Rethinking national parks and wilderness

Review of Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks

  • Due East from Moro Rock.

    Matthew Rangel

Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks
William C. Tweed
236 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of California Press, 2010.

William Tweed's elegant and thoughtful book, Uncertain Path, is a welcome -- and long overdue -- call for a fundamental redefinition of the National Park Service's core mission and management goals. As a longtime naturalist and historian at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, Tweed revisits the John Muir Trail, hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to Sequoia. Along the way, he muses on the Park Service's history as well as the long environmentalist fight to protect wilderness and the implications it holds for the future. He deftly weaves together his own personal journey of rediscovery with management recommendations to form a powerful and intimate book that every park-goer and public-land manager should read.

With climate change already bringing ecological shifts to the High Sierra he loves, Tweed suggests how park management should respond to evolving ecosystems and shifting public expectations. The Park Service must learn to accommodate change, he forcefully declares. It's no longer enough to just preserve parks as islands of stability: "Today, the idea that parks can protect forever everything significant within their boundaries reflects a mind-set somewhere between denial and fantasy."

Threaded less directly through the book is recognition of the fact that this idea has always been fantasy -- that preservation itself causes change. The removal of Native peoples and their active landscape manipulations from parks was just the start of the many transformations wrought by park management. Photographs of Yosemite Valley from 1864 to the 1930s to 2010 reveal substantial ecological shifts, from open oak woodlands to closed coniferous forest. Anthropogenic change is not something new to the Sierra, brought on entirely by climate change or air pollution drifting in from the Central Valley's exploding development; anthropogenic change, through inhabitation and then park management practices, has constantly been reshaping these places.

Tweed also explores the inherent contradictions of designated wilderness -- places defined by the absence of people yet managed for their use. His descriptions of trail building and maintenance using power tools, explosives and the occasional helicopter emphasize that trails are human-made: "Few Muir Trail travelers question these trails, yet those who seek true wildness must admit that constructed trails dilute wilderness." His journey down the spine of the Sierra highlights the quandary of managing places that are idealized as unmanaged and wild, yet often support substantial numbers of people -- creating demands on these lands that Park Service management must also address.

As he traverses remote segments of the Muir Trail, Tweed also considers wilderness demographics, noting that virtually everyone he encounters in the backcountry is an Anglo baby boomer, while ethnic and age diversity increases dramatically near day-use areas. Oddly, he does not extend his recommendations for modifying park management to addressing this lack of diversity. Instead, he gently complains of people using parks in different or novel ways (from ultralight speed-backpackers to pack trains), leaving an impression that his way, slowly tramping through and appreciating the landscape, meeting others along the trail and swapping stories, is the correct way. He does not consider that perhaps the "boomer" style of wilderness use is just one phase of a long relationship we humans have with wild places, that it too is not (and never could be) a constant thing. Our society's ideas of what parks are ultimately for evolve over time along with the landscapes themselves.

Lastly, Tweed stresses the importance of public education, particularly the need to persuade visitors that the Park Service simply cannot fulfill its promise of an unchanging park system: "If 'unimpaired for future generations' must be abandoned, a new vision and a new set of values must be offered." His book underlines the need for the agency to not only stop making that promise, but also stop expecting it from itself. Until the Park Service acknowledges that preservation is not neutral, that nothing stays the same forever, this call for a new mission will fall flat.

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