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.