In the past handful of months, I’ve visited about eight national parks in southern California and Utah. Without exception, they are incredible. Each preserves but also makes accessible to ordinary folks like me some unique natural feature, maybe a fragile ecosystem or unusual geologic formation, or area of fantastic beauty. Each park strives to interpret and showcase its own special features, so, for example, a visitor can hike to a spring or a natural bridge or take a ranger-guided walk through a rock maze. Trails and backcountry roads are maintained; various levels of amenities are available.
Consequently, lots of people visit the parks, and that’s a good thing.
When literally millions of people stream through fragile, or even robust, ecosystems, they impact just about every point of contact, from the wildlife to the air and even the dirt (more on that later). Since the Park Service is also charged with preserving these wilderness areas for future generations, this creates a dilemma: Save the wilderness or give people what they want (and are willing to pay for) even if it means degrading that very wilderness?
Edward Abbey, that old crank who worked for a couple seasons at Arches National Park, writes in Desert Solitaire: “Industrial Tourism is a threat to the national parks.…So long as [tourists] are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”
Can’t say I disagree on that point.
So, some observations from my sojourn through the parks:
1. Visitors in park campgrounds are generally respectful. They don’t trash the campground; they aren’t there to sit around watching TV in their 40-foot motorhomes or to party (and if they are, the rangers set them straight). They want to experience the park, and they are generally fit enough to do so. These are the people who DO get out of their cars. I’ve met Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, with children on their backs puffing along in the most inaccessible place. “I’m just grateful for every step,” said one perspiring mom with a baby in a front carrier, two more in tow, and Dad bringing up the rear with yet another child in a backpack. I didn’t have the heart to tell them what lay ahead.
2. The parks tend to discourage the kind of “Industrial Tourism” that Abbey rants about in several ways: The campgrounds are rustic with smaller sites and fewer amenities. They don’t tend to accommodate huge motorhomes, and once they fill up, devil take the hindmost. Other visitors—the “Industrial Tourists”—either stay in RV parks or motels nearby and take the scenic drive in their cars or on tour buses.
3. However, the parks are busy, often unpleasantly so. The paved roads that were built decades ago through difficult terrain are small and sometimes choked with traffic. Parking lots are crowded. So, the parks struggle to accommodate all the visitors, many of whom have come from halfway around the world. Zion and Bryce have a shuttle bus system. (Zion, in fact, doesn’t allow cars on its main scenic road. Go Zion!) They all have some recycling programs; they all try to educate visitors.
So, how ought we, the people, (and the Park Service) handle this situation? Impose limits? Allow only foot and bicycle traffic? Shut down areas so they can recover from decades of over-visiting? Shut down parks altogether to preserve them? Would YOU be willing to give up seeing a park in your lifetime so your grandchildren could enjoy it, untrammeled, in theirs?
Or, should we give (some of) the people what they want? Should we widen, straighten, pave, and develop until everyone can see an entire park in a day from the comfort of their personal, climate-controlled moving contraption?