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Commentary: How Do You Prefer National Parks, Utilitarian, or Utopian?


Can either of these settings be improved by a lodge or marina? Top photo, Flat Mountain Arm, Yellowstone National Park, by Kurt Repanshek. Bottom photo, Jordan Pond overlook, Acadia National Park, NPS photo.

How do you prefer your national parks?

Should they be utilitarian destinations, landscapes that serve all wants and desires whether visitors are in search of dazzling vistas, motorized recreation, or five-star accommodations, or should they be idealistic Utopian reserves that should be appreciated, enjoyed, and experienced quite simply for what is found within their borders?

That seems a timely question in light of recent comments on the Traveler -- nature is more devastating than man, the National Park Service is relegating humans to second-class citizens behind birds and turtles in Cape Hatteras -- and in news events in Washington, D.C.

In considering the debates over snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park or off-road vehicles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, just to name two highly charged issues that seem representative of the diverging demands on the parks, isn't the bottom-line question really whether parks exist for consumption or appreciation? (Interestingly, Congress often had to be convinced that lands proposed to be turned into national parks had no economic value, but that's another story.)

That's not a new question, either, but one that has paralleled the national park movement in this country. John Muir often tried to put man in his place as an equal of nature, not a superior.

"Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit - the cosmos?," John Muir wrote in 1916 in A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

"The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals...." he continued. "This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation's plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever."

Time and again the question of how national parks should be revered bubbles back (or sometimes storms back) to the surface. There are many camps that see the parks as playgrounds and moneymakers foremost, landscapes to be bent and molded to their wants and desires.

But as is the case with urban sprawl and the loss of habitat responsible for genetic changes in such species as the Western fence lizard and wrentit in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and the recent determination that the great grey owls that reside in Yosemite National Park are a distinct subspecies, parks are relatively quickly being transformed into biological islands and, perhaps in the case of the Florida panther, even last stands for species that humankind's behaviors and desires are pushing to the brink.

And yet, the thirst for more development in the parks continues. Such desires were outlined the other day in Washington, D.C., before the House Committee on Natural Resources, which was told there's a need for even more infrastructure within national parks.

“We urge you to help in the creation of new park facilities in the tradition of the grand, enduring structures, many predating the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, that are synonymous with the National Park System," said Derrick Crandall, a representative for the National Park Hospitality Association, a group that represents park concessionaires. "Unique architecture and quality construction mark structures like the Ahwahnee and El Tovar Hotels, lodges in Glacier and Yellowstone and many more historic structures that help make 21st Century park visits lifelong memories."

Continuing on, Mr. Crandall outlined a vision of "a new generation of visitor infrastructures that are enduring, architecturally outstanding and embrace top environmental and accessibility standards."

John Muir must be rolling in his grave.

"These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar," he said in raging against those who would dam Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley. "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

Don't misunderstand. This is not to insist that we strengthen the gates to national parks and require visitors to step into them only on foot, or to sleep only in tents or under the starry skies, or to cook only over an open fire. Rather, it's to suggest we pause and consider what's at stake before we build more lodges, more roads, more campgrounds, more recreational amenities.

As generations come and go, each seems to arrive with its own vision of how parks should be enjoyed. Who might have considered, in the 1970s, the possibility of riding bikes on single-track trails through parks? Until the 1960s, snowmobiles really weren't seen in Yellowstone and you weren't likely to hear a Jet ski at a national seashore or lakeshore. Segways didn't evolve until the last decade.

What's wrong with earning thrills through climbing a mountain, kayaking a river or lakeshore, or heading out on a week-long backpack?

How national parks are experienced and enjoyed are issues we must confront, and not simply by resorting to dueling lawsuits, as has been the case in Yellowstone with snowmobiles. We must somehow come agreeably, if not fully amicably, to an understanding both on how we want to utilize national parks, and how we want to leave those park settings for future generations.

