ‘ecology.’ But I want to say there are many, many wonderful people in the Park Service. And I want to support them, and we need the voice, the old voice of (Newton) Drury and (Stephen) Mather and people like that.

"... “Today we need a strong voice that we don’t get from the Park Service, and we need a better alliance with strong voices on the outside, which we don’t get," said Dr. Frome. “Where they go now is, 'let’s get more people into the national parks', and they hear the voice of the American Recreation Coalition, which is the voice of more noise and more machines in the national parks."

How long has such a voice been missing? Some would argue that not since George Hartzog, Jr. has there been an NPS director with the gumption to face down Congress, as he did in 1969 when then-President Richard Nixon cut the Park Service's budget and Director Hartzog responded by closing all national parks for two days a week.

“It was unheard of; even my own staff thought I was crazy,” he later said.

Crazy, perhaps, but the strategy paid off as a large backlash by the public convinced Congress to restore the Park Service funding.

Others who deserve merit for their mettle with Washington's politicians include Russ Dickenson, who made great strides -- particularly in light of working under Interior Secretary James Watt -- during his five short years from May 1980 to March 1985. During that period he inoculated his park superintendents from political appointees within Interior, requiring that the appointees go through proper channels to get answers to their questions and complaints, and also oversaw what some believe to be "the most conservation-oriented rewrite of Chapter 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations," and it was done while Mr. Watt was Interior Secretary. (Chapter 36 pertains, in part, to mining and other commercial uses on public lands, including NPS lands.)

Another name that stands out is that of Newton Drury, who served from August 20, 1940, through March 31, 1951, and had to endure the hardships of World War II, when the Park Service office actually was relocated from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. During the war Director Drury fought off most attempts to have national park resources approved for consumptive uses.

Director Drury quit in 1951 rather than see dams built in Dinosaur National Monument.

Dr. Frome, the elder statesman of the environmental movement that blazed the path to The Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act, is not a voice alone in the wilderness, nor in his fears that as pressures on the parks and pure wilderness throughout the country mount, they threaten to obliterate our experiences with nature.

In his book, Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, Bill Sherwonit tell us that "'being part of' [nature] is something I too easily forget when immersed in urban routines, though in my middle-aged years I have done a better job of regularly bringing wild nature into my daily life. And myself into nature. I have managed this through year-round walks, natural history studies of the plants and animals with whom I share the Anchorage landscape, journal writing, and the midlife discovery of the joys inherent in bird feeding and wild berry harvesting. Still, I don’t know that I would have been able to (re)establish a deeper relationship with both the wild “other” and wild inner self without the awareness I’ve gained through deeper trips into wilderness, where society’s influences are stripped away to reveal what’s essential."

As he goes about revising and updating Regreening the National Parks, Dr. Frome tries to get our attention to how we are, in essence, dismantling the national park experience by bringing our 21-century intrusions to them and smudging out wild America. The National Park Service, he notes, is largely culpable.

... The early park pioneers, both in and out of government, had no way of anticipating the cataclysmic changes in society. And now Yellowstone and the other parks are trapped in a human system combining population, politics, technology and economics. That combination drives the way our nation operates. The Park Service in playing its part endeavors to please everyone, but pleases no one. It does not stand in the way of crowds and commercial exploitation. In fact, a Yellowstone interpreter was given a national honor in part because of his work encouraging visitors to experience Yellowstone in new ways, including a live-streaming web-cam of Old Faithful. So you can enjoy the video and skip the real thing.

And while he believes the Park Service lacks a "strong voice" to ensure the agency hews closely to its original mission, he writes that the agency is not without the personnel anxious to see that happen.

But national parks are presumed preserved to reflect the original America. Many National Park Service personnel want it that way, hungering for leadership committed to ethical and ecological principles. They care deeply, feeling their mission is to encourage us to embrace a lifestyle that treads lightly on the earth, and that doing so adds richness to all of our lives. But they find themselves frustrated and unfulfilled by weak and waffling decisions made by office-bound officials hiding behind endless paper-shuffling of plans and promises to do better.

They ought to be able to defend their park areas from overuse and misuse with a clear conscience. To deplete or degrade the visible physical resource does something to the invisible spirit of place as well.

The forthcoming revision, which Dr. Frome says is still a year from completion, should be required reading for both those in the Park Service and those who visit the parks. Drafts read much like the story Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan told us through their 12-hour series on the parks, but dive much deeper in examining the outside influences that are threatening to not just turn the parks into "popcorn playgrounds" but to sanitize them. These are places not designed to entertain us so much as to reconnect us with nature, to help us appreciate and understand the truly unfettered natural world.

