Our National Parks: Introduction

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Introduction
By Alston Chase

I was 12 when I discovered the magic of national parks. In 1947 our family was living in Fort Lewis, Washington. My father, an army officer, bought a small trailer, shaped like a silver box, that opened into a tent. He called it "Al Capone's coffin." One weekend, packing our Hudson Super Six station wagon and hitching up Al Capone's coffin, we drove to a campground by the Dosewallips River in Olympic National Park.

There a ranger told us of a wonderful backcountry lake called Wildcat. And although we lacked even rudimentary gear, we tried to hike to the lake. Wrapping canned food into blankets, which we strapped to our backs with army field-communications wire, we headed into the mountains. Before long it began to rain--hard. By nightfall we had reached a steep slope covered with alders. The lake was nowhere in sight. For shelter we tied blankets to branches above our heads. They seeped water like saturated sponges. My mother built a fire and tried to heat the canned soup. Almost immediately we were overcome with severe dysentery, and the rain came harder. The next morning we gave up and headed home.

We never found Wildcat. That obscure lake became for us a symbol of the mysterious, evanescent riches of wilderness. I envied the ranger we had met at Dosewallips, and resolved to be one myself when I grew up.

Ever since Congress established the first national park, Yellowstone, on March 1, 1872, these places have occupied a special niche in the American psyche. The United States, rangers like to say, invented the "national park idea." And although this is not quite true--Egyptian pharaohs had wildlife sanctuaries 4,500 years ago--this country was the first to set aside great parks not for princes, but for ordinary people. Boasting what in the nineteenth century were called "natural wonders," their creation, says historian Alfred Runte, signaled "the search for a national identity." They were viewed as America's answer to the castles and cathedrals of Europe. They were places of mystery where we communed with nature or relived our cultural past. Today many evoke the stark and uncompromising wilderness that greeted our forefathers; others symbolize glimpses of our history; and all embody our highest ideals for preservation.

Parks have also been the leitmotiv of my own life. It was in Yellowstone, shortly after World War II, that I caught my first cutthroat trout on a fly, igniting a passion for fishing that has never abated. It was in Olympic that I discovered the masochistic delights of backpacking. It was in Yosemite, while a senior in high school, that I took my first overnight hike with a girlfriend. It was in Rocky Mountain that a college classmate and I were introduced to real mountain climbing. It was in what would soon become Voyageurs that I introduced my own sons to canoeing. And it was another visit to Yellowstone, undertaken to introduce my own family to this special precinct of my past, that drew me west again, this time permanently.

The 12 preserves depicted in the following pages are among those special places known as "crown jewels" of the national park system. Classified as "natural" areas, they represent only a small fraction of the 361 natural and historic parks, recreation areas, national monuments, scenic rivers, and national seashores managed by the National Park Service. As we show, each has its own distinct appeal. Likewise, each has its special controversies and untidy secrets--usually kept from park visitors--which we reveal as well.

But despite their fascination, national parks are not real, but illusions. For me, this came as an epiphany only two years after our abortive search for Wildcat. We were staying in Yosemite, near El Capitan, in a campground that reminded me of a Chicago tenement. Clotheslines were strung between trees, babies were crying, radios were blaring. Smoke from burned hot dogs singed our lungs. Trying to escape the crowds, I hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls. But the masses followed: The trail was packed with hypertensive men, hyperventilating women, and hyperactive children brandishing dangerous walking sticks. I felt like a pilgrim at Lourdes, threatened by the crutches of crowds of ex-cripples.

Returning to camp, I spotted a ranger. Gulping carbon monoxide, he was untangling a traffic jam. A car had stalled in the intersection, and as its hapless owner, enveloped in steam, stared beneath its hood, passing motorists shouted obscenities. Right then my fantasy of a Park Service career faded.

I learned that day in Yosemite that national parks, however delightful, are artifacts, surrounded by a highly populated and destructive society. They are not real wilderness, but the appearance of wilderness; not time machines, but imitations of the past. Behind this facade lies a disturbing reality, a host of threats that jeopardize the future of the park system. And to cope with these threats, we must recognize parks for what they are: illusions that require artifice to be sustained.

In this sense, they are similar to classic Broadway musicals. Like parks, productions such as Oklahoma! and The Music Man offer romanticized glimpses of our natural and cultural history. They are beautiful and entertaining. But they are fantasies, and casting their spell requires artifice and expense. Likewise, maintaining apparitions of the past in parks requires money and effort. And because they are not receiving this intensive care, they are dying.

