The great parks of the American West face a crisis.
The problem is you and me, of course.
Yellowstone, Zion, Glacier… name any one of our major National Parks, and I’ll show you a place congested with auto traffic, long lines, pollution, and too many users with an entitled disrespect of nature.
A visitor’s typical experience is often quite different than the sense of peace and renewal that was first imagined when these lands were stolen from the natives for a so-called greater good.
Parks are our finest treasures, woven in our national identity as a showcase to the world… and every day these places feel one step closer to being sold out completely to commercial interest and exploitation.
If you care about your National Parks, the time is now to be vocal. Write to your lawmakers and tell them how you’d like to see your Parks managed.
These lands received special designation because they’re the best of the best, and it’s up to us to keep them that way.
If you’re not yet convinced that we have problem, check the news. Come back when you’re ready.
What is the Vision for Our Parks?
National Parks play many different roles in our society.
I think Robert Keiter summed it up best when he said:
[National Parks] represent a wilderness area, a tourist destination, an outdoor playground, a ‘cash cow’ for local communities, nature’s laboratory, and a wildlife reserve.
Today I’m afraid they also represent, for some, little more than an opportunity to boost our self-worth via social media. Modern sharing and selfies aren’t especially wrong, but I think this is where we’ve begun to get off track.
What’s worse? I’m afraid the National Park Service is catering to the demand for more connectivity.
Lena McDowall, an NPS deputy director, made the following statement in testimony to a U.S Senate subcommittee in September 2017, advocating for more cellular towers:
Visitors want to be able to use their mobile devices to share experiences with their friends and family… they want to take advantage of the many internet based resources we have developed.
May I ask why the Park Service feels they need to encourage this mindset?
In the past, they’ve been quick to say “no, not in a National Park” to anything and everything… like swimming pools and organized marathon races, for example.
Should they be so quick to cater to our compulsion to share everything instantaneously?
I think that discouraging (or even banning) this sort of behavior would go a long way in an effort to save our parks.
The fear that keeping the parks “off the grid” will alienate an entire generation of users (and potential conservationists) is hogwash – parks and the outdoors are more popular than ever before.
Stop the Data
If it were up to me, I’d block all cellular and GPS data within the boundaries of National Parks. A network could be set up where only a 911 call would get through the system. If this technology doesn’t already exist, than I imagine that it will soon.
Let’s face it, the future of technology is scary. With development in fields like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, our society is more “wired” with each passing day.
Will we not crave a means of escape, a sanctuary to disconnect? Can you imagine a better setting for this than our National Parks?
It’s not as simple as turning off our phones. Our DNA is hard-wired for convenience and connection. We simply can’t help ourselves – where these services are available, we will use them. The simple knowledge of its availability has the power to gnaw at our minds.
Planning a trip to a park without data service would require more planning, more research, and would ultimately breed more respect, revolutionizing our attitude toward the parks.
Imagine a park without GPS service, where maps are used in lieu of handheld devices with electronic waypoints.
Imagine a park without cell service, where visitors are forced to interact with one another, read books, play board games, and simply engage with their surroundings instead of their phones.
Imagine America’s Best Idea… 2.0.
Parks Should Ban Private Vehicles
Crowding and traffic is crushing our parks more than ever before.
The measure of restricting motor vehicle traffic would essentially solve the problem – it’s a simple, common sense solution.
In general, the National Park Service has already done a decent job in recognizing that motor vehicles can be a problem.
In Zion National Park, for example, private vehicles are banned from the central core of the park from early Spring through late Fall… but it’s not enough. Zion’s free shuttle bus system does not have a limit on the number of visitors allowed to step on board each day.
As a result, the park’s most popular hiking trails are overcrowded, resembling something closer to a busy Manhattan sidewalk than a saunter through nature.
Alaska’s Denali National Park, in contrast, sets the bar for managing their visitation. In my opinion, Denali is a perfect example of what every park in the American West can and should be.
There is only one road into the park, and private vehicles are only allowed to drive up a small fraction of its entire length. The remainder of the road is gravel and only accessible via bus, for which a reserved ticket is required.
There are many advantages to this. Visitors are required to plan ahead for their trip, encouraging a greater level of education and respect for the land. Park managers can dictate how many people (and vehicles) visit the central core of the park each day. Buses stop for viewing the wildlife, but passengers are not allowed to exit the bus in their presence.
Moreover, Denali is essentially closed to most visitors throughout the winter. In general, our seasonal parks like Glacier and Crater Lake seem to fare better than those that are open year-round, like Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
Maybe the entirety of some parks should periodically close each year? Why not close Zion for the entirety of January, for example, and allow the wildlife to breathe a sigh of relief?