Can a shuttle system, with a much smaller footprint than numerous trucks, cater to surf casters and families who head to Cape Hatteras in such a way as to meet their needs while protecting sensitive wildlife species? Should snowcoaches be the sole method of winter recreational travel in Yellowstone, or have we reached the point where snowmobiles have negligible impacts on the park's resources? Do we really need more mountain bike trails in the parks?

To borrow from President Kennedy, rather than continuing to look to national parks for an economic return or new playground for the latest technology, let's examine how we best can preserve both national parks and the ideals of the national park movement.

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I see four issues here, interconnected. One is plain business sense. It is the one most easily explained. The second one is administrative creep. Each generation of NPS management wishes to be immortal by leaving something behind. Usually bricks, mortar, concrete or asphalt. The third is the general feeling of entitlement in our society. Once it is there, I must be able to use it. Us it the way I want.

The final one and adding to the third is the aging population. If - as I read in a NPS manual - 50% of the visitors are physically unable to walk half a mile or more on paved trails, they are actually excluded from pretty much everything a National Park is about.

I see an aerial tram from Grand Canyon Village to Indian Garden and a wheelchair accessible paved trail to Plateau Point. And now everyone here has to come up with a valid reason not to build it.

One of the biggest pleasures I get out of touring the National Parks is the separation it gives me from the ludicrousness of our "developed" world. I want a chance to walk alone in a quiet area with nothing but nature around me.

I don't want to have to wait in traffic, or listen to squealing motorcycles, or wonder if I'll get shot by lunatics who don't know what to do when there's a bear in the area.

I go to the parks to escape that crap. If I want to get shot I'll go to the mall or something ...

I have no problem with developing access so anyone can enjoy the park. I do have a problem with that "access" being used so clowns can tear up the parks with go-carts. There are plenty of already-spoiled lands where they can play on their toys.

Same applies to energy development in the parks. However, sometimes there is a real need (like power lines crossing Delaware Scenic River). In those cases, energy companies and regulators should device plans where such things can be implemented in ways that do not affect either the natural beauty of the area or pose a risk to animal migrations, watersheds, etc. I believe it can be done if only people care to do so.

This should be an exception and not a rule, though.

Maybe a compromise is due. Set aside parks operating in the "red" for the snowmobiles or go carts to generate income and leave those in the "black" in their purest natural settings. Or let those who visit the parks in one particular year vote on how they should be managed or what limitations should apply. I plan to visit most of them when I retire in two years and will want as little commercialism as possible. It would be wonderful to have a senior citizens time period when no children are allowed in some of the more visited parks.

I've traveled extensively these past couple years. I've gone to numerous (over 60) National Parks, Disneyland, Disney World and countless tourist attractions throughout the country. One thing prevails regardless of location and that is that people are selfish. There is such a "I am the only one that matters" attitude. So, yes, I was pushed and shoved and run into (purposefully) with strollers in DL but that attitude is not so different than the people I see picking wildflowers, walking where signs are clearly marked, "stay out", peole swimming where swimming is not allowed, quarters being thrown into pools in Yellowstone, etc etc in our National Parks. I think our society has gotten to where people live for ME and do what I want and it's all about ME ME ME. Wouldn't it be so wonderful to think of future generations and leave the park for EVERYONE to enjoy for what it is without changing it to satisfy ME and MY wants.

It's not only me-me-me but also now-now-now. It's that "who cares, I'll be dead" attitude -- the same attitude George W. Bush conveyed when he was asked about his legacy. In many ways we are a victim of our successes. Wealth brings higher expectations, and it seems American society is incapable of thinking either globally, thinking long-term, or finding common ground on any number of issues. If we were truly thankful and appreciative of what we had, we'd be better equipped to overcome these character flaws. But we're fighting millions of years of evolutionary biology -- the same instincts that allowed us to survive. Me me me and now now now used to be prerequisites for survival. Today, those instincts are what prevent us from moving forward together. Part of being human means we have to eventually move beyond the me-me-now-now thing. Otherwise, we're just expendable fodder like the rest of the animal kingdom.

