Next summer, some 110 million visitors will enter America’s National Parks. Among the most enthusiastic will be the paddlers running whitewater sections of the Merced River through Yosemite. That’s because, for the first time since the invention of modern whitewater kayaks and rafts, the National Park Service is allowing them on parts of the river that offer some of the most scenic and challenging rapids anywhere in the world. The opening up of the Merced is part of a much larger project, five years in the making, that will attempt to alleviate road traffic problems, as well as roll back some of Yosemite’s early, ill-conceived development—the ice rink in the shadow of Half Dome will be moved—while allowing more access for some of the sports that have come to define modern adventure.
The Merced River Plan, as it’s called, is a small but significant example of a transformation under way in our national parks. Last October, in a speech before the National Press Club, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced an “ambitious initiative … to inspire millions of young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors.” Among her goals is getting ten million urban kids into the parks by 2017, a response to the country’s evolving demographics and the aging of park users. At Yosemite, the average age of visitors is 38, with the largest group between 46 and 50.
Jewell’s vision of inclusivity should be enthusiastically supported by anyone who cares about the future of our park system. I say this despite the fact that it falls well short of what we need. Because, while she has the right idea in reaching out to new communities, like her predecessors, she’s ignoring the people who are most desperate to be allowed in: the paddlers, mountain bikers, and other adventure-sports athletes who are banned from many of the nation’s best natural playgrounds. It’s an outdated stance that overlooks the role these activities now play in our relationship with wild places, and it seriously undercuts public support for an expansive and growing park system.
Since the Park Service was founded in 1916, managers have struggled to decide which activities to allow. The congressional mandate is to leave the land “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” “Not dented, not scratched, but unimpaired,” says Mike Finley, a former superintendent at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and several other national parks, who now heads up the Turner Foundation, media mogul Ted Turner’s family land-conservation outfit.
Of course, “unimpaired” and “enjoyment” have always been fuzzy concepts, open to interpretation by whoever happened to be making the rules at the time. From the outset, commercial cattle grazing was grandfathered in at a number of parks. Then, in 1957, Congress approved Mission 66, an unprecedented ten-year, $700 million series of construction projects intended to improve infrastructure by building thousands of miles of roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, gift shops, and maintenance bays. The parks as we now know them are a reflection of this single act. In his 2007 book, Mission 66, Ethan Carr, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes that the act “came to symbolize … a willingness to sacrifice the integrity of park ecosystems for the sake of enhancing the merely superficial scenery by crowds of people in automobiles.”
As Carr notes, Mission 66 certainly opened the parks to more people, but it was widely viewed as a disgrace for the Park Service. Oddly, the backlash hasn’t so much been against cars or hotels or sprawling RV campgrounds but against recreation, which many preservationists came to see “as the primary agent of … destruction.” Officially, superintendents, who have wide latitude in determining what’s allowed in each park, weigh the impact of activities like kayaking against that “unimpaired” mandate. Unofficially, though, as Finley explains, the debate is both simpler and more philosophical: “You can’t roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel, nor should you.” Which is to say that adventure sports are banned in parks for cultural reasons.
What all this has left us with is phenomenal natural areas that are for the most part managed like drive-through museums. Meanwhile, a growing number of outdoor athletes, who should be among the most committed park stewards, have been ostracized. The nonprofit Outdoor Alliance, a Washington, D.C., umbrella group for human-powered-advocacy organizations like American Whitewater, climbing’s Access Fund, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), has 100,000 members and skews toward a Gen Y demographic. By comparison, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the historical champion of the national parks, has 500,000 members with a median age in the sixties.
“There’s a real relevancy problem with the parks,” says Adam Cramer, Outdoor Alliance’s executive director. “They’re shutting off vectors like bikes and kayaks for people to have the kinds of meaningful experiences that are the genesis for a conservation ethic.”
Indeed, many young people fall in love with wild places by playing in them. And yet, in a number of instances, park authorities have taken moves to curtail sports. Last December, Death Valley National Park canceled the iconic Badwater Ultramarathon, citing safety concerns for runners in the heat. And despite intervention from Colorado senator Mark Udall and governor John Hickenlooper, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge was denied a permit to use roads that pass through Colorado National Monument.
