A View From The Overlook: Nudity And The National Parks
Summer is coming in. The days are getting longer, and lake, sea, and river water are getting warmer.
This leads to a desire on the part of some national park patrons to take off their clothes and a similar number of fellow taxpayers to complain about nudity, with the hapless park ranger in the middle. This can lead to problems.
So, why do people do this?
“Because they’re depraved, left-wing libertines who probably voted for Obama!” you snort testily.
Not necessarily. Some skinny dippers are Republicans.
President Theodore Roosevelt and his favorite appointee, Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Forest Service, enjoyed swimming nude in natural pools in Washington’s heavily wooded Rock Creek. One day they invited the French ambassador to join them. The ambassador accepted the invitation. Once at the pool, the three men stripped to the buff—or almost.
President Roosevelt pointed out to the Frenchman that he had forgotten to remove his gloves.
“Mais non!” the ambassador explained. “We might meet ladies!”
A Bipartisan Affair
So, if nude bathing is a bi-partisan affair, why is it a problem in the national parks?
Well, it is perceived as prejudicial to “decency and good order” by an always vociferous and outraged percentage of park-going taxpayers. You see, among some patrons, national parks are seen as museums of public virtue as well as natural museums.
That is, the park ranger is expected to enforce the sort of public decorum that was the prevailing social code in the 1950s, if not Roosevelt’s time.
This can lead to problems. Not the least being that our easily embarrassed government has had a surprisingly difficult time in legally determining what is prurient and what is not.
Americans of a certain age can recall the less than successful literary criticism efforts of the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. Customs Service in regards to the works of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, James Joyce and others. No one, not even Supreme Court justices, could agree on what was “lewd and lascivious.”
However, literary works require a degree of imagination on the part of both writer and reader. Nudity, by definition, leaves nothing to the imagination. Therefore it should have been simple for even the dullest federal legal hack to come up with a regulation against nudity.
Apparently the task is more difficult than it looks, neighbors. The best that our bashful federal government could come up with was 36 CFR, Chapter 1, National Park Service, Part two, Resource Protection, Public Use, and Recreation.
2.34 Disorderly Conduct
a. A person commits disorderly conduct, when with intent to cause public alarm, nuisance, jeopardy, or violence, or knowingly or recklessly creating risk thereof, such person commits any of the following prohibited acts:
1. Engages in fighting, or threatening, or violent behavior.
The regulation is already broad enough to fine Jeff Davis for starting the Civil War, but we are now closing in on the nitty gritty, as in:
2. Uses language, an utterance, or gesture, or engages in an act that is obscene, physically threatening, or menacing or done in a manner that is likely to inflict injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace.
Fix that “Obscene, physically threatening, or menacing” bit in your mind’s eye; we’ll get back to it later.
3. Paragraph 3 concerns noise, which will not concern us (Unless you have a howling nude on your hands).
4. Creates or maintains a hazardous or physically offensive condition.
Now we are beginning to hit pay dirt, neighbors! Not only was he/she buck nekked to begin with, he/she refused to put on clothes and skedaddle when advised to do so by a federal peace officer!
CFR 36 and subtitles are basically what the park has to work with, unless they choose to enforce state or local regulations, which some do.
Holier Than Jarlsburg!
Now, you don’t have to be Lord Blackstone or the ACLU to figure out that these regs have more holes than Jarlsburg cheese.
Using CFR 36, the NPS is guaranteed bad publicity even if it wins the court case, as it will be denounced by the New York Times in one of its patented editorials sneering down on the grubby, small-town morality of out-of-touch federal flunkies. In addition, there will be a TV interview with Ms. Rainsong Moonglow, the defendant in the case, who will state in her best little girl voice, that there is nothing “obscene” or “menacing” or “offensive” about the human body, and she certainly did not “threaten” anyone with her nude body.
Ms. Moonglow (and her lawyers) will have a point. The whole regulation seems to imply a sort of compulsive automatic meltdown on the part of onlookers who are supposed to be “reasonably prudent” as the legal lingo goes.
So what to do? Well now, the folks over at Cape Cod National Seashore (CACO) have come up with their very own regulation (the only NPS unit to do so, by the way) that defines nudity without the pejorative sexual hysteria of CFR 36.
Cape Cod National Seashore
7.67 (e) Public nudity, including public nude bathing by any person on federal land or water within the boundaries of Cape Cod National Seashore is prohibited. Public nudity is a person’s intentional failure to cover with a fully opaque covering that person’s genitals, rectum, or female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola when in a public place.
“Public place” is any area of federal land or water within the Seashore, except the enclosed portions of bathhouses, restrooms, and public showers or other public structures designed for similar purposes, or private structures permitted within the seashore, such as trailers or tents. This regulation shall not apply to a person under ten years of age.
Well now! CACO got right to the point in defining nudity! No hysterical shilly shalling!
(I particularly liked the part about the “point immediately above the areola”; it shows the CACO lads have done some research!” Also note that there is no value judgment placed on somebody’s rectum, genitals, or breasts; there is nothing “obscene” or alarming. This omission should keep the New York Times and the local TV station at bay.
On the other hand, why not just ignore the nudes? Well, that sort of depends. If they are off on a secluded, seldom visited area of the park or beach, or a remote hot springs, there is an argument for “out of sight, out of mind.”
However, as Ranger Rick Smith, late of Yosemite, pointed out to me, sometimes there is an exhibitionistic factor involved, as at Yosemite in the '70s when “freaking out the straights” with nudity was a popular sport among some of the countercultural types of that era. Rick would patiently explain to them that Yosemite was a vast park with literally hundreds of ponds and pools where one could go naked without disturbing anyone.
When In Doubt, Ask A Ranger
I recall sitting in Rio Grande Hot Spring in Big Bend National Park one moonlit night with my good friend Mike Stafford formerly of the Martinez, California, police department (and a Theodore Roosevelt look alike!). The hot spring required a half-mile hike through the Chihuahuan desert, so it was unlikely that anyone would be bothered. Certainly none of the University of Texas kids (It was spring break), though they all seemed to have forgotten their swimsuits.
“Is this legal?” Mike asked.
Well, I didn’t know. “When in doubt, ask a ranger!” is always good advice.
So I asked the district ranger who was sitting in the pool across from me. She wasn’t wearing her badge, Stetson or anything else, but she was a woman of considerable authority.
“PJ,” she sighed, “I reckon it’s probably not, but you know, it’s about the least of the things I have to worry about!”
So, should we care? Perhaps former Park Service Director George Hartzog should have the last word.
According to Hartzog, “The fun in nearly all the recreation area parks will center on and in water. That reminds me of something that happened not long ago (July 1966) in Lake Mead National Recreation Area. On motor boat patrol one day, a young ranger passed an island on which he saw a dozen pretty girls sunning more of themselves than American custom usually approves. His duty was clear and he landed. “It turned out to be a French chorus line from a Las Vegas show,” he reported. “Despite the language barrier, I finally gathered that if they showed up for work with pale strap marks on their suntans, they would be in trouble.”
Hartzog concludes by saying, “Since no official report of the incident ever arrived on my desk, I didn’t ask how it ended."
PJ Ryan is a retired 30-year NPS veteran having served at Jewel Cave National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Navajo National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Joshua Tree National monument, John Muir NHS, Jean Lafitte NHP and the Washington Office of the NPS. You can read more of his thoughts on the parks at Thunderbear.