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Rediscovering National Parks In The Spirit Of John Muir

Author : Michael Frome
Published : 2015-06-30

Though he "retired" in 1995, Dr. Michael Frome has really never stopped writing, nor caring, about the national parks. In this, his 95th year, the distinguished journalist who has dedicated his life to conservation and parks celebrates that life and regales us with a memoir that not only looks back across the many decades of his work but which inspires us to carry that work forward.

The late Gaylord Nelson said Dr. Frome had no literary peer when it came to arguing for "a national ethic of environmental stewardship." It was Dr. Frome who stood before a distinguished audience of top National Park Service managers gathered to celebrate the agency's 75th birthday and promptly scolded them for losing sight of their mission, and who long ago warned that commercialization of the national parks will turn them into "popcorn playgrounds."

During an interview with the Traveler five years ago, just before he turned 90, Dr. Frome lamented the Park Service's drive, never so evident as it is now as we approach the agency's centennial, to build visitation as high as possible.

"Twenty years or so ago, they were talking about carrying capacity. 'Let’s determine the carrying capacity of the parks,'" he said in May 2010 during a call from the Wisconsin home in the woods he shares with his wife, June. "Now, they’re talking about, 'Let’s get more people in, so we can get more money.' The carrying capacity is out the window, so, I would say the condition of our parks has definitely gotten worse."

Dr. Frome's concerns shouldn't be taken lightly. In Rediscovering National Parks in the Spirit of John Muir, he retraces the course his life has taken as both a national park advocate and watchdog and urges us to follow his lead.

... I doubt that we shall ever see a perfect world, but we can all take heart from the spirit of our parks, joining together toward that goal. Compassion must be at the root of values; the power of human life is in emotion, in reverence and passion for the earth and its web of life. A feeling, a philosophy, and a love of earth count most. To identify with life on the green planet in all its forms, as we do in our national parks, is to celebrate human hope and human potential.

Crowds, congestion, noise, intrusions of human-made structures, and pollution of air and water all interfere with the appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment of the natural scene. To be fully enjoyed, the parks must first be fully preserved.

A slower pace expands the dimensions of time. It enables us to recognize the limitations of a fragile earth, to pledge allegiance to a green and peaceful planet, and to believe that if others do likewise and we believe strongly, we will make it happen.

Rediscovering National Parks is not simply a clarion call, (though perhaps it rightly should be) for more support and preservation of the National Park System. The autobiographical approach Dr. Frome takes with it traces his career and highlights the concerns that have risen along with it as he's explored the park system, interviewed its managers, and witnessed the commercial pressures exerted upon it.

...our national parks are undoubtedly the most popular and most loved tourist destinations in America. But, like any object of beauty, a park requires protection, with high standards of care and conservation, to sustain the qualities that make it special.

There I go again, preaching again in a memoir. But national parks should never be regarded simply as tourist attractions with dollar signs attached to them. Public recreation is a large and essential factor in contributing to the quality of American life. It serves the economy as well, but that isn't its primary purpose. Outdoor recreation spans a variety of interests, tastes and goals. Theme parks fill particular niches. So do commercial resorts and campgrounds. But public recreation areas fill a different niche, providing an antidote to urbanized living, a return to pioneer pathways, a chance to exercise the body and mind in harmony with the great outdoors. In such places, Americans learn to understand and to respect the natural environment. Historic parks maintain the opportunity for successive generations to learn firsthand about the conditions that shaped our culture. Contacts of this nature instill the vital sense of being an American.

Who else today is driving these points home so eloquently and fervently? That Dr. Frome continues to do so in his 95th year is a testament to his love of the parks. But it should also be seen as a call for us to take up his tenacious concern for the parks and carry it forward. Buy this book, read what Dr. Frome has learned over a lifetime spent in the parks, share his concerns, and aspire to make a difference.


We need more people like Michael Frome.  And at this time of centennial, we should be shouting from the rooftops the story of the conflicts built into the Enabling Act.  We are missing a wonderful opportunity to educate Americans.  Let's not just encourage them to descend upon our parks like plagues of locust.  Let's teach them how they may enjoy their parks while still PRESERVING them. 

Perhaps we really need to reach out more to a demographic that is visiting our parks in larger and larger numbers -- our Asian neighbors.  During my experiences just last week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton I witnessed what might be a cultural phenomenom.  As I joined throngs of mainly Chinese (and mainly from the mainland), I also saw a terrribly disturbing tendency as many of them left behind trails of trash. 

Four different times, I saw some of them tossing papers -- three times tissues and once a cigarette package -- onto the ground in such a manner that I wondered if there are simply no trash cans in China.  When on three occasions, I picked up the trash and took it to them trying to tell them in a nice way that it's not acceptable, I received blank looks of total incomprehension.  At West Thumb, I encountered a Chinese tour guide and asked him.  His reply was very interesting.  "Yes," he said, "I am very embarrassed by it.  I try to tell them."  Before he could say anything more, we were interrupted and I moved on.

Here's a photo from Norris.  The tea bottle was left by a Chinese visitor.  A couple of the cig butts had Chinese characters on them.

