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Forward Into The New Century

Editor's note: To conclude National Parks Traveler's Centennial Series, Editor-in-Chief Kurt Repanshek and Contributing Editor Alfred Runte offer suggestions on how to improve the National Park Service, and the National Park System, in the next 100 years.

The candles have all been blown out, the balloons popped, and nothing but crumbs are left from the many birthday cakes that marked the National Park Service’s 100th birthday. Now what?

Now it is time to restore the National Park Service into what it was always meant to be—an agency committed to protecting the crown jewels of America against anything injurious to their grandeur.

Let’s start with what we mean by crown jewels. We mean something so representative of the American wilderness everyone knows it to be representative. And truly exemplary. If its inclusion in the system has to be interminably argued, or it is repetitive, it is probably not representative or exemplary. The same criterion applies to historical sites. They indeed must be representative of the entire culture and not merely splinter groups or individuals. A presidential birthplace, for example, may be nice to have, but it hardly represents the entire culture.

There is no better time than now, with new administrations due in both the White House and the National Park Service, to lay the groundwork for the agency’s second century by making some significant, dramatic changes to how we manage, and even enjoy, our national parks. Above all, they must be national in character and not simply nice to have.

Second, what do we mean by injury—also commonly known as “threats”? We mean just that—anything that cheapens or demeans the system and forces it to part with wilderness. Once upon a time, Old Faithful Geyser was part of the Yellowstone wilderness. Well, just look at its surroundings now.

No more of that, whatever the excuse—or whatever the rationale. Yes, we want people to see the parks, but no, there is no justification for the Park Service to provide unlimited access if it cheapens or demeans the resource.

It is no longer 1872, but yes, Yellowstone National Park should look as it did in 1872. It should be wilderness and not rows of bleachers. It should be pathways and not ranks of parking lots. Obviously, the grand historical structures should remain, but again, set off by wilderness instead of asphalt. If you want to stay in Yellowstone, you should be willing to take public transportation, whatever kind is found appropriate to the resource.

As for the National Park Service itself, it should not be the nation’s chief enabler. Oh, we see that you have invented a larger mobile home. Well, come on in! No, park your rig outside. We have a shuttle bus and/or light rail system designed to protect the resource while still allowing everyone to enter the park.

It’s coming to that, and we know it’s coming, simply by the growth of world population. When Yellowstone became a park, there were 30 million people in the United States. Now it is 11 times that. As for international travel, it, too, is up enormously, in part driven by such countries as Korea, Japan, and China.

The only way to accommodate all of those visitors is by public transportation—and limits. Historically, railroad travel imposed those limits naturally, selecting for people who really wanted to see the parks. Granted, most of the earliest railroad travelers were the rich, but the discipline was no less important. Railroads committed to a community of travelers and a community experience that proved more protective of the resource.   

There is no protection in constantly rebuilding the parks to accommodate millions of people in private automobiles. Every parking lot, and every widened roadway, only makes the situation worse.

As for the National Park Service itself, it, too, needs enormous reform. It was supposed to be a faculty of educators instead of enablers; at least, that is what America’s greatest educators dreamed. Led by Joseph Grinnell at the University of California, Berkeley, they called for a “University of the Wilderness.” Visitors would hear campfire lectures and attend guided walks. They would not simply be buzzing around in their cars.

Beginning in 1920, Grinnell’s idea caught on in Yosemite and other parks. The idea is credited to Stephen T. Mather, but it was really Grinnell who saw it through. He just wouldn’t give up, and wouldn’t give in, to the notion that the national parks were just for sightseeing. In Grinnell’s estimation, they were open-air classrooms and a glorious stage for teaching Americans about wildlife and landscape.

There again, every member of the wildlife community deserved protection and respect. For example, it was Grinnell who cautioned that predator control in the national parks was both biologically untenable and unnecessary.

Against that clarity—protection and education—just look at the mess we have today.

The crescendo to the centennial has been muted by a weary, demoralized workforce, revelations of sexual harassment in at least two parks, and a celebratory campaign that has jammed the iconic parks at times with so many visitors that at least one superintendent — Dan Wenk of Yellowstone — worried about the impact on the national park experience.

Moving forward, the National Park Service needs to move a bit backwards again, starting with Joseph Grinnell. Within the national parks there is so much to be learned, so many “ologies” — from archaeology and biology to paleontology and zoology — that tomorrow’s scientists and scientific discoveries can be nurtured and cultivated from the parks’ landscapes and marinescapes. And park visitors can wonder and be amazed by these vistas and their inhabitants, plant and animal.

