Opposition Mounts to Tourism Promotion of National Parks

Editor's note: In an effort to better understand how other countries are managing their parklands, and to compare and contrast U.S. efforts to those from abroad, Traveler on occasion runs items from beyond U.S. borders. This story, from New South Wales, Australia, strikes a particular chord in light of our recent interview of Dr. Michael Frome.

What is the role of national parks? Are they created and designed to preserve nature, or to serve as playgrounds for the public?

Last month in a conversation with the Traveler Dr. Michael Frome, a giant in the conservation world, shared with us how disappointed he's been with the tack taken by the National Park Service in managing its incredible landscapes.

"Twenty years or so ago, they were talking about carrying capacity. 'Let’s determine the carrying capacity of the parks,'" he said. "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."

Against that backdrop, a story about tourism in parks appeared from New South Wales, Australia, the other day. It told about outrage over a move by the New South Wales government to focus on tourism in their parks.

Members of the Blue Mountains City Council opposed to the proposed National Parks and Wildlife Amendment Bill 2010 maintain that it "changes the emphasis of national parks and NPWS (National Parks and Wildlife Service) from nature conservation to providers of tourist development and accommodation”, and “facilitates new commerical development and accommodation in national parks”, the motion stated.

The Blue Mountains Conservation Society, in an alert to its supporters, said that under the proposed change "the Government will ... assist private developers to build accommodation, resorts and other tourist facilities in parks with planning brakes removed. Sites will be selected, preliminary planning done, and offered to the tourism industry as "investor-ready".

Already we have learnt that the NSW Government wants to overhaul the leasing provisions in national parks legislation to make it easier to permit new buildings and facilities in national parks.

‘Tourism’ is going to be added as a purpose of national park management and one of the
functions of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Surely conservation is the job of NPWS and tourism is the job of Tourism NSW!

Similar debates over what's proper and what's not when it comes to managing national parks have risen and fallen here in the United States down through the decades. You hear it now over efforts to draft a satisfactory development plan for the Yosemite Valley, when it comes to managing snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park, and what to do with off-road vehicles in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, just to name three high-profile issues pitting conservation against development and/or recreation.

In his wonderful book, National Parks, the American Experience, historian Alfred Runte points out that economic interests long have cast envious eyes on the national parks.

More than cultural nationalism with an economic boost, the boost itself had become an argument. Generally attributed to the Great Northern Railway, the See America First campaign had gripped the nation with the economic possibilities of the national parks. "We receive comparatively nothing for (our scenery), Congressman (Edward) Taylor elaborated in 1915, "while Switzerland derives from $10,000 to $40,000 per square mile per year from scenery that is not equal to ours. But Switzerland knows that the public is ready and willing to pay for scenery, and they have developed it for selling purposes." A failure to profit from Switzerland's prudence, he concluded, especially with the outbreak of war "closing European resorts to American travel this year," would cost the United States a golden opportunity for teaching its "citizens to visit and appreciate our own parks."

Back in Australia, the opposition isn't against economic prosperity, but rather is built around a fear that the government would help bootstrap businesses in the parks that would compete with those already ringing the parks.

“The latest government plan would mean national parks would be subject to unbridled commercial development,” Tara Cameron, president of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, said in a prepared statement. “The society supports the provision of tourism infrastructure and accommodation in Blue Mountains towns rather than inside national parks.”

Sound familiar?

Comments

The symbiotic yet problematic relationship between tourism promoters and the American national parks has, as Runte points out, been an issue throughout the whole history of the national parks. But there is an interesting historical parallel between the Australia situation and that along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1950s, when an ambitious Mission-66 related proposal for increased tourist accommodations within the park was released. The local business community, which had supported the Parkway partly based on its promise of boosting regional tourism, rose up in anger, proclaimed they had been "sold down the river," and ultimately forced federal officials to drop most of their plans. There was no real discussion of the impact of tourism development on natural resources -- just a conflict over who would manage and benefit from whatever tourism development was encouraged. So yes, this does sound familiar!

Thanks for continuing to take this issue on, Kurt. It's a scorpion's nest to be sure, and I feel like, as with so many complex and contentious issues these days, most people just look away and keep on walking.

I wonder if you saw my post a couple months back on the new-minted National Parks Promotion Council (NPPC)? I'd sure love to hear your thoughts on that whole notion. It'd be terrific if you felt like weighing in on the comments there and/or responding with your own post...

http://thetravelersnotebook.com/how-to/how-to-save-americas-parks-pack-em-with-people/

Also, I'd be happy to connect you with John Poimoroo, if you don't already know him. He might make a very interesting interview for you (from the pro-promo angle).

