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In recent years I have managed to hike in, camp in, and otherwise visit a good number of national parks. These include some of the most popular, such as Yellowstone, Acadia, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Delaware Water Gap and some of the less popular such as Capital Reef, Sequoia-King’s Canyon (it is pretty popular, but neighbors Yosemite). I’ve been in Glacier, Badlands, Mesa Verde, and a handful of others. During this time I have also managed to visit some of the most popular state parks in several states, and have made a good number of attempts to hike and paddle in places that are well known and not – especially in National Forest areas, National Recreation areas, private landholdings, National Monuments and more. I’ll be periodically commenting on these various places in the coming weeks, but for today I wanted to focus on one aspect of the National Parks program that has only begun to dawn on me.

Like many Americans, I would consider myself a conservationist. Indeed, if my spending and non-professional activities are any indication, then this would be what I would be known as. For the longest time I have simply accepted it as hard-core truth that the existence of National Parks has been essential to “conservation” in the U.S. Now, my verbiage is already problematic, because it is not exactly clear what I mean by conservation (in much the same way that the term health care gets tossed around). But when I think of conservation, I think of preserving tracts of land not necessarily to “keep them in their natural sate” which after all is an impossible task and not one that is even well defined, but rather to have a few places on Earth where there is some guarantee of “public access” and perhaps a few places where we won’t run into a McDonalds.

Of course, now that I am an adult, I understand that it is perfectly plausible to have large tracts of lands preserved without government there to do it (whether the public may or may not access it is a different question). And of course there are all kinds of conservation efforts undertaken by environmental organizations, my favorite being the Nature Conservancy.

Since my posts have been running too long, let me get right to an abbreviated point. I am now coming to believe that the formal recognition of particular areas as National Parks has actually perversely been counterproductive toward the goal of conservation. You might argue that I am saying this because I just returned from Acadia and the surrounding regions, but this is no less true for the list of parks (with a few small exceptions) that I made above. When we designate an area as a “National Park” that basically is telling people (some who like quiet solitude, or hiking, or paddling, and some who just really enjoy some awesome sights) that these are the places to go to paddle, hike and see sights. I understand that some of the grandest sights of all are located within National Park boundaries, but my assertion is that far less than 1% of all of the land held within national parks contains those sorts of things, while the remaining land and water, while gloriously beautiful in my opinion, is no more glorious than much land that is not part of the National Park system.

So what is the problem. Take Acadia for example. Acadia is the perfect example of rugged Maine coast – with spectacular rocky shorelines, nearby mountains and lakes that have been carved by Glaciers and eroded and shaped by the elements, and a nice array of wildlife. There are not really any “big time” attractions here like the geysers of Yellowstone, or Yosemite Valley or the giant hole in the Earth carved by the Colorado, but it is nonetheless one of the most heavily visited parks in the National Park system.

This is odd. Maine has thousands of miles of coastline, and hundreds upon hundreds of miles of scenery and wildlife similar to that of Acadia. Yes the Carriage Roads are lovely (built and donated to the US by the dastardly Rockefeller!) and so too is the view from Cadillac (which has an auto road to the top), but these alone do not constitute the heavy visitation of the Park.

What dedicating this area as a National Park seems to me is like telling anyone and everyone … “Go Here.” That is fine as far as it goes, but I would prefer that we stop fooling ourselves into thinking that National Parks are some sort of conservation oases, and even if they are, they are very far from being remote, isolated, peaceful experiences for many of the times and places most people would likely visit them. So, over 2 million people cram into Acadia for the two months of summer, meanwhile hundreds of miles of coastline stretch from North to South near here with nary a visitor (of course, there are thousands of private homes and cottages there now).

And what is the impact of the signs that tell everyone to “Go Here?” Well, for one, the “overcrowding” issue is certainly real. Anyone who lives in a city would laugh at the idea that these places are overcrowded. For example, I was in Acadia on perhaps the nicest summer day of the year, with highs in the low 80s and visibility as far as anyone can see. And while there were cars “everywhere” it took us only minutes to zip around to the places we wanted to go. It is less convenient for me to get from my home to Wegmans during rush hour on any given day. But they are overcrowded if we take our baseline for a National Park to be “peace and tranquility.” *

Furthermore, what these crowds virtually assure is that the nearby towns are utterly “unaffordable” to many Americans. It’s ironic that accessing the spectacular Acadia National Park cost me $20 for the entire week – and we spent dozens of terrific hours there – but that nothing outside the park was remotely low-cost. We spent $1 on a single ear of corn (more on that in a future post). If one wished to take a 2 hour private boat ride, you are looking at something in the range of $50. If you wanted a place to stay outside of the National Park campground, you are easily looking at over $100 per night for anything near the park and up to many multiples of that. And so on. The point of course is that we make the National Parks’ entrance fees virtually zero in an effort to make “our lands open to all” but that is a myth. Acadia is a car-ride away for many people on the East coast, but it is an extremely expensive proposition to spend any time here. Our family spent a week here, and between gas and a place to stay alone we are well over $1,000 for the visit. We made breakfast and dinner every night but one (pizza) and we packed peanut butter sandwiches, fruit, granola and water for lunch during our day excursions. We partook in as many of the “free” activities as we could (those happened to correspond to our interests) and did not spend a dime on any of the tourist-y things such as boat-rides, museum visits (we did visit an excellent lobster hatchery as the splurge for the trip), shopping districts, and the like. Doing any of that would easily add many hundreds of dollars to a trip. Would these places and activities be as popular and expensive if Acadia were not designated a National Park? Probably not, but I admit they would probably be popular nonetheless. But I submit that making Acadia a National Park has actually made it LESS accessible for the typical American person for whom the parks are nominally dedicated to.