Simply and bluntly put, the Park Service needs to bolster its ranks of interpreters, botanists, fisheries experts, geologists, landscape architects, and even paleontologists. At last count there were fewer than a dozen full-time paleontologists in the park system, despite such fossil-rich units as Petrified Forest National ParkBadlands National ParkDinosaur National MonumentTule Springs Fossil Beds National MonumentBadlands National ParkWind Cave National ParkLava Beds National Monument, and another 200 or so units that have fossilized remains.

All these positions are significant, meaningful, and in many cases critical to a park's mission. Full-time NPS employees, not volunteers or left vacant should fill them. While the Volunteers-in-Parks program is a magnificent way to leverage the country’s knowledge base, creating more full-time jobs in the agency will bolster the Park Service's science mission and give tomorrow’s park stewards incentives to seek a Park Service career.

Restructure the Directorate

Most fundamentally, the Park Service needs a director freed of political binds, one who isn’t led by the whims, desires, and political motivations of the White House or the Interior Department, one who can truly focus on the best interests of the National Park System. 

To accomplish that, we recommend a structure similar to that of the Smithsonian Institution, where a Board of Regents helps provide oversight while the “Secretary" is in effect the CEO. Among the board members are three members of the U.S. Senate and three members of the House of Representatives. 

With other board members selected from the nation’s top universities, and even the general public, this approach to managing the National Park System’s vast holdings would have the best minds in business, academia, foundations, and those who visit the system, looking out for the best interests of the parks themselves. 

A further reform would split the National Park System into two divisions — natural resources and history. Doing so would make it easier to not only track the Park Service’s vast holdings, but allow for a management structure that plays to a unit’s needs and a manager’s strengths, be they resource- or history-driven.

Let this board and its secretary, or executive director, run the parks as best they believe they should be run, with annual reports to Congress but without the need to placate politicians. And let this board decide whether every park in the system should be in the system. If it’s too late or fractious to cull the current 413 units, at least give this authority the final say on new units outside of those designated by the president via The Antiquities Act.

Manage the People For the Parks, Not Vice Versa

Even national parks need a “timeout,” and after the past two years of record visitation it’s abundantly clear that some parks need a break from visitation. Front country areas of some parks have been pounded by feet, and by tires of visitors who see no wrong in parking in “no parking” areas. Front country campgrounds and some backcountry campsites have seen so much traffic that they are breeding grounds of dirt and dust. Facilities are weary. Wildlife has been displaced.

As difficult as it might be to initially accept, some parks need to go into rotation — some closed, most open — until these problems can be addressed. And once the vegetation has recovered, once the leaky roofs, peeling paint, creaky water systems, and pothole-dotted roads are repaired, the parks need to be managed to preserve natural conditions, not to see how many visitation records they can break.

Park managers should be given until 2020, no later, to develop hard carrying capacities for their parks. Along that line, Yosemite National Park officials and perhaps some others should follow the lead of Zion National Park and allow only those visitors with lodging reservations to drive into the Yosemite Valley. All other day-use visitors should ride a shuttle. Granted, shuttle systems aren't the perfect answer for every park, but where they make sense they should be implemented.

The Park Service long has struggled from a decentralized management style. In many ways, that should change. While there certainly are some geographically specific challenges that should be reflected in a park’s management regulations and decisions, some top-down regulations should apply throughout the system. If GlacierYosemiteGrand Teton, and Grand Canyon — among other parks— don’t permit snowmobiling, Yellowstone shouldn’t, either.

To be sure, how people see the parks is what really needs to change. They need to see them again with a sense of wonder and not simply “check them off.” In a sports stadium, we know the rules. No one asks for baseball while a football game is being played. In a national park, we need to know the rules, as well. The fundamental purpose of the national parks is preservation. No one should be asking for the conveniences of civilization simply because convenience is what they prefer. Preservation was supposed to be inconvenient. Discipline always is.

Too often in our national parks, everything revolves around the absence of discipline, led by distractions having nothing to do with nature. That was never intended, even by Stephen T. Mather and Horace Albright (though they were too accommodating of the automobile). Ultimately things got out of hand. By the 1960s, and the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service, the agency had learned how to “win” in Washington. Ask for big bucks—and tie them to development. Then the agency will be secure.

If the parks are to remain natural environments, that no longer can be the case. The security of the agency is itself best ensured by recommitting to education, interpretation, and scientific discovery.

