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Have National Parks Become Passe?


    Has the national park system lost its relevancy? That largely is a rhetorical question. Of course it hasn't. Not exactly. But how we view the national parks does indeed seem to be changing, and I fear that's not such a good thing.
    Step back for a minute and take an objective look around. On these pages banter in recent months has gotten quite acrimonious on such issues as whether motorized rec is a good thing in the parks, whether you should be able to carry a concealed weapon in the parks, and whether religious points of view should dare to take up space on bookshelves in the gift shops.
    If you've visited Gadling in recent days, you know one of its bloggers has been smitten by "the sky is falling" syndrome that's been spread the past year or so over national park visitation. Never mind that in 2005 some 274 million visitors were counted in the park system.   How many are too many? Is that a question we're afraid to ask?
    What I fear is that beneath this chatter we're losing our collective mindset of the significance and vision of the national parks movement. Perhaps it's already been lost.

    I'm not alone in this concern. Jeremy at Park Remark has cobbled for debate a short list of the top three threats facing the national park system while my favorite gadfly, Jim MacDonald, is waxing about the wolf at the door -- privatization -- that threatens Yellowstone. At Wild Wilderness, Scott Silver also drives that point home, in a most personal demonstration.
    And yet we seem to get caught up not in the threats to the parks, not in concern over their upkeep, not in their underfunding, but rather in a slackening of crowds, in why motorized recreation isn't given unfettered access to all of our public lands, and in diverging views of life itself.
    Eighty-two years ago Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, in two sentences succinctly summed up the fledgling agency's mission:
    "The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks and national monuments under its jurisdiction and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done in view of the fact that access to them must be provided in order that they may be used and enjoyed. All other activities of the bureau must be secondary (but not incidental) to this fundamental function relating to care and protection of all areas subject to its control."
    I would hope that those two sentences would ring as true today as they did when Mather first gave them life in February 1925. Instead, though, I fear they have become overburdened and weighed down these past eight decades by the hubris of self-gratification, of our society's over-sized capitalistic appetite, of our unquenchable litigious appetite for righting things we perceive to be wrong, not that actually are wrong.
    I too would hope that Mather's words still would carry an inherent responsibility within the federal government to faithfully and sufficiently maintain the national park system, not to let units wither on the vine as some tainted grapes because they incur the costs of maintenance and operation so that "they may be used and enjoyed."
    That, of course, is not the case. The National Park Service is billions of dollars in the hole when it comes to maintenance, and its annual shortfall is somewhere around $800 million. And yet folks argue over visitation levels, over motorized recreation access, over an obscure book that has been vaulted to prominence, momentarily for sure, because of the words on its pages.
    In his list of the top three threats to the national park system, Jeremy cites 1) "massive disinterest" by the general public, as he infers through dwindling visitation; 2) the threat of privatization, and; 3) motorized recreation.
    Good points, all, but as I commented on his site I fear a greater threat is that which I broached early on in this post: that we our losing our collective mindset of the significance and vision of the national parks movement.
    I continue to believe the fears over visitation are overblown. As I noted last April, 2005 recreation visitation across the system totaled 273.5 million. True, that was a slight drop from 2004's 276.9 million visitors, but it was a 7.5 million increase from 2003's total of 266 million.
    And surely 2005's total would have surpassed 2004's number had hurricanes not dropped visitation to Gulf Islands National Seashore by some 2.5 million and had international visitation to the U.S. not been at or near a record low.
    Too, simply because a person hasn't visited a national park, does that lessen their desire to see that park exist? I have yet to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but am glad it exists and think a horrible mistake would be made to salt its surface with drilling rigs.
    And, really, wouldn't it be a delight to visit Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone in the high season and not have to endure traffic jams or time-sapping hunts for parking? That seems to be the thinking of Ranger X, who on his
"Without a Park to Range" blog you'll find an entirely different spin on declining visitation levels at Yosemite as he argues that, hey, perhaps fewer people in the parks isn't such a bad thing.
    Privatization is a concern, because of the baggage it carries in the potential of pricing these magnificent places out of reach of some Americans and of cluttering their vistas with commercials. So, too, is motorized recreation for the pollution it spreads and the damage it can exact if not properly controlled.
    But if we lose sight of Mather's words, then we've already lost the war and all these other debates and discussions are simply a practice in dividing the spoils. 