Certainly out on the trail the Great Smoky Mountains become a different park than the superficial playground ten million motor tourists experience. The trail opens a world of patience, simplicity and humility, of self-reliance and revelation. That is the way that Horace Kephart envisioned it, wanted it, and worked for it.

To Dr. Frome, the national parks, in their original interpretation, are essential, both to the individual, and to the country.

“I think we have to set these areas aside with a different purpose, which is not to promote the local economy but to preserve the natural and human history for the benefit of future generations," he said. "And to the extent that the local economy can benefit from the primary purpose, fine, but serving your local economy should not be confused with the primary purpose I would say."

While the Park Service can, arguably, find itself with a new mission every time the White House changes political persuasion, Dr. Frome believes the agency must be more vigilant and determined to manage the parks as the National Park Service Organic Act directed.

“It’s true that Congress has done an abominable job of caring for our heritage, historic and natural heritage and seeing it only in the most shallow political terms of 'what will this do for my re-election,' instead of what is the best for the country?" he said. “But I don’t see the people who run the Park Service giving much voice to the voice of the wild. It’s the voice of the tame, and the voice of the machine that has come to the fore as manifested in the American Recreation Coalition."

While there are, no doubt, those who would argue that Dr. Frome's time has long passed, that he no longer understands the role of the parks, that they should be open for recreation first and foremost, he has a quick answer.

“That’s the easiest thing for them to say. It’s the cheap and easy way out, instead of saying, we have to restore the best of the past to teach the future," said Dr. Frome. "The parks were not established to make money, the parks were established to remind us of who we are and where we came from, and that will always hold up, I would say.”

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After my first comment, I thought I should illustrate Frome's influence on me. At the Vail Conference, he said, "National parks cannot be all things and still be national parks". I had assimilated this thinking while at Canyonlands National Park and during the process of preparing the park's general management plan, my guiding thought was that "A national park cannot and should not be all things to all people." To violate Frome's dictum means we not only dilute the park experience, we can also destroy what we might have experienced, what we were mandated to preserve. I think Superintendent Pete Perry shared that viewpoint, as did much of the public, and we came up with a plan that I thought was true to the nature and purpose of the park. Political pressure modified the plan (specifically concerning roads and paving), but it could have been worse. Fortunately, some of the roadwork has never been built. To tell the truth, Canyonlands National Park from the very beginning played a part in preserving itself. There was never enough potable water available to sustain any significant development, which wasn't needed anyway. I think water is still hauled to The Neck to sustain the district operation at Island in the Sky.

Michael Frome's life is indeed one worth celebrating. I stand with Rick Smith in saying that Michael was "one who spoke on behalf of the parks and programs of the National Park Service, not on behalf of the agency itself." There were three men whose writings taught me that as a park ranger, my highest allegiance was to the national parks. Those men were Micahael Frome, Edward Abbey, and Wallace Stegner. I was fortunate enough to have met and talked, however briefly, with all three. I met Michael in Moab, Utah sometime during my 1972 to 1984 tenure at Canyonlands National Park. Thank you Michael for your commitment to the national parks and for your honest and thoughtful criticism of the National Park Service. It may not have always seemed so, but you were listened to and had, I think, a positive and far reaching effect.

Thanks, Barky. A very interesting concept.

But would something like that be as well prepared to stand up to tremendous political pressures?

"He was the one who made us realize that we owed our allegiance to the parks, not to the Park Service," Rick Smith.

Well said.

Lee, I'm suggesting that a public trust, as in an empowered legal entity entrusted to be caretaker, be established to manage the National Park Service. This would be a non-governmental entity with a board of directors composed of a mix of environmentalists, historians, preservationists, businesspeople, and other interested parties. These folks would set policies regarding the parks.

It would need to be empowered by Congress, and should have a clear mandate regarding everything from preservation to recreation to financing to commissioning (and decommissioning) park units.

Public land trusts are set up all over the place, both large and small. I donate to a small one myself:

Congress and the Executive Branch is too grotesquely dysfunctional to be entrusted with such an important function as preserving the National Parks and our historic legacy.

Thank you Kurt for recognizing the essentialness of Michael Frome. Michael is for the parks THE thinker, writer, preacher, keeper of the sacred documents and Bob Dylan all in one. Yet he is always interested in the people, the rangers, his friends, his family---even the sinners who miss the message of parks. He of all "parkees" (and I include myself in this class) deserves praise on his birthday. Paul

I am so glad to know that Michael is still around to carry on the fight for environmental conservation on public lands. He was my adviser at WWU Huxley College of Environmental Studies and taught me to be honest in my writings.

Barky, exactly WHO are you suggesting run our parks? I'm not questioning the idea that our government has failed in many ways, but I'd like very much to hear more details on just what this Public Trust might be.

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