Salt Lake TV news last night reported that visitation to Utah's national parks hit new records this summer and that Chinese have become the second largest source of visitors.  And guess what?  The main thrust of the story was how many DOLLARS the parks funneled into Utah.

But the Chinese are not alone in abusing our parks.  Americans do a very good job of abusing, too.

How can we try to change this?  Are we even making any efforts in that direction as we advertise our parks?  How difficult might it be to simply add a few lines about preservation and respect to our Find Your Park ads?

In Utah, we love to hate the federal lands.  But then something like this comes along and the gummint haters kind of slink off into the shadows for awhile until the hoopla dies down.

While on the other hand, it also lends a lot of weight to Michael Frome's thesis that our parks are becoming little more than money machines.

I don't see anyone slinking off.  I see the article attributing the success to state marketing efforts and private investment.  If higher tax dollars are your goal for these lands (its not mine) who knows how much could be raised if these lands were 100% state and privately owned.  I dare guess that tax revenues per acre are far higher on private land than federal land.  But then it is easier to attack strawmen.  

What both of you are forgetting is that the national parks were "privatized" years ago. Concessionaires (private interests) reap the profits for the sake of a franchise "fee." For that fee, Uncle Sam staffs, protects, and maintains the parks, i.e., does everything that isn't profitable. Roads, power lines, sewage treatment, law enforcement, etc., etc., etc., are all the responsibility of Uncle Sam.

Park history can tell you this. If the parks were to be wholly privatized, the costs of visiting them would soar. It was that way 100 years ago. The costs of traveling by rail was steep.

What would I do, for example, if I were wearing just a business hat? At the gate, certainly no 50-foot motor home would enter for $25. I would charge $250 and up. Car tailing behind? Add another $100.

There is where your Park Service is "losing" money. It simply doesn't charge enough. Every private entity, forced now to MAINTAIN the parks, would slap the visitor with higher fees.

In the end, these are simply word games. Someone still has to pay. What Utah is really saying is that they want to mine the parks, like timber or lumps of coal. Both responsible private and public interests know better than that; why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? That said, wouldn't you like to buy the right to have the eggs for just five or six percent--for which you get a coddled goose that lays the eggs continuously? As I said, do the math.

Excellent comment, Dr. Runte.

As far as "guessing" about tax revenues being higher on private land vs public land, how good is a guess?  Except for a few places like private campgrounds or private recreation spots, I know of very, very few hunks of private land that generate ANY tax revenues other than paying property tax.  Is guessing at something like that setting up one of those straw men?

In Washington and Oregon recently, I drove for miles through forests where every road was gated off.  On each gate was a large sign that read something like: " XYZ Lumber Company.  PRIVATE - NO TRESPASSING."  Besides locking the land away from public use, I wonder how much revenue those private lands produce between timber harvests which take place very sixty to seventy years.  And even then, there are probably enough government subsidies in the form of tax breaks that they produce little revenue for the state.  Kind of like Utah's virtually non-existent severance taxes on oil and coal.  (In fiscal year 2011, Utah's income from oil and coal taxes was $0 while other states around us were adding millions to their state's coffers. )

Washington does have a 5% tax on harvested timber.  But timber lands are excluded from property taxation.  That began in 1971.  The question I couldn't find an answer to is whether the previous property tax produced more or less revenue than the current 5% imposed on harvested timber.

I know of very, very few hunks of private land that generate ANY tax revenues other than paying property tax.

Really?  What does Disneyland generate in taxes.  How about Manhatten or any other major city dominated by private land ownership?  Tell us about Park City, Breckenridge, Tahoe ...... Taxes generated from public land are a minor fraction of those from private land.  

I would have to do the research, EC, but I would bet that Disneyland's argument goes something like this: Given all of the jobs we generate, our property taxes should be low. Here in Seattle, that argument has put millions into the pockets of every developer while sticking the tax burden on the middle class. Next up for the voters: A $930 million transportation bond issue floated by those same developers. Oh, but we'll give you 150 blocks of new sidewalks! Get it? I am supposed to think 150. However, with 20 blocks to the mile, that is just seven and a half miles of new sidewalks in a city absent 1000 miles. And they don't promise they will do BOTH sides of the street.

My privatization argument goes something like this. You get to pocket the profits, but you also get the costs. This is to explain why I never lose sleep over any privatization argument affecting the national parks. The railroads were the last to take on the full obligation; no one wants it now. The railroads were also the last to see the parks as loss-leaders, profiting from businesses outside the parks--namely train travel. They didn't need to profit by stuffing the parks with gimmicks or crappy souvenirs. Or hordes of visitors from Third World countries throwing their candy wrappers on the ground.

Instead, they sold train travel to the wealthy, and that virtually paid for it all. Now, every airplane in the country looks like a Greyhound bus, and again, the profit is squeezed from inside the parks.

One day that will end. Meanwhile, visitation is getting out of hand--again. We do need higher prices for certain behaviors. Otherwise, here in Seattle, I can't wait to see what happens in November when we vote for all those sidewalks. God, they're getting expensive at $150 million a mile!

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