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