Limiting access isn’t the most ideal solution, but reality dictates that it seems to be the best way forward.
Let’s step it up!
Every National Park is unique environment which requires its own set of regulations.
NPS does a fantastic of recognizing this, but it’s time to make some bigger moves against the pressure of increased visitation across the entire system.
Grand Canyon, for example, is a spectacle that everyone should have a right to see. To stop all cars at the park’s boundary and require everyone to ride a bus to simply see the Canyon is too much to ask of our society, especially when you take into account those with disabilities and special needs.
What we can do, perhaps, is allow only physically disabled persons to drive their vehicles into the park. Yes, there would be bureaucratic red tape involved in achieving this special access, but it would be worth the trouble.
Other parks may not necessarily have an iconic, must see site (like Grand Canyon does). In these places I feel that facilities should be broken down accordingly. In Yosemite, maybe Tunnel Overlook and Glacier Point could remain open to public transportation, so your average visitor can still “see” the park, but the heart of the valley could be closed and managed as backcountry.
Imagine if a historic hotel like Yosemite’s Ahwahnee (er, excuse me… “Majestic Yosemite Hotel”) or Zion’s Lodge were managed as backcountry facilities, similar to Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch or Sequoia’s Bearpaw?
Imagine if Yellowstone’s Old Faithful was only accessible via bus (with a reserved ticket), and the great remainder of the park was only accessible on foot, pack animal, or by bicycle?
Imagine if, once you arrive, there’s no GPS, wifi, or cell service?
Oh, the horror!
Ed Abbey told us so.
Wilderness advocates have long known that Edward Abbey was on to something when he advocated for a limit to motor vehicles in the Parks.
In Desert Solitaire (1968), he wrote:
The motorized tourists, reluctant to give up the old ways, will complain that they can’t see enough without their automobiles to bear them swiftly (traffic permitting) through the parks. But this is nonsense. A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles. Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.
In addition to the solution of limiting automobiles, I think he’s on to something when discouraging the practice of racing through a dozen parks in two weeks.
With social media and our fast-paced society, today more than ever there’s a growing inclination to cram as many parks (and varied Instagram photos) into a single trip as possible.
Bag them all! Check ’em off the ol’ bucket list!
I feel that this manner of so-called enjoyment detracts from the original mission to leave the parks unimpaired. Is this what John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Stephen Mather intended?
Another quote regarding motor vehicles from Desert Solitaire is especially salient today and into the future, as the world’s population swells:
Suppose we banned motorboats and allowed only canoes and rowboats; we would see at once that the lake seemed ten or perhaps a hundred times bigger. The same thing holds true, to an even greater degree, for the automobile. Distance and space are functions of speed and time. Without expending a single dollar from the United States Treasury we could, if we wanted to, multiply the area of our national parks tenfold or a hundredfold – simply by banning the private automobile.
Reality – here’s what you can do!
This is all a wonderful fantasy, which may leave you wondering how we can make it more of a reality.
Overall, park managers have done an amazing job throughout the years of listening to everyone’s views and coming up with even-handed solutions.
Today as you read this, professionals within the agency have already been looking at solutions for overcrowding. For example, Utah’s Arches National Park has been looking at implementing a shuttle system, and Zion has even considered requiring reservations to enter the park.
These initiatives have been held back primarily by a lack of funding, which is ultimately appropriated by our congressmen.
A simple thing you can do is write your representative and tell them the Park Service needs more funding!
You can find your representative and consequent contact info by entering your zip code on this page.
For some tips on how exactly to frame your letter or email, go here.
If you like the ideas presented here, or better yet, have some of your own for your favorite park, it wouldn’t hurt to write to an individual park superintendent.
You can do a web search for the name of the superintendent for any park, and then find their email address through this directory.
If you’d like to send a broader message to the Park Service, here’s a list of their highest ranking officials.
Conclusion – The Organic Act
When writing to park officials, it helps to know some background of 1916’s Organic Act that created the agency. The Organic Act and its amendments are still the law that ultimately governs the operation of the Park Service.
The key phrasing of the Organic Act reads as follows:
…the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
Much has been said over years regarding these words, particularly the interpretation of “provide for the enjoyment” and “unimpaired.”
As for me, I feel that the right to drive your car into the heart of Yosemite Valley and have a live video chat on your phone strays too far from what was envisioned when the parks were first established.
Moreover, these activities make it less likely for us to respect these lands.
What do you think?