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Uncertain Path: A Search For The Future of National Parks

Author : William C. Tweed
Published : 2010-10-06

The National Park Service is approaching its 100th birthday in 2016 and gearing up for a series of celebrations and commemorations.  A system that began with the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the 390-plus units that now comprise the National Park System is a marvel: a political, cultural, and historic achievement that has few rivals. 

Its public face is well-known, and loved—visited by nearly 300 million people each year.  The system has endeared itself to a diverse clientele of wilderness seekers to the casual tourist.  Witnessed by the recent success of the Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, the national parks have reached a zenith in our collective consciousness that not many public places have dared to tread.

William Tweed’s new book, Uncertain Path: A Search For the Future of the National Parks, speaks quite lovingly to that ethos.  A career ranger, resource manager, and park historian, Mr. Tweed himself embodies a distinct moment in time that pays homage to his Baby-Boom roots and personifies a worldview shaped by the contradictions that formed the backbone of park policy in the late 1950s. 

Led by Conrad Wirth’s aggressive Mission 66 program, a grand plan to upgrade and update the national parks for the onslaught of post-World War II vacationers, in tandem with the release of the scathing 1963 Leopold Report and the 1964 Wilderness Act, Mr. Tweed came of age during one of the most tumultuous times in national park history.  Park Service Director Wirth’s zealous commitment to development as a response to the post-war boom juxtaposed to a growing wilderness ethic created an intellectual tug of war that inflamed the environmental movement.  Engaged by the debate over a proposal to build a dam at Echo Park at Dinosaur National Monument, the 1960s, and its cadre of vocal ecowarriors, were primed to articulate a new vision by advancing the notion that parks and their environmental health was paramount to its future survival.   

Now, after a 30-year Park Service career, Mr. Tweed once again finds himself on the precipice of dramatic change. He begins the book, ironically, on Yosemite National Park’s busy Tioga Road.  He’s en route to the John Muir Trail in preparation for an arduous multi-week backpack trip to Sequoia-Kings Canyon.  His mission this time is to reflect on his tenure in the parks and to project a vision for the future.  The challenges are daunting, much like they were in the 1960s, perhaps even more so given the global implications of climate change on park resources. Ever committed to the National Park Service Organic Act and its fundamental promise to protect parks “unimpaired,” Mr. Tweed is like a roving encyclopedia, a critical voice for park managers seeking guidance about wilderness. 

The organization of the book is perfectly in tune with Mr. Tweed and his approach to park management. Rather than pontificate behind a desk, the author instead takes to the trail with a vengeance, a foot soldier seeking to engage his audience, as he himself is engaged first-hand with the resource. 

It’s an admirable bit of travel literature, park history and philosophy.  At once an ode to a heroic time, perhaps even a lament; for Mr. Tweed is clearly concerned that wilderness use is currently on the downturn.  He takes us step-by-step through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Sierra Nevada.  His approach is reminiscent of another legendary California naturalist, Joseph LeConte, who’s famed “Ramble” in the 1870s, introduced hundreds of eager University of California-Berkeley students to these majestic mountains. 

Like a seasoned interpreter, Mr. Tweed plays the role of tour guide perfectly, stopping frequently to identify critical flora and fauna, exercising his considerable knowledge about wilderness and its remarkable role in park history.  But his casual approach and soft tenor quickly shifts to a loud scream when he starts discussing climate change and its potential to alter high country ecology. 

Of course it’s hard to project into the future, least 25-50 years into the future.  But Mr. Tweed ably lays out a scenario that is altogether immediate and devastating, a well-articulated argument that would make the most conservative skeptic stand to attention. 

This is particularly relevant when thinking about the NPS mission and its “unimpaired” clause.  Linked by global environmental currents, parks, according to Mr. Tweed, can no longer escape significant external forces that continually impair resources.  The evidence speaks for itself.  His conclusion is quite radical for an agency slow to change, but perhaps it’s high-time for the Park Service to reevaluate its mission in light of this certain inevitability. 

What to do exactly?

Mr. Tweed doesn’t know except echo what Aldo Leopold and all the other resource managers have been saying for years now: we need science, science, and more science.

As passionate as he is, Mr. Tweed can sometimes sound like an old-timer though, a weary soul who judges people and their less-than-committed outdoor habits. Not to disagree necessarily, but Mr. Tweed’s approach is sometimes off-putting, slightly too sarcastic to attract a wider audience to an otherwise necessary observation about wilderness.  In a way, he reminds me of Bill Bryson, someone who unwisely uses wit and humor to smooth over dubious behavior.

But don’t get me wrong, this is still good writing, good history, and a good book.  Mr. Tweed provides an adequate bibliography though not necessarily complete.  But certainly a reasonable amount of scholarship is interjected into his narrative.  Even so, we need books like this.  It’s relatively short, no doubt a quick read; a hybrid that mixes literary genres; one part memoir; one part history; one part advocacy. 

The book is a dense composite of a 30-year career put to excellent use, as it grapples with a park system in peril.  For the uninitiated, meaning those who appreciate wilderness but may not be familiar with its current political, scientific, or historical discourses, Uncertain Path is essential reading.  One could even say a fun read, despite its heavy message and vast implications.

Traveler Postscript: Mr. Tweed touched on many of these issues early last year when he wrote an essay for the George Wright Society.

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