“It’s a case where the paperwork hasn’t kept up with the sports,” says John Leonard, a ranger in Denali National Park, which requires guides and clients to be roped together much of the time on Mount McKinley, effectively banning guided skiing. “Out of one side of our mouth we’re saying we want millennials to come to the parks, and out of the other we have all these bureaucracies in place that make everything difficult.”
The result is that many wilderness-loving athletes find themselves opposing new public-land designations because the added protections would get them barred from areas they currently use. This dynamic was revealed starkly in 2011 when bikers and climbers sided with motorized off-roaders in opposing the Hidden Gems Wilderness Area near Aspen, Colorado, which would have locked out all three groups. (In the end, the IMBA and others successfully advocated for backcountry land that was bike-friendly but not open to development.)
In another instance of odd bedfellows, last February Cynthia Lummis, a Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, introduced the River Paddling Protection Act, which would give the Park Service three years to figure out how to allow boats on Yellowstone’s waterways. In February, it passed the House of Representatives. It’s hard to say whether the bill was a politician representing her constituents or a shrewd way for a conservative to divide environmentalists, but it effectively set paddlers against the NPCA, which opposes boating on the park’s rivers.
Within the parks, much of the progress has been due to the efforts of advocacy groups. In Yosemite, long an outlier in welcoming athletes—hang gliding has been permitted since the late seventies—the Merced River Plan was championed by D.C.–based American Whitewater. In 2011, the IMBA helped convince managers at Texas’s Big Bend National Park to perform an environmental assessment and allow a comment period for the new Lone Mountain Trail.
If anyone understands the need to evolve the Park Service’s attitude toward recreation, it’s Jewell, who spent 17 years at REI before she was appointed by President Obama. So far, though, she has ignored the topic. If Jewell truly wants to build a park system that will endure, her next move should be to issue a directive for superintendents to study where and when outdoor sports might be appropriate. Nobody is demanding that bikes be allowed on every trail, that kayakers be given license to bomb every creek, or that climbers be granted blanket permission to start bolting routes. But there is room for more sports alongside the quiet reverence.
Imagine the possibilities. You could park near an entrance point, grab your bike, boat, climbing gear, or even wingsuit, and, you know, roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel. When I asked IMBA executive director Mike Van Abel what his dream trail would be, he was ready with an answer: circumnavigating Grand Teton National Park and connecting to Teton Village. Then he offered something more provocative: “There’s some real interest in winter fat biking on the roads in Yellowstone. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Last week I took my five-year-old daughter on her first activist march. It was day one of summer vacation in Santa Fe, and the whole season stretched languorously in front of us. What better way to celebrate her newfound freedom than by trekking 15 miles along the backroads of northern New Mexico with the Great March for Climate Action?
I'd first heard of the Great March a few days earlier, when it had come through Santa Fe on its way north to Colorado. Founded by Ed Fallon, a former state legislator from Iowa, the march is comprised of "climate patriots" who are walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to inspire action to solve the climate crisis. Since leaving L.A. on March 1, they've averaged about 15 miles a day, camping in parks and parking lots along the way—a 3,000-mile, eight month journey that's slated to end in Washington on November 1.
Earlier in May, I'd spent four days walking along the northern California coast with my sister, a sort of slow-motion ultra that had left me obsessed with traveling by foot. The climate marchers were doing exactly that, only on a grand scale, coast to coast, to raise awareness for a grave and urgent global cause. It was such an audaciously simple and seductive mission that for half a second, I fantasized about going the distance with them, along the spine of the southern Rockies, across the heartland, all the way to Washington.
Then I snapped back to reality. I have two young daughters, a husband, a puppy, and a job at home in Santa Fe. Walking for six months was out of the question, but I could walk for a day, or maybe two. I imagined trekking short sections with a band of selfless climate pilgrims, hopscotching around the country all summer to meet them. But first things first. Before I could join them, I had to find them.
I tracked them down on a Sunday evening in Santa Fe at their camp in a baseball field a few blocks from my house, their cluster of tents and vehicles barely visible in the late May dusk. A bright-eyed, 60-something official named Izzy greeted me warmly and explained that a core group of 30 or so have been walking since L.A.—a handful are "spirit walkers," who hope to walk every single step—but plenty of people march for a few days or weeks, and I was welcome to tag along.