Kurt, your comments are well taken and most sobering that it should provoke a response from every park lover in the United States...perhaps aboard. I agree, the vision of Stephen Mather has lost it soul purpose what the National Parks should be today. The National Parks are no longer the "crown jewels" of this country, but a crown door mat for a society that wipes it feet into the parks, and leaves with very little comprehension about it's arduous journey how it became established...and what it's soul purpose and intent was to be. Who's fault is that? We don't teach are children the importance, or the respect for are natural resources or it's heritage. We don't even emphasize enough to are children the importance of good physical conditioning so that they can hike and enjoy the great outdoors. We are a fat lazy sedated culture that rather sit in a OVR vehicle, then hike through the wilderness and learn something profound and beautiful about nature. I would advocate teaching are youth that there's more to life then sitting in front of a computer burning their eyes out, instead should be burning their eyes out looking across the peaks of Yosemite...and hiking it's majestic miles of beauty. Now, that's vision!

A nephew is never without the "10 Essentials" since reading "My Side of the Mountain" Another watches "Animal Planet" worrying about the Panda's habitat. Santa gave nephew number 3 a copy of "My Side of the Mountain." He is researching Alaska for an adventure. A niece is scrambling up rock walls following (and scaring) mom and dad. Give these kids today an inch and they think they’re rulers. I can see them now with they’re kids wandering away from the car, through a young forest that is taking over a decrepit “visitor’s center” towards the canyons edge… “ …adventure, without regard to prudence, profit, self – improvement, learning or any other serious thing.” -Aldo Leopold-

When folks are forced to ride shuttles and busses and sit next to and smell the awful body-odor stench of unbathed hippies/leftists, they will stay away. I have also talked to many people where I live who say that they wouldn't mind the parks sold to the highest bidder because they can't get into the park anymore because existing roads have been closed and turned to trails by treehuggers. We Americans are blessed to have the luxurious autos and SUVs of today and we prefer them (which also carry our day's needs)over a smelly bus full of smelly people. On a light note: When I am asked by a tree-huggin' liberal why I have that "big, gas-guzzling" SUV, I say slowly with emphasis: really makes 'em angry *snicker*! LOL!

Hey Snowbird...I bet you eat your share of Big Macs!! LOL!!!

Hey Snowbird...what's an "OVR vehicle"??? Dontcha mean ORV...Off Road Vehicle?? Get your terms straight if you're gonna trash talk. ...and why are you so angry?? All your posts are so angry! Have some peace and tolerance!

Dear Mustang Sally: Not angry! I just have alot of fire in the belly and compassion to save a few precious things that your grandchildren can enjoy, like a National Park system that can fulfill it's responsibilties to it's visitors which has been mandated by Congress...not to be run on chicken feed. Sally, I really feel sorry for you. You know why? It's because, I believe your afraid that there's some beautiful hippies, or liberals out there that can teach you a few things, like loving the environment more and less your SUV. Talk about tolerance, look who's being a hypocrite! Trash talking about those who wish not to live inside a gasoline can. Really Sally, there's some very clean and decent, law abiding liberal hippies out there that are model citizens that can, and do tolerate ultra right wing whacko's like you. Peace to you baby!

Hey Kurt-- It has been years since I have heard anti-hippie rhetoric like that coming from Sally. It makes you long for the good old days, doesn't it? Back then, everyone with longer hair was a nature-loving liberal. Sounds like Sally is tracking down the same path. By God, we ought to close those parks to people who hike, ride shuttle buses, and hug trees. Then real Americans could use our parks.

Rick, my lost soul brother. Yap! back in those day's Rick, I wore Jesus boots and had long hair while suantering through the mighty Sierra's. Damn, I miss those day's! Oh, yes Sally, and I wasn't on dope either...didn't have to be with all that clean mountain air.

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