I hold with Wallace Stegner that “national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, the 95-year old park system reflects us at our best rather than our worst.”
The purpose of the national parks (and really, it is a system of diverse natural cultural recreational and historic areas) have always engendered great and thoughtful debates about resource protection and human enjoyment, about where and how people should travel through parks, while leaving park resources unimpaired for generations to come. The Park Service has changed over time from Yosemite firefall spectaculars and golf courses along with bear feedings at Yellowstone to an agency staffed with scientists and resource managers, as well as rangers, interpreters, and its often unsung maintenance staff. Jon Jarvis, an old friend of mine, is the first biologically trained director of the Service.
What should we do while we are in the parks? While that is always a matter of human judgment (sometimes both comically and tragically stupid) Joseph Sax may has given us the best guidance in his book Mountains without Handrails. The contemplation and enjoyment of nature should be first, not diversions best enjoyed elsewhere. I once had the same job that Edward Abbey had at Glen Canyon National Recreation area (so I’m told) and while I might disagree a little with his belief that parks should not have cars, a drive can be slow and contemplative, not the industrial based go-go tourism that he was lamenting. That was in the 1960s. When I was a seasonal ranger, I took great delight in exploring as much as I could of the back country of Glen Canyon. But I took just as much delight talking with visitors. Something I still remember is a long evening visit with a black family from LA (and yes, that demographic is something the Park Service knows it has an issue with) talking about everything from rattlesnakes to Everett Ruess. There are a hell of a lot of former seasonals out there all across America who have done things like that in spades, longer and better than I ever did.
But 2011 raises new issues for the Park Service. There is a pretty big dust up over whether a large commercial
This is not you and I slowly riding our road bikes along the rim road; this is a large-scale commercial operation, with support vehicles, helicopters. Maybe it's not Abbey’s industrial tourism but maybe something worse: commercial money-to-be-made recreation running amuck in this case. There is nothing wrong with that sort of recreation per se, but it simply doesn’t belong in a national monument that is has been dedicated for other purposes. Local boosters, the real source of the problem, are furious and have lobbied prominent statewide officials; the local press seems awfully one sided and national sponsors may be embarrassed.
The Park Service has taken a stand and it is my belief that it has done the right and courageous thing.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
John Freemuth is a professor of political science and public policy at Boise "State" University
Image of Colorado National Monument courtesy Flickr user Mark Long.