In Great Basin National Park—one of the few national parks without an entrance fee—there is a cave. You have to pay for the cave tour (either 60 or 90 minutes), which caps at around 20 people and takes you into the depths and history of what should be a truly spectacular natural creation. Lehman Cave—one of only 70 caves in the United State with formations called shields—has nine tours each day.
That’s a lot of feet that trek through the cave. Though the rule now is not to touch anything, Lehman Cave’s history consists of breaking formations for souvenirs and burning initals onto the cave ceiling as a form of graffiti. In the past, dances have been held here and Boy Scout troops have camped. The lights that mark the way throughout the cave are so warm that algae is growing near them (the good news is that they are starting to replace standard bulbs with LED lights). Once a year, the park gathers volunteers to pick lint and skin cells, which cling to the cave walls as they naturally pass through the air.
Sounds like a “natural” kind of place, huh?
As much as I love the national parks of the United States, I’m also disheartened by what I see happening in and to many of them. As property of the American people, it’s our privilege to be able to take advantage of the beauty and opportunity afforded by the more than 360 national park areas in the United States.
And with the depressing economic situation, more people are embracing the “staycation” concept while money is being cut from the national park budget. At the same time, the parks are opening their doors wider—this summer, people were encouraged to explore the national park system with “free weekends” that occurred once each in June, July and August.
I think it’s a great idea for people to visit our national parks. We get so embedded in the daily grind and forget to look around at the amazing things Mother Nature has created right in our own backyards. I love to see people excited about wildflowers and waterfalls and leaves changing color.
But I also have mixed feelings about people visiting our national parks when I find garbage on the ground, footprints across delicate meadows or alpine landscapes, people feeding wild animals, noise, bumper-to-bumper traffic and light pollution. I get annoyed when people hop out of cars, take a few pictures and say they’ve visited a place. It concerns me to see people on hiking trails ill-prepared for unforeseen incidents.
Overcrowded and overvisited Lehman Cave is but one example of the damage a human presence can have on the environment and on the national parks. The overabundance of tour buses plowing through Yosemite National Park drop off hordes of people that actually make the famous Yosemite Falls impossible to photograph up close. On a recent hike up Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park, I rubbed elbows with more people than stairs I climbed to get to the top. Driving Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park isn’t nearly as beautiful when you see bighorn sheep drinking anti-freeze out of a puddle in a parking lot.
We love our national parks, but are we loving them to death? Do people feel it is their right to destroy the land that has been preserved for them? I don’t know what the answer is to the national park debate because maybe I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I do my part to tread lightly, stay on trails, remain quiet, keep wild animals wild, pack out, pick up trash, take park-sponsored shuttle buses and support national park programs and initiatives. But no one can leave just footprints. Any human presence is going to disrupt the natural environment in some way.
Which is how we return full circle to Lehman Cave, Yosemite Valley, Moro Rock, Going-to-the-Sun Road and countless other similar places in other national parks. I noticed on our cave tour that our guide mentioned in passing that there are other caves in Great Basin National Park. It was a side comment to which he provided no further information. The public isn’t allowed in them … people in general don’t even know where they are. Yosemite Valley—home to the park’s most famous sites—is less than one percent of the entire park. Most people never explore further than Yosemite Valley, leaving much of the protected wilderness … well … wild. The same holds true for Moro Rock, Going-to-the-Sun Road and other popular tourist hubs in the national parks. There are sites in every national park that people gravitate toward, and the rest of the park is virtually untouched. There is still plenty of beautiful, pristine, natural land that can only be accessed by hiking longer and less popular trails or getting a backcountry permit.
Is the answer to the national park debate simply to sacrafice some for the well-being of most? Do we give up Lehman Cave to placate the public so that we can withhold Great Basin’s other secrets? Do we hand over Moro Rock with its carved stairs and steady stream of traffic so that the Congress Trail remains quiet?
These are questions that we may never be able to answer, but they are questions that will stay on my mind as I continue to seek out the quietest corners of the parks I choose to explore.