For any of my readers who have been to the national parks or plan on going, please do take note of the clientele of the park and let me know how “representative” of all of America it seems to be to you. I guarantee you will find more Germans and Canadians than you will “under-represented” groups from here in America. And that is to put it too simply. For example, in our entire week here in Acadia, we only encountered one black family enjoying the park. The age distribution, even in the parks famous for biking and climbing, is definitely not in line with the distribution of ages in America either. And yes, I understand why this is the case.

In any event, dedicating these sites as National Parks has undoubtedly done several other things.

(1) It has taken attention away from other terrific recreational areas.

(2) It has taken funding away from general conservation efforts, and focused attention on “monument worship” within the parks.

(3) I believe it leads to a sort of complacency within the conservation community or within the public at large that goes something like, “hey, we have National Parks to protect our treasures, so it’s all good.” And therefore we end up paying much less attention to a good many worthy conservation projects and ideas.

I am beginning to think hard about different models for preservation, conservation and recreation than to have a strongly focused system of National Parks. Despite my anti-governmental proclivities, this reconsideration does not have to happen as a reaction against government. I am trying to imagine how similar levels of funding, staffing and promotion of conservation by Interior and the NPS could achieve better results, and results more aligned with the stated missions of the NPS and Interior. My point is that I do not believe they are being very well met today, even as I love the idea of the National Parks and have been a moderately heavy user of them since I graduated from college 15 years ago. Let’s start to explore what some of those ideas might be. In the meantime, I’ll work up a post on some additional ironies that will no doubt be obvious to you if you’ve spent much time in the parks.

*(And yes, I have had many nights of peace and tranquility in National Parks. Just because it is possible does not mean it is likely, or easy. Most of those nights were hard earned, on the heels of many, many hours of hiking in extreme-ish conditions).

3 Responses to “Why the National Parks Remind Me a Bit of Public Housing”

  1. Rod says:

    Preservationists have an insatiable appetite for land acquisition. In addition to the National Parks preservationists, you have the Civil War battlefield preservationists, historical site preservationists, farmland preservationists and open space preservationists, and even more preservationists I am unaware of.

    It is one thing to establish National Parks at places like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, but quite another thing to sink endless quantities of money, some of it borrowed through state and local bond issues. Here in southeastern Pennsylvania the Montgomery County Planning Commission has been pushing “open space” preservation, arguing that if millions of dollars are not spent or if ordinances restricting land use are not adopted, pretty soon we’ll be like the proverbial human coral out in the sprawling suburbs.

    The truth is that there is a shortage of large tracts of land close to Philadelphia, but one only has to get on Route 78 and drive west a little bit to view lots of open space. Another truth: the planning commission has a bias against private land ownership and free use thereof, and it uses every tactic at its command to make it expensive and difficult to develop land.

    Historical preservation is also rampant even where the buildings identified as historical are simply old and nice to look at. In our little town, the borough officials nearly succeeded in blocking development at a property that was just an old store without any particular architectural value. The developer wanted to include in the development two lots on which two nice houses stood, one built in the 1920’s. When I asked a historical building expert from Penn what was so special about that house, she said, “Why, that’s the former home of the publisher of the local paper!” Being the publisher of the same paper myself, I asked her, “Does that mean that every house I live in around here will be declared historic because Rod slept here?”

    Lucky for everybody, when it came time to move the two houses to borough property (and become borough hall), they found that the buildings were so wide they would not fit the width of the street they would have to travel (without taking off everyone’s front porch.)

    But now, with the economy sliding into the toilet, what sense does it make to spend public money on land purchases that would effectively “sequester” that money and keep it from financing private enterprise?

    BTW, equally wild and beautiful as Yellowstone Park itself are the Teton and Yellowstone Wilderness Areas east of the park. Out there you can visit Two Ocean Pass, where a creek divides as it is flowing down the Continental Divide and becomes Atlantic Creek and Pacific Creek.

  2. RIT_Rich says:

    I can’t really speak for a lot of government-owned land, but from what I have seen, many of the national parks are in areas which would have no development either way (what, exactly, would one develop in the badlands?). Also a lot of those parks aren’t exactly empty of people or houses etc. There’s a town, a railway, farms, roads, and lots of cabins and campgrounds in the Badlands. There’s hardly any difference from the rest of N. Dakota (except infertile soil)

    Also, having driven recently from Rochester NY to Seattle, and having seen lots and lots of empty undeveloped untouched wilderness, I am certainly convinced that one doesn’t need to have public property to protect “the commons”. In fact, the people who do live out in those wilderness have found the answer to “the tragedy of the commons” a long time before it was written as the mandatory reading piece in every school (all one has to do is take a drive through Montana and adjacent states to see the answer)

  3. Harry says:

    Rod and Rich have already said what I had to say, good points along with Wintercow’s observations.

    John D Rockefeller also bought up most of the land that now comprises Jackson Hole, I assume for favorable prices, and because he had some money left over, turned it over for a national park, where the rich and the lucky play. This would not have been possible without Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana from the French, who needed cash, just as our weakened country needs it now. So do the French!

    Next month we are going to visit my sister-in-law, who lives in the shadow of Yosemite, a place on my bucket list. I hope to improve on Ansel Adams’ photographs, but I am afraid of the Germans getting into the picture. Maybe Wintercow can give me advice on how to kill the Germans, or give them an incentive.

    Now, there’s a good way to spend the $20 billion of loose change in the Department of Agriculture. We could have a party.

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