Imagine 10,000 new interpreters with degrees in biology, history, anthropology, and archaeology. Imagine every national park with at least one scholar holding a Ph.D. in the principal specialty of that park. Who will fix the roads? Who will repair the buildings? Who will set up the new facilities for public transportation? But of course, the same people doing all of those things today, only with the emphasis back on preservation.

It is now a given of the business community that fewer people mean bigger profits. Similarly, higher education has paved the way to a huge bureaucracy by hiring part-time instructors with limited (or no) benefits. Neither approach (dare we say prejudice?) must ever be allowed inside our parks. Voluntarism only cheapens the National Park Service by denying a proper career path to the young.

The Park Service will say that volunteers strengthen the parks. In that case, the Park Service should be consistent, offering the positions of superintendent, deputy superintendent, and chief ranger to “volunteers,” as well. Ex-military officers, for example, would make excellent volunteer superintendents. But no, the penalty is laid on the future and the young denied their jobs. This must stop. If a position is worth having, it is worth paying for—and the savings made by culling the bureaucracy.

We say that 10,000 new interpretive positions, broadly defined, are worth having for the future of our parks. We say that the University of the Wilderness deserves a faculty commensurate with the value of the resource.

It’s time, nor is there any better time than when the birthday cake is settling in everyone’s stomach. And yes, some of us probably drank too much champagne. The party was grand, but now park advocates need to get back to work. What should the nation want from its national parks? We would hope again, for starters, the exuberance our forebears showed 100 years ago. “War with Switzerland!,” declared Mark Daniels of the Interior Department. No doubt, the United States won that war, proving its scenery unsurpassed in the world.

We are now left to win an even bigger war—proving we have the discipline to save more than scenery. We further have an agency to save—and a profession to save—starting with those who dedicate their lives to wilderness. No one should have to beg for the privilege of a Park Service career.

Simply, can we make the national parks, in every sense of the term, “the best idea we ever had?” If so, the definition will include the best faculty any university ever had, led by biology, geology, history, and anthropology. The public will be so informed as to be inspired. History proves that is what we wanted 100 years ago. Dare we now prove it for keeps?      

The Centennial Series Papers

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park/NPS

National Park System Expansion: Confronting A Second Century Challenge

National Parks Traveler's Centennial Series of papers and essays focused on the second century of the National Park Service brought submissions from academics, students, and professionals with ties to the parks.

The series was launched with the following paper from Robert B. Keiter, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law, University Distinguished Professor, and founding Director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.

The National Park Service Centennial in 2016 presents an important opportunity to reflect on the system’s enormous growth and change since its inception. From a mere handful of national parks scattered across the West in 1916, the system now exceeds 410 units stretching across all 50 states and covering roughly 84 million acres. It contains national parks, monuments, preserves, recreation areas, seashores, battlefields, and heritage areas along with nearly a dozen other specific designations, all deemed nationally significant enough to merit a place in the system. In 2014, Congress commendably added another seven units to the system, and the President has since added several more national monuments. These actions confirm that this revered national treasure is not complete, and raising the prospect that the centennial itself might yet see more additions to the system.

Read the essay

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park/NPS

Key Events And Legislation Of The National Park Service's First Century

Dr. Harry Butowsky, a National Park Service historian who oversaw the agency's digital library, put together the following list of key events and legislation from the first century of the National Park Service. In retirement, Dr. Butowsky has built a more powerful digital library of National Park Service history and natural resource materials at

Yellowstone National Park Act, 1872 - The Act signed into law on March 1, 1872, established the world's first true national park. It withdrew more than two million acres of the public domain in the Montana and Wyoming territories from settlement, occupancy, or sale to be "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." It placed the park under the control of the Secretary of the Interior and gave the Secretary responsibility for preserving all timber, mineral deposits, geologic wonders, and other resources within the park. The establishment of the park set a precedent for placing other natural reserves under federal jurisdiction.

Read the essay

Will Future Generations Preserve The National Parks?

Chelsea Skoject, a natural resources conservation student on track to graduate in 2017 from the University of Florida Natural Resources Conservation, explores the question of who will preserve national park landscapes in the future.

Throughout human history, most societies have believed that people and their environment should coexist and that decisions should be in tune with nature. Today, however, industrialized societies' belief systems assert humanity's dominion over nature — an attitude manifested in extensive land development and increasing urbanization that have led to widespread destruction of the natural environment.

