There are across the National Park System countless wonders to behold. From glacier-veiled mountains and sizzling mudpots to underground lakes and rare artifacts of the nation's founding history, the park system is an invaluable trove of U.S. history and prehistory set against majestic, soaring landscapes. There are pockets of wildlife similar to those confronted by the earliest explorers, primeval forests, sparkling high country lakes, and dazzling blue oceans.
These incalculable treasures are what most come to mind when the centennial of the National Park Service is broached. As well they should be. The value of the Park Service as caretakers of these wonders shouldn't be underestimated. But the men and women who wear the green and gray are the supporting cast, not the main attraction, in the parks. While they definitely deserve better pay and a more rewarding work environment, protections for the parks shouldn't be ignored in the name of unbridled visitation. They lend so much to the country with their landmarks and touchstones, and for contributing to personal growth.
Stand atop the Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park, and it's possible your ambition will grow to stand atop Mount Rainier or even Denali, the highest mountain in the United States at 20,322 feet. Spend a weekend backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Shenandoah National Park, and thru-hiking the Appalachian National Scenic Trail becomes tempting. Gaze at General Washington's writing desk, equipped still with quill pen, at Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey, and the temptation is to dive deeper into U.S. history in places called Appomattox and Fort Clatsop.
America is blessed with an abundance of shrines to history and nature, to courage and perseverance. Places to immerse yourself in nature, for great introspection, to build great camaraderie.
But in this, the 100th year of the National Park Service, we need to challenge ourselves and ask if the national park ideal is being truly honored, or overrun? Politics are infringing on NPS management, climate change is presenting scenarios that test management practices and ability to respond, managers are being pressured to allow activities that stray from the guiding principles and policies of the agency, and visitation is straining not only park human resources and impacting natural resources, but at more and more times affecting one's ability to truly enjoy the "national park experience."
The Find Your Park campaign likely played a significant role behind the record visitation the National Park System experienced in 2015. But is it also responsible for the change in how some parks are being experienced? During the busy summer season, crowds washed over many parks, seemingly pushing them to capacity, and leading superintendents to wonder exactly what that capacity is. Is it a good thing to bring more visitors into the parks if those visitors result in long entrance-gate delays, crowded front-country attractions, and more stress not only for Park Service employees but also for those who head to the parks to relieve their stress?
As park managers seek more law enforcement rangers to deal with the myriad issues these crowds bring into the parks, how is that affecting the ranks of interpretive rangers to help visitors understand and enjoy the parks? Will the new FY2016 budget for the Park Service, which included a relatively sizeable increase in discretionary funds, enable parks to hire more seasonal rangers to interact with visitors?
"We have been visiting national parks for last 12 years, and seen so much change especially after digital cameras and smart phones, people simply don't pause to enjoy the view," Sarvinder Kaur wrote in a post on Traveler's Facebook page. "They just want to get the photos. In the process, if they happen to walk on 'don't walk' areas, they simply don't care. We just came back from Death Valley. Boy! The majority of visitors were loud, ignorant, and self-absorbed. It was a freaking show around every place where the cars can reach."
Karen Brown added in another comment on that post that, "As a former park manager, I support educating the public in as many ways as possible. Fully funding the interpretive programs will give more people access to ranger-led programs. If we want people to respect the parks we have to instill a sense of ownership and stewardship in every visitor."
More than a few times over the decades the lament that "our parks are being loved to death" has been voiced. With promotions around the Park Service's centennial year going to continue in the coming months, and visitation expected to continue to rise, how will the park experience continue to evolve? What will the park system look like in another 100 years? What do we want it to look like?