Our National Parks: Introduction
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Outside magazine, June 1992
Our National Parks: Introduction
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.