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To Conserve Unimpaired, The Evolution Of The National Park Idea

Author : Robert B. Keiter
Published : 2013-04-09

There is no better time than now -- with the searing aspects of a shuttered National Park System still fresh -- to sit down with a copy of To Conserve Unimpaired, The Evolution Of The National Park Idea.

There is an evolution under way in the park system, one that should spur debates from coast to coast about whether it's the desired evolution. The decision by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to approve deals with the states of Utah, Arizona, New York, Colorado, and South Dakota to pay to open parks closed by the government shutdown moves the founding idea of "national parks" away from one to protect and preserve these places for the enjoyment of generations today and tomorrow closer to one foremost of being economic engines for their surrounding communities and states.

"I think that the NPS (maybe it had no choice because of DOI and other political pressure) has now set a significant precedent by accepting state/local money to keep some parks open, while not others," says Bill Wade, a Park Service retiree whose career included overseeing Shenandoah National Park as its superintendent.

"On the face, that is inconsistent and biased. Moreover, it has now made it clear that the primary purpose for parks is more for the benefit of local commercial activities than for conservation of the resources," says Mr. Wade. "I suspect that will haunt the NPS for a long time to come."

It might also provide Robert Keiter grist for another chapter to his book, which arrived earlier this year.

Professor Keiter, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law, University Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah, is no stranger to park issues. His professional career has led to many forays into the issue of how the National Park System specifically and public lands in general are managed.

Past books he's written include The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Redefining America's Wilderness Heritage, Reclaiming the Native Home of Hope: Community, Ecology, and the West, as well as Keeping Faith With Nature: Ecosystems, Democracy, and America's Public Lands, a 2003 arrival that blended history, science, law, administrative actions, and politics into a sobering examination of how we value and manage our public lands.

Professor Keiter's latest effort is a great companion to both Richard West Sellar's Preserving Nature in the National Parks, a History, and Alfred Runte's National Parks, The American Experience. Each examines the growth, and evolutions, of the national park movement as more and more political and economic pressures are heaped upon the parks' doorstep.

In his new book, the professor addresses some of the obvious evolutionary factors, such as turning the national parks into A Commerical Commodity, a chapter that goes directly to Mr. Wade's concerns.

"At the end of the day," writes Professor Keiter, "the Park Service's relationship with its concessioners and neighbors must be guided by national, not local, concerns. The public interest in nature preservation must take priority over the private interest in profit. Whatever the economic consequences, the agency's principal obligation is to safeguard park resources from adverse effects, including those that originate in concessioner-run facilities and gateway communities.

"In short, the Park Service's relationships with these neighbors must be truly bilateral; the agency's diverse partners must acknowledge that the welfare of park resources merits the same attention as the bottom line, while agency officials cannot simply ignore legitimate local concerns. Without ecologically healthy national parks, concessioners and gateweay communities would have little to sell, and the parks would lose much of their allure for visitors."

Professor Keiter also pays more than lip service to the ties parklands have with Native Americans. In the chapter on Ancestral Lands, Nature, Culture and Justice, he leads us through the history of how the connection between the parks and tribal cultures is not as well explained or promoted by the National Park Service as it could, or should, be.

"Although few people expect Native Americans to regain ownership of those ancestral lands that are now national parks, there is nonetheless an evident need for better coordination between the parks and their tribal neighbors," he tells us. "Clearly, the parks do not exist as islands but must instead be understood as part of a larger ecological and human landscape. Besides sharing common watershed, wildlife,and other valuable resources, both entities also have a common interest in the visiting public, whether for economic, educational, or other purposes.

"The emerging co-management arrangements for the proposed first tribal national park at Badlands exemplifies how such a relationship might be structured to achieve both nature and cultural conservation goals as well as new cultural educational opportunities."

To Conserve Unimpaired is a valuable addition to the personal libraries of those who follow the course of the national park movement, one that broadens our insights into how and why the parks are managed the way they are, and which points to the threats that loom in their future.

"The national parks were an aspiration in the beginning, an effort to redefine our relationship to the natural workld and to acknowledge an obligation to future generations," Professor Keiter concludes. "The unvarnished truth is that the parks will always be confronted with new demands and threats, testing our commitment to the fundamental principles underlying the hallowed notion of conserving nature in an unimpaired condition."


I've always been immensely frustrated by the attitude that the parks are there as economic engines, not as treasures in and of themselves. The Great Yellowstone Snowmobile Debate, for instance. What happened during the shutdown is just one more brick in that wall.

People who move to gateway communities to make money off of national parks need to understand that the park comes first. Or only. If you can make a living with all the rights skewed toward the park, then fine, but if you can't, go find somewhere else to make your living.

But then I've always felt it was vastly wrong that economies are set up to fail when everyone is frugal, too.

Fully agree except for the last sentence which I don't understand at all. What economies are set up to fail?

Interesting post Traveler, I think Mr. Bill Wade is right on in his comments to your article.

Maybe we should curtail the packstock expeditions run by concessionaires. Horses destroying trails and high Sierra meadows does not seem to be aligned with that "park first" concept.

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