The National Park Debate

Wall Street Hiking Trail Bryce Canyon National Park UtahIn 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.

Do Not Feed Coyotes SignOvercrowded 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.

15 Responses to “The National Park Debate”

  1. Cory Haugen

    We often come across historical cases of the parks being misused on our adventures. While they still have a few issues ( o.k. a lot of issues) with public misuse, I have to say that the National Parks Service does some amazing reclamation work. Not only is the NPS trying to restore what was damaged, but they are trying to do so on an anemic budget. I shudder to think what we as the American consumer machine would have done to our parks had they not been protected.

  2. leland

    i understand and concur with ur statements….not sure what the answer(s) might be but maybe some type of rationing of the part (quota system for visitatio),,,,work to visit arrangements….more parks to spread the total population load out….etc…i do think the parks are getting better but there has been a lot of abuse over the years (unintentional but still abuse)…thanks for the thoughts

  3. leland

    i would be interested in ur perception after the Ken Burns PBS special on the natioinal parks the last part of September….i think he has some of the same issues…also remember without the national parks, some of the more beautiful country would be totally lost to everyone,,,,example is hetch hetchy….the other valley in yosemite that was damed and made into a reservoir…..kinda of a damned if u do-damned if u don’t situation…..maybe it goes back to ‘too many people’…..just my thoughts

  4. Gray

    Good article. People in general, even those with the best of intentions, are not well-educated as to how their presence impacts an ecosystem. There needs to be a lot more education and public awareness. Littering is the one that bugs me the most, because everyone over the age of 5 knows that’s not okay, but they do it anyway. It makes me crazy.

    Like you, I don’t know what the solution is. If the national parks system had the money, they could hire more staff and perhaps control the public’s access and behavior more strictly, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. It is a sad situation, though.

  5. Mark H

    Australia has that debate too with some becoming “too” popular. I’ve always thought that having lots of people visit national parks was goodness as it primarily instills good environmental practices (a sad few do litter and damage places but all you can do is catch them and do our best that they don’t repeat the practice), does offer long term protection (govts are rarely game to remove national parks) and appreciation of nature at its finest. After all, 90% of most national parks do stay as true wilderness and are accessed by few or any. For example how many get out of the valley floor and Glacier Point at Yosemite, yet Yosemite is a large park. Ditto for Yellowstone and Zion and all the other great US parks. Sadly the folks who do damage would still find nice places to damage whether they were designated as national parks or not.

  6. Trisha

    Excellent, thought-provoking post Joanna.

    I don’t have a solution, but I do know that if the general populace doesn’t have the opportunity to receive some tangible benefit from public spaces by being able to go see, touch, and experience these parks in ways that, by their very presence, has a negative effect on them, people will stop caring about them. And not caring results in a great risk of losing some (or all) of what we own at the hands of an unsympathetic government who has no fear of an apathetic citizenry.

    So perhaps you’re right in that there must be some small sacrifice – the needs of the many, eh?

  7. Rufus Quail

    I go in the off-season, like Grand Canyon in December. You have the place to yourself, but only about 4 hours of daylight at Phantom Ranch. On the way out, I collected a large bag of trash. Barely made a dent. Everyone pitch in and carry out trash. Thank you.

  8. Mike

    I’ve written a piece on my blog that touches upon this same issue, in this case completely disrespecting the wildlife of Grand Teton National Park, black bears specifically.
    Living in Jackson, Wyoming makes it especially hard seeing people each day simply not using any common sense around wildlife and clogging up the roads into Yellowstone, completely stopping traffic at any site of a large animal.

    I hope a solution is found very soon.

    • JoAnna

      Thank you for your comment, Mike.

      I get really concerned about the way wildlife in and around the national parks is treated because when it comes down to us versus them, the animals usually get the short end of the stick. People need to be more cognizant of how their actions affect the Earth, the animals and the environment, because if we don’t start respecting the planet’s natural spaces, they won’t remain that way for long.

  9. Amiee

    Great discussion JoAnna. I honestly like to steer clear of the National Parks since I really can’t stand crowds and there are so many equally amazing places that haven’t received such a designation.

    I think the issue has to do with accessibility. Any easily accessible place is going to pretty much be destroyed by the masses. Anytime I get freaked out in a National Park I just remember that all I need to do is hike for about 10 minutes and then I am completely alone. I just hope that we don’t eventually make every amazing pristine place accessible by car because then we will surely be in trouble.

    On the other hand I like that plenty of gorgeous places are accessible by many or else the elderly and disabled wouldn’t get to experience them. I go run round in circles forever with this topic…

    • JoAnna

      I always think that the best places in our national parks take work to reach. You’re absolutely right ~ hike 10 minutes off the trail and it’s common not to see another person.

  10. Deb

    I think that the United States is at least a leader in keeping their parks pristine. I have seen so many places abused around the world and it is great to see America is trying. It is amazing that they have caves that people aren’t allowed in to and it is true that if you go off the beaten path there are still places that are untouched. Unfortunately, it seems that it is in human nature to travel en masse and destroy. We are sprawling and spreading all over the world. Thank God there are countries that have set up national parks to protect at least some of nature, but like you, I don’t know what the solution is.
    I often think of a quote from the Matrix (cheesy I know) when Agent Smith compared humans to a viris. We replicate and spread uncontrollably and eventually destroy our environment. I wonder if he was on to something?

    • JoAnna

      He probably was on to something! I am tempted to say that humans are the biggest destroyers of our own space. Why we can’t appreciate and take care of it, I’ll never understand.

  11. Don Faust

    I think every visitor needs to be told to read a handed-out one-page brochure of rules. Visitors who violate these rules will be stiffly fined – not like $50, but more like $500. They need to know that we’re serious about keeping things intact.

    • JoAnna

      I’m all for stricter fines on stuff like this. I’ve seen some really upset visitors who have been scolded or fined for breaking very clearly stated national park rules, and they’re actually offended. Big fines might also help fund the parks a bit more when they need it most!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *