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Give Us A National Park, But Please, Not Its Regulations


Who wouldn't love to have Yellowstone, or Cape Hatteras, or the Grand Canyon as their backyard? But those pesky rules and regulations....Top photo by Kurt Repanshek, bottom to NPS.

We love our national parks. We love the wildlife they hold, the seashores with their sparkling sands, the forests with their wildlife and hiking trails, the soaring red-rock cliffs and plunging canyons.

But please, don't ask us to abide by their regulations.

Uproars over managing off-road vehicles in both Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Big Cypress National Preserve, the oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore, air traffic over Grand Canyon National Park, snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, and now bike races in Colorado National Monument all seem to drive home that point, no?

There are other examples, to be sure, whether you point to non-native fish being stocked in North Cascades National Park, off-road routes in the crooks and crannies of Death Valley National Park, or climbing fees being raised at Denali and Mount Rainier national parks so the Park Service can afford its climbing programs.

There's an interesting conundrum at play, don't you think? Congressional representatives and states clamor for a unit of the National Park System in their backyards, both for the preservation they bring and the economic boost they can provide. But after the ink is dry on the enabling legislation, those pesky regulatory details can be downright breath-taking, and not in the same manner as Yellowstone's Lower Falls.

* In North Carolina, the idea of Cape Hatteras being the country's first national seashore was applauded, as was the National Park Service's agreement to artificially maintain Highway 12. But what's this about seasonally blocking some access due to nesting birds and turtles?!?

* Yellowstone is beloved by Wyomingites, Montanans, and Idahoans, all who rightfully take pride in laying claim to the world's first national park. Just don't too loudly raise the issue of where or how you can snowmobile in the park, delve into the wolf recovery program, or mention bison, unless you're ordering a cut for dinner.

* Grand Canyon National Park was a god-send for northern Arizona, a hot, arid place in summer where the park's lure contributes significantly to the local economy. But now some air-tour operators are complaining that the Park Service's efforts to restore natural quiet to the canyon, something that no doubt helped lure many of those visitors, could put them out of business.

* At Big Cypress, never mind that the Florida panther, arguably the most-endangered mammal in North America, is a tail's length away from extinction. Swamp buggies are needed to pierce the dense undergrowth and boggy sections of the preserve for hunters, anglers, and wildlife viewers.

* And at Point Reyes, the tastiness of a farmed Pacific oyster is the cause célèbre in a battle over wilderness designation.

Never mind that there is better snowmobiling in the national forests surrounding Yellowstone than in the park itself; that the fishing off Cape Hatteras is better in fall, outside of the plover and sea turtle nesting seasons, than during the height of summer; that Drakes Estero isn't the only place to farm oysters in California (Tomales Bay oysters, anyone?); that there already are off-road vehicle routes elsewhere in Big Cypress; or that the Grand Canyon planners believe they have a system that will allow for 8,000 more flights a year that currently being flown while also reducing noise in the park.

No, those are all beside the point to some.

Of course, the National Park Service has no other choice but to uphold its regulations. And foremost among them is the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, a legendary work of conservation foresight that specifically directed the Park Service to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein ..."

Of course, there are those who are quick to point to the second half of that sentence, the part that also directs the Park Service to "provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

But as the late historian Robin Winks, who scrutinized the Organic Act to accurately interpret its intent, pointed out, the intent of the framers of the Act clearly was to place preservation of the resources above recreation.

The National Park Service was enjoined by that act, and the mission placed upon the Service was reinforced by subsequent acts, to conserve the scenic, natural, and historic resources, and the wild life found in conjunction with those resources, in the units of the National Park System in such a way as to leave them unimpaired; this mission had and has precedence over providing means of access, if those means impair the resources, however much access may add to the enjoyment of future generations.

Not impressed by Professor Winks' academic approach? Then know that federal courts have ruled more than once that preservation of the resources is the prime directive for the National Park Service.

In a case that arose 1986, for instance, National Rifle Association vs. Potter, a federal district court ruled that the Organic Act gives the Park Service "but a single purpose, namely, conservation."

Ten years later, in 1996, in Bicycle Trails Council vs. Babbitt, not only did the appellate court agree that preservation comes foremost for the Park Service, but it also ruled that the name of a unit of the National Park System -- in other words, whether the unit in question was a "national park" or "national seashore" or "national recreation area" -- did not alter that mandate. That ruling came after the court reviewed the 1970 General Authorities Act and the 1978 Redwood Amendment.

So what's the solution? Should states retake the national parks? Should Florida reclaim the Addition lands of Big Cypress, as one reader noted it could readily do? Should the "national seashore" tag be removed from either Cape Hatteras or Point Reyes? The locals are the ones seemingly most rankled by the regulations, and some outwardly maintain they could do a better job of managing the parks.

Of course, affording them is another question, as many states are finding it difficult to maintain their state parks. But that's part and parcel of deciding how to manage them, no?

Should the National Park Service Organic Act, that dusty, 95-year-old piece of legislation that gave the Park Service its marching orders, be gutted? Why not just take away that first part about conservation (which many have interpreted to mean 'preservation') and focus on enjoying them? And not for future generations, but right now!

Surely, by doing so free enterprise could be unleashed on the parks for hunters, anglers, off-road enthusiasts, snowmobilers, personal water craft owners, and who knows what other commercial enterprises that currently are shut out. True, that "national park" logo that comes in so handy with marketing would be lost, along with possibly millions of tourists who focus on "national parks," but that would solve some of the crowding issues in the campgrounds and moving about the beaches, no?

And no doubt some of the current open space could be done away with -- forests cut down, meadows plowed smooth, and asphalt laid hot and gleaming -- to make way for more lodges and restaurants and parking lots. That might detract a little from some of these places, but at least the Park Service wouldn't be around to police its regulations.

Perhaps the colonies should take a cue from the English, who have created a park system in which "(P)eople live and work in the National Parks and the farms, villages and towns are protected along with the landscape and wildlife."

But then, the concept of the American National Park System would be lessened, if not outright tarnished, no?

Though the above was typed only half-seriously, how should some of the issues raised by the vocal minorities that are complaining about how the national parks are being run be addressed? Should they just be dismissed as the rantings of local minorities, who in turn should be reminded that these are indeed "national" parks and not local playgrounds? Or should there be a serious reappraisal of some basic ground rules? After all, many of these locals moved to their present locations because they loved the parks and wanted to be close to them. But then, in some cases, lawsuits and regulatory changes followed them.

How seriously should the Endangered Species Act be taken? Wasn't it rampant development and sprawl that forced many of the listed plants, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, etc. into the dire plights they face today? And how vital is The Wilderness Act? Do we need it to preserve and maintain our wide-open expanses?

In the end, I suppose such questions hinge on whether we believe we should leave our grandchildren photos of Florida panthers and Ivory-billed woodpeckers and grizzly bears...or the real thing.

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I am a strong advocate for upgrading the Pinelands National Preserve to a National Park. Should this happen, a way of life for many people will change forever given current regulations. Off-road vehicles, hunting, fishing, road access, and many other things would be affected, things that have been taken forgranted for perhaps hundreds of years.

The question that we must pose, perhaps impose upon ourselves is this - is a way of life worth sacrificing for life itself? I think it is much easier to change a lifestyle than it is to alter the course of nature to suit ourselves in the short term. In most cases that I am familiar with, the latter always results in negative impacts that cannot be anticipated. Nature is just too unpredictable.

This battle has been going on since the flooding of the valley in Yosemite. Not only did that act take away a way of life for many people, some say it also took the life of John Muir. Others say the sacrifice was worth the enhanced lives of the people of San Francisco as a result of a new fresh water supply.

I would argue that the latter was not a question of life, but of lifestyle. Life resides solely in nature. We humans are the only beings who have the brains, the soul, and the spirit to live within nature or to fight it. Sadly, most of us have lost our powers of created dominion and substituted our personal destinies in favor of the greater good.

Take away the snowmobiles, SUVs, ATVs, access, and any other thing that impedes the natural ebb and flow of nature in her own course. The result will be sustenance and provision for people for generations to come -if we will just leave it alone.

This article points out these items and selects certain activities to exploit. If one really feels like we are ruining the park systems by allowing these types of access then why is building bridges, walkways, parking areas, bathrooms, and several other permanent structures allowed to sustain pedestrians?

The real question is at what level is access unacceptable. I drive on the beaches of Cape Hatteras and yet you cannot find a mark I have left. Millions hike on and maintain trails that can be seen with the naked eye. Why is a bare dirt trail 3 feet wide with stone signage acceptable under the same rules you state for off road vehicles. Does this not cause erosion, create runoff of an unnatural sort, does this not promote destruction even though to a lesser extent?

"In the end, I suppose such questions hinge on whether we believe we should leave our grandchildren photos of Florida panthers and Ivory-billed woodpeckers and grizzly bears...or the real thing."

You need to add to this statement to make it true. I will suggest the following... "or the real thing... that they cannot possibly see from the edges of the park. So the pictures are the only way they can see them."

Oh that is right we can see them if we choose recreation that is pigeonholed into what is acceptable by a few and spend thousands of dollars on equipment and go against why we came there in the first place.

My 6 year old son specifically asked to see the bird that closes down the areas of Cape Hatteras each year he remembers before this happened. My answer was that we do not have the funds to purchase a spotting scope capable of doing this and afford to stay at the beach. He then with his infinite wisdom states well lets look one up on the internet...

"Take away the snowmobiles, SUVs, ATVs, access, and any other thing that impedes the natural ebb and flow of nature in her own course. The result will be sustenance and provision for people for generations to come -if we will just leave it alone."