Which is how Pippa and I found ourselves, along with our friend Blair and her three-year-old daughter, Grace, in the parking lot of the Santuario de Chimayo, shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning. It was a modest encampment: Half a dozen nylon tents were pitched along the edges of the church's gravel lot. Duffle bags lay where they'd been tossed on a black tarp. The chalkboard on the back of the kitchen truck advertised lentils and rice; under the scrawled heading, "Leftovers," nothing was written. Two older women bent over a plastic basin, washing the breakfast dishes. At least three people were brushing their teeth, or their hair. Except for a couple of gear trucks and the odd Prius, it could have been just another morning on a group camping trip.
Freshly showered in shorts and sneakers, with two blonde girls in tow, Blair and I stood out like, well, two moms at their first activist march. Izzy found us right away, and a 50-ish woman named Judy motioned for us to join the morning meeting. The sky was patched with morning clouds, and the campers gathered in a loose circle, bundled in down jackets and nylon pants that sagged a little at the knees, smelling like fresh air and the physical exertion that comes from walking 15 miles and sleeping outside everyday for the past six weeks.
The group's acting mayor, Miriam, 71, motioned for us all to hold hands for announcements. Someone said that they were mailing a letter to the President. A bearded coordinator named Jimmy urged everyone to show up for a rally in Taos on Saturday night; there would be an optional field trip to see the earth ships, if anyone was interested. Sarah, on the logistics team, briefed us on our route: We would walk north out of the village of Chimayo toward Truchas, 15 miles into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, along the rural byway known as the High Road to Taos. After Blair and I and the girls were introduced to the group and greeted with smiles and prayer hands all around, Miriam led us in song, a plaintive chant imploring us to not kill the earth.
In my fervor to join the March, I'd blithely assumed we would walk the whole way, and I'd brought a borrowed BOB off-road stroller as backup for when Pippa got tired. Blair had brought one for Grace, too, but at the last minute, as we were donning reflective safety vests and the marchers were shouldering their hand-written signs, we decided to take only one, for Grace; Pippa could ride on the front if need be. I'd also assumed that we'd be strolling quiet country roads, and possibly trails. I'd heard that before they reached Santa Fe, the marchers had been met by local Native American tribal members and escorted cross-country on sacred pueblo lands. I pictured us bent over maps, plotting a remote path through the wilds of New Mexico.
Instead, we were walking up the pencil-wide shoulder of Country Road 98 during Chimayo's morning rush hour. Cars and pickups whizzed by, some arcing wide to give us room, others nearly clipping us. I clutched tightly to Pippa's hand. The marchers seemed unfazed: They'd already walked 1,000 miles on roads just like this, through gritty L.A. fumes and sleet and hail and blizzards and deluges and dust storms ("I've stopped calling it climate change and now just call it climate strange!" Izzy declared when I first met him). They strung out along the white line, waving their signs jollily and flashing peace signs at the drivers. A middle-aged woman named Kat from Homer, Alaska, called out in broken Spanish to an elderly Hispanic couple who sat on the portal of their old adobe watching us pass, expressionless.
There was so much going on it was hard to focus on the walking. I thought about what Judy, who had joined in Payson, Arizona, and was going as far as Denver, had told me in the parking lot when I asked her if she loved marching: "It's more complicated than that."
Indeed, even with the traffic and the effort required to keep Pippa moving forward in a somewhat straight line and Grace entertained in the stroller, I could see that the walking was the easy part. Harder by far was coexisting outside with a disparate group of people for eight months while trying to rally around a common cause. Of the three dozen walkers, nearly all were nearing or over 50, semi-retired or empty-nesters. Three or four were under 25, including a woman in a long skirt who was doing the whole march in silence (except for singing). Then there was Mac, 24, a spirit walker who had just graduated from the University of Michigan and was marching—or rather hobbling—barefoot. "Walking is not just about the activism," he told us. "I believe that I'm connecting to the earth and transforming myself, and through that, others will be inspired to transform, too."
But what about the activism? When I asked Kimberly, a masseuse from Des Moines with salt-and-pepper hair, what message they were hoping to convey through the March, she explained that their mission statement was still a work in progress. "It's about water and energy and solar," she said, "and the Keystone Pipeline. We're working on our vision as a group."