The parks are losing biodiversity at a staggering rate because superintendents are given an impossible assignment. They must shield parks--places that are currently visited by millions and that have already been dramatically altered by humanity--from all human influence, including the impact of park managers themselves. Sometimes called "natural regulation," this policy dictates that parks be treated with benign neglect. But removing human influence is historically inaccurate and physically impossible. And while we can remove signs of modernity and even protect biodiversity, accomplishing this requires effort and artifice.

Thus the parks' greatest enemy is their own mythology. Natural regulation requires superintendents to sustain the semblance of wilderness by treating these places as though they really were wilderness, merely needing to be left alone. Fiction has become confused with reality. Yet while experts agree that parks are in jeopardy, few notice that the threat comes from the romantic ideal of parks itself.

To Park Service officials, the greatest perils to the parks are overcrowding, traffic, air and water pollution, and urbanization along park boundaries. To environmentalists, the biggest dangers are inappropriate park boundaries; the maps of most parks, they note, were drawn by Congress with little regard to true ecosystem requirements. Both they and the Park Service want to expand the parks, to protect them from external threats, and to increase funds to fight pollution and overcrowding. To inholders, who own property within park boundaries, the greatest threat is the Park Service itself; they believe the agency is regulating parks to death, and they want parks to shrink and Uncle Sam to get out of their backyards. To many scientists, the greatest threats are overemphasis on tourism, lack of professionalism in the Park Service, and unwise management policies. The Park Service, they note, spends over 80 percent of its budget, directly or indirectly, on promoting tourism, while it disburses a smaller percentage of its funds on research than any other federal agency.

Each group is partially right. Air and water pollution are threats to many parks. Economic development is a menace to some preserves. Excessive regulations do sometimes strangle resource management. The Park Service does spend too little on science, and its rangers are pitifully unschooled in requisite specialties.

Nevertheless, none of the alternative prescriptions alone will work. Parks cannot be saved by throwing more money and land at them. No matter how big a preserve may be, it will face threats along its borders. Nor will transforming rangers into scholars help, so long as the agency's mandate remains rooted in the past.

Parks represent a philosophy that emerged a century ago, when the frontier was closed and indiscriminate hunting was decimating wildlife. Parks were essentially fortresses managed by the U.S. Army to protect wildlife from people. Passive protection was deemed sufficient, and restoration ecology did not exist.

When the National Park Service was established in 1916, the passive policies became entrenched. The enabling legislation required the new agency to keep parks "unimpaired for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations." The Park Service complied with this contradictory mandate by promoting tourism and assigning rangers to protect parks from visiting hordes, further constructing the myth that places designed for visitation could remain "unimpaired." In 1963 the famed Leopold Report became official policy, commanding that parks be "vignettes of primitive America"--again sustaining the fantasy of wilderness.

Now our parks must be reinvented if they are to survive. Rather than being enclaves of nature kept apart from society, they should become places where the two are integrated--a change reflecting America's growing urbanization. Until World War II, national parks served the rich, who came west by rail. In the 1950s cars replaced trains, and parks became destinations of the upper middle class. Today, they still serve the white and affluent, even as the country has become more culturally and racially diverse. Seventy-one percent of those living in cities of a million or more, and 83 percent of African Americans, have never visited a national park. By contrast, the most frequent users are people with incomes greater than $50,000 who live in towns smaller than 25,000. So while society has changed, parks have not; they are losing touch with people. Existing parks must be more than "pleasureing grounds" for the affluent; they must also be model sustainable communities whose infrastructures--roads, power, and sewage treatment--demonstrate how we might live in harmony with nature. There must be new parks in or near cities, and the Park Service must abandon its quixotic mission--in effect an attempt at once to accommodate all people and to arrest all change--and embrace an educational vision revealing how the principles of ecology apply equally in civic environments and natural ones.

Fulfilling this holistic goal will require that we demythologize the parks. We must stop pretending that they can be self-sustaining wilderness ecosystems and recognize that they are our creations, theme parks whose motifs are wilderness or wildlife or history or recreation, and which cannot survive without active stewardship. In place of the passive philosophy of natural regulation, we must adopt active preservation strategies, such as culling of overly abundant game herds, prescribed burning of forests, and restoration of habitat.

Only when we recognize parks as our own creations will we take full responsibility for them. This does not mean that they will lose their appeal. The romance will endure. They will still have their Wildcat Lakes, the elusive nooks and crannies where children, and even entire families, can lose--and find--themselves.

See also:

A Guide to the Guide

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