You must watch life after people (Great Show)... I agree but with one difference take away all access if you wish to really save these areas. Put restricting the pedestrian access on the agenda as much as the non pedestrian access and see how many people who access the parks support you then.

No controversy here, LOL.

The attempt by some to separate themselves from human behavior to "protect" nature is surely an interesting thing to watch. It really isn't a healthy avocation although it does give one the feeling of supremacy but often unhappiness in the end. Personal bias, anti-social, personal gain, government dependance, inability to relate to private sector ambitions and achievements while fully utilizing their comforts. The denying of cultural and historical records to pursue new cultural hoola hoop preferences that detach even more while avoiding the supremely humbling experiences that really define the greatest generation. Denigrating their father's and/or grandfather's challenges and achievements. Roll all this in with government and politics that ignore or attempt to deceive with comforting altruistic wordage and you have something pretty interesting.

These great places have the capacity to heal and restore us and that should be a realization that should be given equal footing with
protection of a resource, equal footing. Surprising lessons could be learned. I recognize the difficulty for those responsible for the decisions and pray that they find the wisdom...

I'm with Abbey- close national parks, seashores, monuments, and preserves to all motorized traffic (including cars). Plenty of national forest and blm land for everyone to enjoy however they wish, but some places should be unspoiled and preserved in their natural state for future generations. We're not doing enough to make that happen.


I have only one thing to say because this article covers way to much territory, varying circumstances and period of time in which conversation flowed and promises were made (wether literal or implied).

If the tables were turned and the free and open access contengent were given free run of the parks, wilderness and recreation areas, I for one would be a strong advocate for the conservation and preservation of the resources involved. That would be the easiest thing I would ever have to do because I believe I have already been doing that my entire life. The Plovers, Turtles, Panthers as well as most all creatures would have my attention because they always have.
What makes anyone think that the free and open access contengent cannot be instrumental in doing what is good for the parks, wilderness and recreation areas without giving up the way in which they access and use portions of these areas. As long as there are two or more people using the parks, I guess there will be two or more theories as to what everyone should or shouldn't be allowed to do. It just seems in this case, one is open minded and willing to negotiate a suitable compromise and the other is 'my way or no way'. One can do nothing right and the other can do nothing wrong. One thing I learned early on is that no one is right all the time. But I wouldn't even try to tell some people that.

Ron (obxguys)

This is a very interesting discussion that goes to the core of the dilemma found in the mission of the National Park Service. Most of the issues and complaints about regulations in parks come from local people attempting to make a living off of the park. I do not begrudge them their livelihood, but how many National Parks have economic development in their enabling legislation? Is that why we have parks?

This reminds me of a situation I faced as a District Ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The National Park Service purchased over 3,000 acres of land that directly adjoined the Park for the protection of the Appalachian Trail. In the mid 1980s the plan was for the property to be managed by AT volunteers. The trail community did not want park rangers on the lands enforcing regulations. The idea was that this would be a protected corridor for the Appalachian Trail but free of National Park Service enforcement. Orders for my staff and I were to stay off this Park Service property. Once hikers were confronted by aggressive armed hunters, ATV's running through trout streams and the trail caused damaging erosion, trees were cut along the boundaries to expand yards and for firewood, and trash built up in illegal campsites the volunteers, State Officials in Richmond, Va, and the then Appalachian Trail Conference Office came to me demanding that the park rangers from The Blue Ridge Parkway do something about the threats to visitors and resources on these lands purchased so they would have National Park protection. We did step in and detailed additional rangers to the area to gain some level of compliance for resource protection. Today a written agreement provides for the Blue Ridge Parkway's rangers to provide law enforcement, fire, and search and rescue response to this area.

Although this may not have been as dramatic an example as the situations outlined in the original article, it does illustrate what happens in a National Park Service area that is not subject to regulations and enforcement. Unfortunately, National Park designation does not come with an automatic sense of respect from everyone. In an ideal world all people would hold sacred a special place that has been set aside for protection and preservation. In our world this does not happen. There are always those who do not see the impact of their own actions and are more concerned with their immediate gratification. Everyday it is a struggle and challenge for park managers to find balance between permitting access and public use of areas and conserving those same resources so they will be around in the future. In many instances such as with the Piping Plovers at Cape Hatteras, courts step in and order the National Park Service to take stronger steps to protect natural and cultural resources.

I know that I am biased after more than 32 years as a National Park Ranger, but I would rather see my parks over regulated so I know they will be there for my grandchildren and their grandchildren.

When the regs don't make sense, why should we? Lets say you want to burn wood found on the beach, the Park says its ok. Great. Lets say you like one piece of driftwood, and you decide not to burn it and you want to put it on your mantel. No way, its against the rules. Silly, Lame, Stupid!

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