Cheers,

dp

Interesting column, David, one anyone who heads to national parks for enjoyment should read.

If you've been reading the Traveler for the past three or four years, you know that I question the concern over visitation trends. I think anyone who's visited the Yosemite Valley, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, Great Smoky Mountains or countless other parks between May and November will wonder what the concern is about.

Rather than worrying about the "quantity" of visitation, perhaps more effort should be focused on the quality of that visitation. By that I mean both stretching out visitation as well as concentrating on younger generations and more cultural diversity. Being so close to Yosemite I'm sure you're aware of that park's efforts to court Hispanics.

That's a move in the right direction that hopefully will reverberate across the park system.

A friend just returned from Memorial Day weekend in Moab and told horror stories of his visit to Arches. Half an hour to get through the gate -- the line to the entrance was half a mile long. Once inside, he says everywhere you looked were signs warning you to "Stay On The Trail." No parking spots available anywhere. Etc, Etc, Etc.

He wants to know why NPS doesn't simply add another entrance or widen the road or add more parking spaces? He was upset because it appeared to him that all the Stay On Trail signs were there just to protect some kind of silly black soil thing and since when does silly black soil take precedence over humans?

The idea of further promotion of our parks is certainly a problem that will never go away. One answer at Arches -- and other parks -- may be shuttle services. As for silly black soil vs humans, our only hope is education.

As for my friend, unfortunately I don't think I managed to sway his opinions. He is, after all, at Utah Republican who firmly believes in the Utah environmental motto: Multiply, multiply and pillage the earth.

I am opposed because you guys won't fire Ben Kurns. That monster must be stopped. http://carlsagansdanceparty.wordpress.com/2010/05/22/our-national-parks-crater-lake/

When the theater is full they don't continue to sell seats.

It's nice to see this discussion touched upon. Wish David Brower were still around to carry the "carrying capacity" and pro camping message he used to promote with well stated messages.

The desire by those who wish to accommodate all who want to come (without a reservation) to a National Park is what needs to be discussed. We need to be realistic. I've heard that last year was an historic visitor count to Yosemite, yet no one wants to talk about how to curb the tide. Instead, they want to improve accommodations...or ramp up shuttle services, widen roads, build hotels outside the parks...

There is no way to improve the quality of a camping visit to Yosemite Valley, for example, without limiting the quantity of people who want to go there daily during peak season.

ANY reduction to day tripping headcounts would have the added benefit of improving the experience for everyone who plan ahead and get to go, while also curing whatever else might ail Yosemite, with regards to "impacts".

I happen to have first-hand knowledge of the Australian context you are talking about and the agencies and communities quoted. The issues (as is usually the case) are not as simple or 'black & white' as the way they are being implied and quoted here by the sources mentioned.

The extent of controls involved in the planned development approach to be adopted, and the practical reasons behind the changes are being deliberately downplayed by the quoted conservation group, as they instead talk in exaggerated and populist, if not fear generating tones of "planning brakes" being removed. They also prefer to view it as "changing the emphasis of national parks and the parks service from nature conservation to providers of tourism development and accommodation."

This is just patently untrue. The nature conservation role will in fact remain central to the Service's charter and the move is designed more to remove some existing barriers (not present in some of Australia's other national park services) to the option to engage in some limited and most likely well planned, but much needed, revenue generating facilities and infrastructure. Given the competing standards set by other Australian States in terms of the limited tourism developments within their parks, it would be simply self defeating for NSW to behave otherwise.

Some of NSW's leading conservation groups (as well as some of the Park Service's more 'hardline' staff) have been struggling for decades with the ongoing realities of entirely predictable and 'natural' visitor interest in these parks. Their habit of, more often than not, automatically opposing anything to do with 'tourism' simply 'on principle' (often using ill defined and uneducated notions of Australia's modern day EAA/Green Globe-certified, nature-based tourism standards & practices) is not doing anyone any favors, including themselves.

Engaging in exaggeration or hyperbole does not help either. "Unbridled" development has never been contemplated for any of NSW or Australia's national parks to the best of my reasonably intimate knowledge. If anything, unlike American parks, they suffer from inadequate visitor infrastructure and lesser quality public education and interpretation facilities and opportunities.

The State Tourism Agency in NSW has already undertaken years of significant research into nature-based tourism and visitor interests in this area. The most significant findings (matching those of the equally longstanding TIA/National Geographic study here in America into 'Geotourism' visitor values) being that visitors themselves do not want to see excessive development in natural areas/national parks in NSW or the ecology, beauty and authenticity of such areas either lost or spoiled. Most are also avowedly happy to tread softly whilst in these areas - soft not hard adventure experiences being their majority preference.