Wow, Kurt, you sure touched one off here. This is a continuation of the age-old controversy that has always affected park management -- and will continue to do so until there are either no more parks or no more people.

Yet if we cave in to those who demand accessibility to everything, convenience everyplace, entertainment rather than simple enjoyment, access without effort, and all the thousands upon thousands of other conflicting demands we try to place upon our parks, what will we have left?

Mr. Hoffman tried to rewrite the management guidelines to shift emphasis from preservation to enjoyment. What finally seemed to beat that back was finding an answer to one simple question: "If we fail to preserve, what will be left to enjoy?"

Just the day before yesterday, I found myself in an internal argument with myself over exactly this sort of thing. I had bumped and thumped my way for 20 miles over what the service generously calls a "primitive road" to Point Sublime on the north rim of Grand Canyon. There's no way I could have hiked that distance in my present geriatric condition nor could I have mountain biked it as did a couple from Colorado I met along the way. So I had fired up my Chevy Blazer and with lots of help from 4-wheel drive, I made my way out there looking for some solitude and beauty.

I found beauty galore and solitude sort of. As the bicyclists, me and another couple from Arizona who had also used 4WD to get there sat on the edge of the canyon we were assailed by thumping, pounding echoes of helicopter rotor blades continually. At one point, I counted 6 choppers in line following an apparent flight pattern across the canyon. There was never a moment when we were not hearing those blades beating air. And although it was not overwhelmingly loud noise, it did certainly detract from the experience. As the five of us sat and grumbled about it, we seemed united in our feeling that it would be nice if all those machines could be made to disappear.

But as I drove back along those bumpy miles to pavement, I began to realize that my trusty steed was making a whole lot more noise than a horse would make. I remembered that once a long time ago when I lived a bit north of the canyon, how I enjoyed taking friends for fixed wing flights over the canyon. That was back before altitude and other flight restrictions were in place. I had a flight pattern of my own that included dropping down off the east side of the Kaibab Plateau so we were skimming only a couple hundred feet above the pinyon. I'd tell my passengers to look straight down as we approached Marble Canyon and then as they all gasped when the earth fell away below, I'd bank into a sharp diving right turn and descend deep into the canyon. We'd fly well below the rim all the way to Lava Falls and then climb out and head back to that airport at Kanab or St. George. I rationalized it by telling myself that the canyon was huge and my Cessna was really pretty quiet. Then I remembered that the day earlier, I'd been thinking of maybe trying to find a chopper ride over the canyon for myself since I can no longer afford to fly my own aircraft.

I guess that's when it hit me that it's exactly these kinds of internal and external conflicts that demand the greatest possible wisdom when it comes to managing and maintaining our national parks as we take them into the future. We probably never will be able to give in to demands of any single group of park users. Instead, we will constantly be engaged in a never ending search for some kind of very elusive balance. A balance that will probably never be found.

But we can never quit trying . . . . .

However, in answer to your question, "Should they be utilitarian destinations, landscapes that serve all wants and desires whether visitors are in search of dazzling vistas, motorized recreation, or five-star accommodations, or should they be idealistic Utopian reserves that should be appreciated, enjoyed, and experienced quite simply for what is found within their borders?" Perhaps there is no single answer. But if we fail to remember the constant need to err on the side of preservation, we may find that we have nothing left to be enjoyed by anyone.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone and a tram in the Grand Canyon are tough calls - I would probably favor limited footprints in both areas though I need to learn more about what people want.

Driving on the beach at Cape Hatteras is more an Endangered Species issue than a National Park issue.

Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite was destroyed. The valley is wholly unusable by any park visitors. It should be restored. The reservoir is little needed in today's system (read the reports and get involved if you are so inclined)

If I could see even one landscape in Yosemite as little disturbed as the day John Muir saw it, I would be very happy. I doubt that's an achievable goal, so I'll settle for my kids getting to see Yosemite with as few disturbances as when I first hiked there.

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