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How Strong Is A Conservation Mandate In National Park Service Legislation?

Dr. John Lemons, Emeritus Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at the Department of Environmental Studies University of New England, takes a look at the "Meaning of National Park Service Legislation."

The nation’s first national park was founded in 1872; in 1916, Congress founded the National Park Service (NPS) to administer and manage parks. Since then, the NPS and parks have been mired in policy and management controversies.

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The National Park System In The Next Century

Noted author and conservationist George Wuerthner takes a look at how the National Park System can continue to grow in the National Park Service's second century.

America can be justly proud of many accomplishments, from its emphasis on democratic ideals to its promotion of equality and justice for all its citizens. But perhaps one of the nation’s greatest contributions to the global marketplace of ideas is the national park.

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Reading Wendell Berry In The National Parks

Jeffrey Bilbro, an assistant professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Spring Arbor University, traces the literary origins of the romantic, spiritualized view of nature that contributed to the formation of America’s National Parks.

This summer the National Park Service turns one hundred years old, and many Americans—including the presidential family—are taking summer vacations to enjoy what Wallace Stegner called America’s “best idea.” In order to better appreciate what makes our National Parks so valuable, these vacationers might want to bring along the latest book by one of Stegner’s students, Wendell Berry.

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 The Centennial Series Papers 

Reform, Don't Replace, The National Park Service

William R. Lowry, a professor at Washington University and author of Repairing Paradise, and John Freemuth, a professor at Boise State University and author of Islands Under Siege, examine how to reinvigorate, not replace, the National Park Service.

The centennial of the National Park Service is inspiring an impressive amount of soul-searching about the agency and the lands for which it is responsible. This is timely and potentially beneficial. As many analysts as well as agency employees themselves have long argued, the NPS faces serious challenges that affect the preservation and management of these precious lands. Numerous well-intentioned observers have thus suggested significant restructuring or even replacement of the agency through proposals such as privatizing the parks or transferring jurisdiction to the state level. Indeed, some prominent analysts, including some in this forum, have proposed privatizing national parks or at least managing them as franchises. 

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National Parks And The Public Sphere

Melanie Armstrong, an assistant professor at Western State Colorado University, examines how the National Park Service can provide a place where the global public can step outside the social trappings that obscure their vision in everyday life in order to address the most challenging social issues of our day.

The final program I gave as a national park ranger was a telescope program, inviting visitors to Canyonlands National Park to stay up past nightfall to see the moons of Jupiter and deep sky objects like the twisted Whirlpool Galaxy and the wispy Orion Nebula. For years, park managers had been exploring ways to showcase Canyonlands’ notably clear skies alongside the scenic views and rugged backcountry for which it was better known. National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis had called the parks to action to share the “Starry, Starry Night” with park visitors as part of the initiative to prepare the agency for its second century of stewardship.

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National Parks Are A Gift To Our Youth

Utah-based writer Frederick H. Swanson makes an argument for ensuring national parks play a role in educating, and nurturing, youth.

The slide projector whirred on the table next to my desk as Mrs. Sampson, our fourth-grade teacher, worked the balky advancement mechanism. She had purchased the Kodachromes in strips from a gift shop during her summer vacation, and the images on the screen transfixed me: vertical cliffs of white granite, waterfalls misting in midair, pine trees rising from a grassy riverbank. I had never heard of, let alone seen, such a place. The thought that I might someday visit Yosemite National Park did not enter my head at the time. All I knew was that this was a far more intriguing place than the cornfields that lay beyond my suburban Iowa home.

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Connecting Youth With National Parks And The Outdoors

Curt Buchholtz, a former National Park Service ranger and former executive director of the Rocky Mountain National Park Conservancy, writes about the role nonprofit partners and civic organizations play in getting youth attached to the out-of-doors and national parks.

During my last season as a ranger in Glacier National Park I met a man who appeared to be lost. So I asked him if he needed directions. “I’m looking for my old camp,” he explained. “I was here back in the ‘30s,” he continued. “I was working for the Cs.”

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Cholla forest, Joshua Tree National Park/Jacob Choi

Bring Relevancy To The Parks By Integrating Them In Academics

Jacob Choi, a student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, examines the problem of relevancy with the National Park System and suggests ways to make the parks relevant for younger generations.

Consider this future scenario: the desire to see the wonders of the American outdoors is considered uninteresting, unfruitful to thought, and an unproductive experience that doesn’t help with life. These thoughts are coming from the parents of the future who pass on their knowledge to their children.

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