Some Australian conservation groups, if they had their way, would literally prefer to see most National Parks declared as highly restricted, wilderness areas - much to the chagrin of many of Australia's indigenous native peoples I might add.

No matter how carefully developed or how small the environmental footprint, they are unhappy with almost any new infrastructure it frequently seems. (By way of example, many Australian conservationists initially bitterly opposed the building of Tropical North Queensland's 'advanced' eco-certified SKYRAIL rainforest cableway, only to later see it win international environmental tourism awards ... and ultimately have them reverse their opposition. Ironically, the Skyrail was a way of keeping people above the rainforest - experiencing it from a bird's eye view - without potentially damaging it by physically tramping through it. And as with other environmentally minded Australian marine park and national park tourism initiatives, other respected conservationists had actually supplied the expertise to make sure things were done sustainably in the first place, thus setting a benchmark and standard to measure other future projects against.)

Visitation to parks will inevitably keep occurring at some level ... and yes as a direct consequence, many very real and potentially very adverse impacts will definitely also occur - but again it is a planning and management issue, not a political issue alone.

The key issue for Australia's conservationists, at least, is to more readily partner with other well intentioned stakeholders and management agencies in working hard to more effectively manage new initiatives, while also more intelligently responding to reasonable visitor needs and interests, including well planned, eco-accommodation options. And in more intelligent, more open minded, imaginative and yes, strictly monitored and properly enforced ways.

This should happen not just for any economic or revenue gain (even though increasingly important), but because it makes sense for humans and the human component to also warrant consideration as a 'natural' element in our natural environments.

Rather than always assuming a reactive and oppositional position, a willingness to be instead proactive in steering and 'leading' things in the right, sustainably minded direction (e.g. with tourism facility and development issues) would more than likely prove much more productive ... as well as potentially enlightening to all involved.

Good park and tourism management practices do require adequate resourcing. And Parks are already under great pressure, with more & more being 'declared' while proportionally fewer funds are being made available to look after them properly. This latter problem is of course increasingly arising as a result of the many other competing demands for available public and private funds, with the loudest voices and strongest lobbies normally getting their way first.

And it is in this regard that part of the Australian conservationists' mistake is to ignore the imperative to build, maintain and help to fruitfully capitalize on substantial numbers of citizens 'generationally' falling in love with these parks - so that as many as possible can become reliable national park enthusiasts and political advocates to government. (Oregon is an excellent role model here in the way the State's citizens have embraced their parks, even to the point of approving tax measures in support of them.)

Finally, as has been pointed out, there is no doubt that one of the more serious challenges for the most accessible and popular parks in Australia and in the US is that of 'being loved to death'. This again underlines the imperative for good and most likely BOLD/BRAVE (as well as imaginative) management practices - where and when necessary.

But it also highlights the added need to help tap into that 'love' in more imaginative and active ways - ways that fulfill the essential need for greater education and citizen empowerment concerning the protection and future opportunities for enjoyment of our Parks. This should encompass not only more appropriate and sustainable ways of experiencing parks as a visitor (and as an educated & responsibly minded stakeholder), but also the application of greater creativity and focus towards seeing visitors (even more successfully) recruited in small and big ways to become such informed and active advocates for our parks' health and survival.

Ken Burns National Parks series, as a virtue, has already made it own valuable contribution here by exposing to fresh eyes just how precarious the existence and future protection of the parks has been, at least in the USA. (Given the range of inappropriate mining and other corporate and commercially driven pressures that had to be constantly overcome and politically defeated.)

The series also told of how attitudes and practices continually evolved over time within the parks and the parks services as well (e.g. in such fundamental ways as how the wildlife were to be regarded and treated). It also highlights how many of the magnificent lodges constructed were very environmentally advanced in design terms for their time ... and even to this day stand out as exceptional works by great architects, artists and construction workers.

Keeping an open mind on such matters here and in NSW/Australia will remain just as important to the ongoing success of both our nation's Parks. And education, involving just as many sensible evolutions in thought, is needed not only on the part of the ill-informed, misinformed, ill intentioned and 'exploitation minded', but also on the part of all of us who have traditionally been the park's most vocal defenders.

Dear Editor,

I live in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, and found the article on proposals to increase tourist development in national parks in our State interesting. I have had a long association with national parks here and I find the recent push for more development in parks to be troubling.

If there are lessons to be learned from mistakes made in the management of national parks in the USA, they seem not to have been learnt by our state government. This is especially disappointing, given that our Premier, Kristina Keneally, came to us from Ohio and the head of our environment and national parks administration from Oklahoma.

Yours sincerely,
Peter Prineas.