The logistics of organizing such a massive undertaking are tricky, too. When they showed up in LA for the start of the Great March, on March 1, Miriam explained, "there was hardly any infrastructure set up. There were no dishes or pots. We had to do everything from the beginning." The original plan had envisioned a thousand full-time marchers, but so far on any given day, there have been less than 50. (Many marchers come and go, walking for weeks or months and leaving for just as long to tend to things at home; they hope to recruit more en route, starting in Denver in June.) The March adheres to the principles of non-violence and is self-governed through an elected city council, mayor, and judicial board. Early on, the marchers implemented once-a-week rest days to catch up on the real lives they left behind, but they were so busy doing laundry and sending emails and fundraising (each full-time marcher committed to raising $20 per day to cover food and expenses) that they started calling them "stay days."
A mile from the Santuario, the March turned north onto busier NM 76, the High Road, threading through farm fields and horse pastures and past ramshackle adobe art studios. Pippa had taken to straddling the front of the stroller rather than walking, which was a relief—the cars were coming faster, and the shoulder had narrowed—but made for awkward pushing. Under the weight of both girls, the BOB lurched and swerved in the soft gravel like a fully-loaded shopping cart with a bad wheel.
Our fellow walkers were unfailingly optimistic. "You're the youngest marchers we've ever had!" they exclaimed cheerfully to the girls, as they took turns helping Blair and me maneuver the stroller up a long hill. One of the marchers, Bob, had volunteered to drive the sag wagon, Kimberly's Prius, that morning, and he kept pulling over to direct us safely along dodgy sections through the blind curves. Drivers honked and slowed to wave or give us the thumbs up; others ignored us altogether.
Our girls rose to the occasion of their first environmental march. Pippa gamely hopped in and out of the BOB, feeding Grace bits of Larabar, listening patiently while the marchers talked about climate change, and complaining only a little: "When are we going to get to the trail, Mama?"
We were still ten miles from the nearest trail, a dirt forest road that that would spare us from Highway 76, when Blair and I decided to pull the plug. Grace had begun to clamor to get out of the stroller, but the High Road was still far too busy for her to toddle safely, and Bob graciously offered to shuttle us back the Santuario in the Prius. We shook hands, hugged the marchers goodbye, and wished them luck. It was just after 10 am. We'd walked three miles of the Great March for Climate Action, one-one-thousandth of the way across the country.
Driving back to Santa Fe, I tried to make sense of the morning. Part of me was inexplicably glad to go home, to not have to walk en masse to Washington and sleep in parking lots and eat lentils from the back of a truck. But the other half of me knew we'd only just nicked the surface of the Great March. Like any adventure, it always takes a few days to find your place—outside and in the group. "It's a constant discovery," Judy told me. "You're wondering where you fit in." It's changing—we all are—all the time.
For nearly everyone I talked to, the reality of marching was so different from the fantasy. Not better or worse, just different. "Before the March, I'd been afraid of sleeping outside," Kimberly explained as we walked. "Now I can't imagine not." Earlier Judy told me, "there's a timelessness to living outside that most of us never get to experience." And for 18-year-old named Bernise, who's taking a year off college to walk, the March "is so much more amazing than I ever expected." I've spend the last couple of years running ultra-distance trail races, and marching three miles for a cause with young children felt harder than running 50.
I asked Pippa what she thought of being part of one of the largest cross-country marches in history. "It was cool," she said automatically—high praise from a kindergartener. But then she was quiet for a while, and I could tell she was thinking. "They're still walking," she marveled. "And they'll still be walking at Halloween."
Years from now, long after the March is over, our children—these very girls—will inherit the problems of a warming, changing world, and it will be their crisis to solve. Had Blair and I and our daughters made a difference by walking that day? Will we turn off the lights and stop ordering our lattes to go in paper cups? Think twice about driving, and ride our bikes instead? Meet the March in Omaha after all? For the sake of our daughters, and their daughters, I really, really hope so.
But probably, it's more complicated than that.
For more information about how to meet up with the March or donate, go to climatemarch.org. Full-timer marchers and part-time walkers are always welcome; see the route and schedule online.