"The chief reason so many people are fleeing the cities at every opportunity to go tramping, canoeing, skiing into the wilds is that wilderness offers a taste of adventure, a chance for the rediscovery of our ancient, preagricultural, preindustrial freedom."-- Edward Abbey, from Down The River.
It's been decades since Edward Abbey wrote those words, but they remain ever vital and pertinent today. Perhaps even more so than when he wrote them, for through the intervening years America's wild lands have faced ongoing pressures from squeezing development, fragmentation, politics, and more.
Recalling those words now, on the eve of America's Summit on National Parks, a two-day conference that opens Tuesday evening in Washington, D.C., to explore the future of the National Park System, seems only appropriate. After all, the heart and soul of the park system lie in surf-pounded beaches, snow-streaked crags, dense woodlands, and mountain meadows dappled with wildflowers. In meadows rototilled by grizzlies, forests prowled by lynx and bobcat, coastlines that are cemented into the reproductive telemetery of sea turtles, and salt marshes fished by egrets and herons. These are spectular wild lands that have tugged on those of us in search of not just what's over the next hill but, when you really get down to it, ourselves.
These are the settings that brought comfort and inspiration to Abbey, John Muir, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and so many others who set their sights on the wild lands of the National Park System and persevered to see them preserved as such forever.
Forest and desert, mountain and river, when ventured upon in primitive terms, allow us a sort of Proustian recapture, however superficial and brief, of the rich sensations of our former existence, our basic heritage of a million years of hunting, gathering, wandering. This elemental impulse still survives in our blood, nerves, dreams, and desires, suppressed but not destroyed by the mere five thousand years of agricultural serfdom, a mere two hundred years of industrial peonage, which culture has attempted to impose on what evolution designed as a feeling, thinking, liberty-loving animal. I say culture, not civilization; civilization remains the ideal, an integrated realization of our intellectual, emotional, and physical gifts which humankind as a whole has nowhere yet attained.--Ed Abbey.
Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the arrival of the parks summit was preceded by an article on Reforming Federal Land Management just published by the Cato Institute. In it, Randal O'Toole and Chris Edwards return anew to old suggestions of turning more than a few public properties over to conservation land trusts, other non-profit organizations, or even states to manage.
In addition to privatizing some parks and refuges, the federal government should identify monuments and historic sites that could be transferred to private groups. Many historic sites are already owned by nonprofit groups. Mount Vernon, Virginia, for example, is operated by a nonprofit charitable group that receives no government subsidies. By contrast, across the Potomac River in wealthy Georgetown, the NPS owns the historic Old Stone House. This is the type of federal property that is not a national jewel, and it would probably do well under private nonprofit ownership.
Yet another suggestion the two offer is to transfer to states national park properties and wildlife refuges where the majority of visitors are from in state. (And, no doubt, there are places in the country where some of the local residents would celebrate the transfer of units of the National Park System to local control.)
Though the authors point to the bureaucratic morass that revolves around the Interior and Agriculture departments in trying to make their points, they ignore the morass such a "reform" would create by multiplying the number of agencies, and, presumably, regulations, one would encounter in trying to enjoy the public lands that Congress has been given to hold in trust for us. And they fail to mention the economic woes that have struck many state park systems, such as California's, where Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to close 70 parks by July 1.
Against this backdrop, the agenda for the parks summit becomes particularly relevant, with sessions on whether national parks can Succeed in Today’s Fiscal and Political Climate?," the economic benefits of the parks, and 'new models and opportunities" for the next generation of parks.
These are all pertinent questions at a time when visitation to the parks is in slight decline, at about 279 million per year, when we worry whether younger generations will hold as dearly to the parks as did their parents and grandparents, and when questions arise over the dollar and cents value of the parks.
Just as intriguing should be the session on Connecting and Conserving Landscapes, for it perhaps is most relevant when one looks back to 1872 when Yellowstone National Park was set aside as the world's first national park. After all, the National Park Service's Organic Act clearly directs that the new agency should foremost focus on conserving "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and 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."
In this case, however, the connections and conservation are necessary in no small part to best prepare parks for coping with climate change and the impacts it is bringing, and will continue to bring, to wildlife and flora.
So many other issues pull and nag at the parks -- funding, politicians who see parklands as impediments to commerce, the role of technology, fees, and neighbors who question their management are just a few -- that a conference on the future of the National Park System and National Park Service could run a week or more.
But whether two days or two weeks, a redefined or re-emphasized role and purpose of the parks needs to materialize out of the mists of controversy. We should explore whether interpretation should be conducted techologically, as those impressed by QR codes might have us believe; whether a sense of place, or a sense of economic return, should guide the merit of a park; and whether the intrusion of fees, ranging from simply getting into a park to venturing off into its backcountry, are impeding the popularity and use of the national parks. And that's just for starters.
Perhaps, though, we're in danger of over-analyzing the parks. Perhaps Mr. Abbey had it right all along, that the purpose for places like these is simply being able to take a walk into the woods to escape, if only for a while, today's complexities.
The modern urban-industrial world-like the feudal world-offers adventure and freedom to a certain elite, the aristocracy of our time: to the rich, to the scientist, the star athlete, the big-time entertainer, the techno-warrior, the artist arrivé, the successful politician, a few others. But most, the overwhelming majority, seem condemned to the role of spectators, servitors, dependent consumers. Consider our politics, for example: the right to choose once every two or four years between Party A and Party B, Candidate C and Candidate D is a pitiful gesture in the exercise of freedom, hardly deserving of the name of citizenship.
But one exception remains to the iron rule of oligarchy. At least in America one relic of our ancient and rightful liberty has survived. And that is-a walk into the Big Woods; a journey on foot into the uninhabited interior; a voyage down the river of no return. Hunters, fisherman, hikers, climbers, white-water boatmen, red-rock explorers know what I mean. In America at least this kind of experience remains open and available to all, democratic. Little or no training is required, very little special equipment, no certification of privilege. All that is needed is normal health, the will to do it, and the modicum of courage.
It is my fear that if we allow the freedom of the hills and the last of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may die with it.--Ed Abbey.