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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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There is already a clamoring for more machine abuse of the wilderness areas. More crying and whining about why can't someone take his noisy, air polluting machine into the woods.
More possibility of more and more land outside the parks being devastated by man.

I think the National Parks should absolutely be set aside from off road travel and more and more noise. It's already quite noisy in many parks. Let's keep them glittering gems and refuges from the "madding crowd" outside the Park gates.

The parks are not there nor should they be there for mass destruction. I saw graffiti scratched in bacteria mats in Yellowstone . Selfish people destroying the experience
for others.

Definitely protect the Parks from city caterwauling.

I think its important to remember the "motto" of the National Park Service, as inscribed on the Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Inherit to the concept of a National Park should be the benefit and enjoyment that comes through visitation to the Parks. While there is no disputing that there is great value and benefit to pristine wild places, I believe that those places should most-properly not be National Parks, but some other designation such as National Wildlife Refuges or some other new designation.

Indeed, I submit that both the following facts are absolutely true:
- Yellowstone would not hold the beloved place in the American imagination that it holds today were it not for visitation infrastructure like "The Great Ring Road" and The Old Faithful Lodge
- If Yellowstone National Park were being established today, very little, if any, of the current infrastructure would be constructed.

This post asks what's wrong with experiencing a National Park through mountain-climbing, back-packing, or week-long backpacking? What's wrong is that those forms of visitation are fairly self-limiting to the enjoyment of the people. Millions of Americans (and foreign visitors) who are elderly or disabled find it nearly impossible to enjoy National Parks through those experiences. The same is essentially true for the millions of American families visiting National Parks with small children, who find such experiences difficult at best. And finally, there are also millions of Americans who either lack the experience, as well as the specialized equipment that typically make such experiences manageable and more enjoyable - but still wish to feel the magic of a National Park inviting them in to experience the natural wonders of this country.

My vision of the parks would retain as much of the "wild and untouched" landscape as possible. This wouldn't necessarily preclude interpretive centers and should include disabled access to the most popular areas within reason. Certainly we can reduce traffic and increase access by busing groups through. Whether any park should include ORV activity - that's a topic with which I take issue. I doubt that large numbers of vehicles traveling off-road was ever the original intent of the first park service officials when they proposed park activities include "recreation." The complaint that any one ORV/snowmobile etc. doesn't result in "much" damage is moot when we look at the sheer volume of vehicles. I won't support expansion for this type of vehicle use. Indeed, unless its proven sustainable, I'd be cautious about approving these vehicles for current use limits. These are National Parks. Let's treat them that way.

I do wholeheartedly agree with you...The offroad enthusiasts have already destroyed the Mojave desert...Snowmobiles up north, jetboats in the lakes, rivers and oceans - blah blah blah...Where are we to go?

I would love to stand on the summit of Mt. McKinley. That would be an amazing thing to experience. But, unless they install an elevator :), that is something in life I will not be experiencing. But is that all bad? I admire the people who commit their time, talents and energy to achieve such a goal and I think it's great they get to reap the rewards of such an effort. I will never reap those rewards but I also didn't put in the hours and hours to achieve such a monumental task.

Now look at a more realistic scenario. There are numerous hikes I would love to take. However, I broke my leg a year ago (in Carlsbad Slaughter Cave no less...) and have some permanent damage to my leg and so now am unsure if I physically can do the Fiery Furnace hike in Arches (a hike I really would love to do) and I'm not sure I'll even attempt Slaughter Cave again - and countless other hikes I would love to do. I have physical limitations now that will prevent me from doing any number of things at the parks and everywhere else. So I absolutely do have compassion for those who can't see areas in the parks due to physical limitations. But again, I'm not sure that's all bad. I know I can't see everything in this world. Even before breaking my leg I couldn't see everything in this world. I think it's wonderful to set out on a task (at whatever level works for you) and feel the great satisfaction of achieving that goal. I hiked a few weeks ago to Emerald Lake in [Rocky Mountain National Park]. Not a long hike - a piece of cake for most people. But a real achievement for me. One I didn't know if I could ever do. And I loved it. No, I didn't see the top of Longs Peak but I saw absolutely beautiful scenery.

What I'm saying is it's ok if everything isn't a paved road for the entire world to see. See the things you can, enjoy the things you see and reap the beautiful rewards of your efforts.

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.

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)

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.

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