You are here

National Geographic: Over The Top?


    At least one reader thinks National Geographic's articles about national parks, particularly John Mitchell's eloquent essay, "Threatened Sanctuaries," are "over the top."
    "You often cite the statistic that 95% of Americans are satisfied with the National Parks. Are we really going to go from 95% satisfaction to wondering 'will the National Parks be there for future generations' and wondering 'will it be worth toasting the National Parks' in just 10 years from now in 2016?" comments Sabbatis."I find it difficult, no, impossible, to believe."
    Fair comment, as most of Sabbatis' are. But context is important, too.
    John Mitchell has been following the national parks for a long, long time, and has seen much evolve in these special places over not just years, but decades. His thoughts no doubt are not based solely on what transpired in the parks from 2000 to 2005.
    Keep that in mind when you read his words. While change is not so obvious close up, when viewed over the collective of 30 or 40 or 50 years, well, things stand out.

    I don't think anyone who has closely followed national parks and the issues that swirl around them for 20 years or more can doubt there are significant threats at play that, if left unchallenged, will greatly alter the parks' existence from the vision held by Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, and others who pushed through the National Park Organic Act in 1916.
    Park purists, and I'll admit I'm one, would like to see the actual "national parks," the Yellowstones, Yosemites, Sequoias and Glaciers, largely frozen in time. To be able to preserve a part of this country's natural heritage -- its dense forests, feathery waterfalls, soaring granite peaks, towering sandstone cliffs, deep and dark grottoes, stark, unforgiving dune fields, shimmering high-country lakes and all the creatures that occupy these places -- for future generations, whether they be 10 years down the road or 100, I think would not only be a magnificent thing, but one those generations would immensely appreciate.
    If it's selfish to want to retreat to a place that appears much as it did 150 years ago is selfish, well, I'll bear that criticism.
    At the same time, I'm realistic enough to understand that time can't be frozen, that as our population continues to rise there will be more demands for space, more generators of pollution, and more requests for activities in the national parks. And that's why there must be some "push back."
    Are parks truly being so trampled, as Mr. Mitchell suggests, that they might not be worth toasting in 2016? In a decade's time, probably not, but let's not deny his use of hyperbole. After all, just in the last year I've touched on the following:
    * At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the superintendent doesn't have enough money to properly maintain a collection of historically significant lighthouses;
    * In Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, rangers dressed in camos and armed with automatic weapons confront booby-trapped marijuana farms;
    * At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, similarly garbed rangers seized nearly eight tons of pot from smugglers during 2005 and arrested nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants and their "mules." Researchers are recommended to go out in the field only with armed support;
    * Yosemite Valley is a zoo at the height of summer, and Curry Village's tent camp is an insult not only to the landscape but to many of the folks who have to endure the experience for a night;
    * Sprawl around the borders of many national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and Everglades, are turning these places into biological islands that one day soon, if it's not already occurring, could jeopardize the genetic diversity of many of their terrestrial species;
    * At Cape Lookout National Seashore, park officials have permitted the use of personal watercraft inside the park's waters, even though they have studies pinpointing the threats these gas-fueled toys pose to the seashore's wildlife;
    * Air pollution is a substantial problem facing the parks today, with as many as 150 park units being located in parts of the country that "fail to meet one or more national healthy air standards";
    * Historic buildings at Gateway National Recreation Area are in danger of being turned over to a private developer because the Park Service can't afford their upkeep;
    * At Gettysburg, they've lost their preservation specialist to funding cuts;
    * On average eighty percent -- 80%!-- of an individual park's budget goes for salaries and benefits, leaving precious little for resource management, interpretation and maintenance;
    * At a time when summer time traffic jams and parking woes are commonplace in Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Rainier, Sequoia and other parks, when booking a room in a park lodge for the summer months requires making plans four or more months in advance, some in Congress think more needs to be done to boost park visitation.
    For more examples, spend some time perusing my "Plight of the Parks" archive. And remember that many of these issues arose just in the past few years, not the past decade or half-century. At this rate, I think Mr. Mitchell's question of how the parks' landscapes and experiences will appear in 2016 is a good one to ponder.
    As for the 95 percent approval rating given the Park Service that I have cited in the past, what further data I'd like to see is how many of the folks who gave their approval were visiting a national park for the very first time, or even just the tenth time? If I was visiting Yellowstone or Yosemite for the very first time, I'd no doubt come away awestruck. But over the course of time the warts become more visible, don't you think?
    The national parks protect a small slice of America's natural landscape that can't be recreated. I don't think they were intended merely to be only slightly wilder versions of New York City's Central Park. They were intended, I like to think, to capture and preserve spectacular settings and ecosystems, places we shouldn't denigrate, places we intend to hand down to future generations so they can come to understand and appreciate, if only for a long weekend, how truly magnificent nature can be.
    I fear that if we dismiss Mr. Mitchell's essay, and the above cited areas of concern, as so much alarmist over-reaction, we'll awake one day to realize we've lost something we can never get back.

       Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.

      - John Muir, "The National Parks and Forest Reservations," Sierra Club Bulletin, v. 1, no. 7, January 1896.


Sabbatis is using the 95% satisfaction figure out of context. It does not represent what the general public thinks about how our parks are doing. Instead it is a survey administered by the NPS to measure the visitor experience of the actual people who visit parks. It is one of many tools used by parks, but it doesn't ask visitors whether they mind breathing unhealthy air or enjoy being caught in traffic or waiting an hour to talk to naturalist or paying $14 for a ranger led walk. Our parks are in serious trouble for a number of reasons this website has brought attention to. Hopefully the Nat. Geo. articles will result in positive action by Congress.

Many years ago, after the famous Yosemite naturalist ranger Carl Sharsmith (deceased) gave his annual summer nature walk through Tuolumne Meadows(A Reminiscences Walk With Carl Sharsmith)you could see then the sadness in his eyes that the National Parks were slowing dying...he was right, so is essayist John G. Mitchell! Wake-up and smell the coffee,Bush,Cheney,Pombo,and the heavy laden consumptive American people...where's your soul in the National Parks or your pocketbook?

There's lots of moaning about the supposed 'dying' of the National Parks, but few suggestions as to what to do. As a frequent visitor to Yosemite, I haven't seen any infrastructure deterioration, I've seen the opposite. There's a new more beautiful approach to Yosemite falls. A new overlook is being built at Olmstead Point with private donations from the Yosemite Fund. The only thing I've seen at Yosemite to spoil the experience for the visitor is too many other visitors. Yes, the tent cabins at Curry Village are a slum, so are the Housekeeping Cabins. And, if I were the queen of Yosemite, I'd remove many of the tent cabins and all of the Housekeeping Cabins. That would leave the Ahwahnee at $400 per night and Yosemite Lodge at approx. $150 to $200. Those who couldn't afford that (let them eat cake) would just have to drive in and out to accomodations outside the valley, increasing traffic and pollution. (And yes, I'm being sarcastic) but isn't that what would happen? So no, I don't think that Yosemite is dying. It's overloved. (Each park has a separate set of issues and really have to be dealt with and discussed separately. Don't get me started on illegal immigration and Organ Pipe Cactus and the murder of the ranger down there).

We also need to consider how our National Parks stack up against the parks (or the lack thereof) in the rest of the world. If Mt. Whitney were in Europe, for example, there would be a funicular railway to the restaurant/bar on top. (These sorts of establishments crown every mountaintop in the Alps. Not exactly a wilderness experience). In Asia and Africa, wildlife are hunted for quack remedies for male impotence and other maladies and the governments do little to stop it. By comparison, the United States tops the world in the protection of natural areas.

Kath,take a good look at the big picture of Yosemite, not a small microcosm of the Park that suits your eyes, but a sincere holistic overview of it's lacking resources that's leading to it's demise.

Kath,take a good look at the big picture of Yosemite, not a small microcosm of the Park that suits your eyes, but a sincere holistic overview of it's lacking resources that's leading to it's demise.

Snow Bird, Specific examples please. I honestly don't know what a 'holistic overview of it's lacking resources' refers to. Roads? Trails? Ranger programs? What?

Some really amazing opinions stated here. As for Yosemite about 80% of Yosemite is not accessible by any other means than hiking. I would venture to say that those wilderness areas are pretty pristine rather than trampled by the footprint left by humans. Speaking of that footprint, the Yosemite Valey Plan was adopted to REDUCE the human footprint (even limit visitation) because of the sustainability of the resources. The unfortunate truth is the eco-freaks have fought this plan so hard that it is now caught up in litigation and additional $tudies. Litigation and redundant $tudies cost big bucks.I have a hard time beliving that 80% of Yosemite's budget goes to salaries. The park cannot even support lifting employees pay structure to equal that of the Bay area (cost approx $275k) Yosemite is not considered a high cost of living area. Yosemite has a base budget of 23 million plus and that does not include program money and the Yosemite Fund which may nearly double the base. Another problem I have is the visitor survey mentioned above. These surveys are developed and distributed independently (by a University...I'm guessing they are pretty liberal as most Universities are). Individual Parks have no control over their content or distribution but they do benefit from their results.

Add comment

You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide