The National Park Service has evolved over its 100+ years existence, with varied perceptions about its role in aiding conservation and recreation. From its humble beginnings as just a vision in Roosevelt’s and Muir’s mind’s eye, the National Park Service has experienced a variety of perspectives, both good and bad, about their mission. Many people, myself included, hold the National Parks Service in high esteem as the folks that help to maintain and protect our beautiful public places in this country. Yet, it’s not all blue skies and sunshine. There are almost as many opinions about the NPS and “appropriate” land use as there are plots of land. Therein is the heart of where most problems with the National Park Service lie: Land Usage. Which begs the question, who should be in charge of a particular area and to what extent? Think about Native Americans that have been “re-located” off their ancestral lands to make room for the white man’s hunting grounds or recreation playgrounds. Think about ranchers in the western plains states whose lands are subject to restrictions put in place by the NPS. There are no easy answers, but as lovers of our lands it’s only right that the questions be asked.
To exacerbate some of the bad perceptions of the National Park Service, they are a branch of the Federal government and with that come partisan politics that frequently divide issues affecting the operation of our Parks and sites. Since the NPS is a predominantly funded by the Federal government operated programs can be affected, either adversely or positively, depending on the current administration. Theodore Roosevelt got the ball rolling as “The Conservation President” and many of the sound conservation programs including the steps for the establishment of the NPS can be attributed to Roosevelt. Then as we look at more recent administrations, Barack Obama passed more legislation to protect lands and establish monuments than any other President. The future of the sanctity and preservation of our most beloved lands is currently threatened under the current administration. Again, the issue frequently comes down to land usage. I shudder at the thought that a recent President even considered extending mining rights within the boundaries of the Grand Canyon. Luckily there are enough people, who not only love the Parks but also understand the long term ramifications of such actions. Short term economic gains do not justify permanent desecration of some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
A good example of the complexity of land usage matters is found with Point Reyes National Seashore. The seashore, an hour north of San Francisco, is managed and protected by the NPS. The issues surrounding the management and operation of the land does indeed provide an example of how complicated the issues involving the National Park Service can become. Yet it also shows how the battles that ensue can become so tragic and intense.
To understand how complex these issues can become, it is best to have a brief overview of the history of Point Reyes. President John F. Kennedy established the National Seashore at Point Reyes in 1962, but the government only owned a portion of the land. The rest of the land in that area had been owned and operated by ranchers and dairy farmers for over 100 years. Much of the land was purchased from the farmers and ranchers with the federal government allowing them to continue farming on the land with long term leases.
In these park lands, there was an effort to restore Tule elk: a previously endangered species. The recovery of the elk has been a conservation success, to some extent. However keeping the cows and elk in close proximity is not without its problems. Both the elk and cattle have been struck with a chronic wasting disease, affecting both species. The elk’s habitat frequently became “shared” with the cattle that graze there. Fences can contain cattle within their defined boundaries, but the elk easily jump the fences and end up sharing the grazing land with the cattle.
The efforts to restore the endangered elk were considered successful. However, the problems that occurred and fights that brewed among conservationists, the National Park Service and the ranchers using the land culminated in several lawsuits. In September of 2020, the NPS released an impact statement that extends the leases for the ranchers. It also allowed National Park Service rangers to shoot native Tule elk and otherwise drive the elk away from ranch lands. As you can imagine, this plan would make the ranchers happy, but the conservationists who fought so hard to re-populate an endangered species were frustrated and perplexed…to say the least. This push/pull battle on the use of public lands is frequently fought. The decisions made at Point Reyes have been fluctuating for almost the past decade and it is unlikely that the story has come to an end yet. Here is a photo that seems to be a commonplace image at Point Reyes.
Since the inception of the National Park Service, issues such as these have surfaced and will more than likely continue to do so. The NPS realizes, perhaps in so many ways, that “you can’t please all the people all the time.” They devise general guidelines for smooth operations of the parks and continued goals for conservation. Yet, inevitably situations arise that demand a reexamination of what they believed to be “gospel.” As Americans, our perceptions of how the land should be utilized and what we believe makes a beautiful park and/or vacation spot has varied from generation to generation. Some things are quintessential, but some perceptions do change. When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s, it seemed commonplace and “Oh so much fun!” to feed the bears at Yellowstone from your car window. We know better now…not good for the bears or the people. Yet, the NPS has strived to meet those needs of a changing America and at the same time assuring the conservation of our most sacred lands.
Fast forward to 2020; a look at the devastating Coronavirus that swept through our country shows it had profound impacts on our society. The number of deaths was staggering and how the virus impacted every aspect of our lives. As the increased demands on the public to isolate and “shelter in place”, so did our need to get outside, get some fresh air and enjoy the beauty of a park. Park attendance increased dramatically, which was good news for increasing the public’s awareness of the splendor of our public landscapes, but became an added challenge to the Park administrators to handle the crowds and keep park goers safe during one of the most devastating pandemics this country has seen. At one point during 2020, some of the Parks and sites had to temporarily close to visitors to help contain the spread of the virus.
The NPS helped to keep everyone informed of closures and restrictions, which was a challenge because the situation frequently changed. As many organizations did, the NPS promoted many reminders for mask wearing in public places, hand washing and social-distancing. Here is a sample of one of their reminders for social-distancing. A little levity helps the situation and still makes a point:
My trip to the Utah parks in the fall of 2020 almost didn’t happen and the plans I made were subject to change at a moment’s notice. Zion had closed several trails, campgrounds and the shuttle service in March. The Park remained opened but with limited access. The shuttle system did reopen in July, but with a new ticketing system that assured 50% capacity on the buses to maintain social distancing. It was a good system, but nevertheless seemed awkward when visitors to the park were seeking wide open spaces. At this particular point in time, it would have been nice to go somewhere “mask free.” Yet, I gave the NPS great credit for making the best of a bad situation; the pandemic was bad enough….thank goodness we could still get out and enjoy the Parks even if it was very different than the usual Park experience. It appeared to me, that a great majority of the Park goers did the very best they could to follow the rules in the spirit of cooperation and relishing the opportunity to enjoy the unique beauty of Zion National Park.
So our trip to Zion was incredible, in spite of the pandemic regulations that gave the trip some “unique” qualities. Qualities that will indeed make it memorable.
Another element that made the Zion trip stick out in my mind is how the NPS handled the pandemic; a positive perception in my mind. It seemed to me that the NPS did everything they could to provide a safe environment for visitors, but also realized the importance of connecting with nature and seeking the great outdoors at a time when the whole nation was just about going crazy with all the quarantine policies. John Muir knew the healing powers of nature when he said:
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
So John Muir had it right…we need the wilderness to restore our souls and renew our spirits. Whatever your perceptions of the National Parks may be, or perhaps you don’t have an opinion one way or the other….take the time to see what the NPS has to offer. Seeking out a few hours or perhaps an extended trip to a Park can be well worth the effort. Even if it’s as simple as a “Walk in the Park”. Put your Traveling Shoes on….
Julie E. Smith