NATIONAL PARKS OR THEME PARKS?


Remarks of Michael Frome, Ph.D.
50th annual banquet of Olympic Park Associates
Seattle, Washington
November 7, 1998

My life has been richly blessed by all the time I have been privileged to spend in national parks and by the challenge to work in the parks cause. Every park experience enriches my body; it elevates my mind and spirit to look above and beyond my own wants and needs. It makes me a better person, and a better citizen.

National parks, monuments and historic shrines constitute a gallery of America and Americana at their best. Unfortunately, over the past half century I have witnessed many, many changes in the parks, some few for the better, but others highly damaging and cause for serious concern. Simply stated, these precious places are overused, misused, polluted, inadequately protected, and unmercifully exploited commercially and politically -- moreso in the recent reactionary, corporate-controlled Congress than at any time in memory. Clearly, we the people need to redefine and reassert the rightful role of national parks in the fabric of contemporary high-tech, materialist-driven society. We need to rescue the national parks from being reduced to popcorn playgrounds.

People who care can do it. The entire history of the national parks and of the National Park Service proves that to be so. Establishment of the agency in 1916 and of individual parks was achieved through the efforts of concerned Americans. Virtually every one of the parks that we now take for granted came about because somewhere out there people cared -- individuals who organized groups and then campaigned through the political process, without regard for any personal reward.

As a case in point, William Gladstone Steel, from the first time he saw Crater Lake, in 1885, worked tirelessly, building support and scientific data, and influencing Oregon's congressional delegation until the national park was established in 1902. Later he said: "Aside from the United States government itself, every penny that was ever spent in the creation of Crater Lake National Park came out of my pocket and, besides that, it required many years of hard labor that was freely given... All the money I have is in the park, and if I had more it would go there too." In contrast to other great American lakes, like Tahoe, that fall in the category of paradise lost, Crater Lake, thanks to Steel, retains much of its natural character, a priceless shred of the original America.

I will also cite the crusading work in the Northwest of Irving Brant, who turned his talent in journalism to the preservation cause. In the monograph "The Olympic Forests for a National Park," published by the Emergency Conservation Committee in 1938, Brant wrote these inspiring words: "Let this land, which belongs to the American people, be placed beyond the despoiling axe and saw, beyond the hunter's rifle, and we shall have for our own enjoyment, and shall hand down to posterity, something better than an indestructible mountain surrounded by a wilderness of stumps."

Those people, from Steel, Brant, John Muir and Enos Mills down to David Brower and Polly Dyer, worked closely with professionals in government when it was appropriate. In the early years, leaders of the agency were different than now. Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service (from 1916 to 1928), showed a willingness to stand up against what he called "desecration of the people's playgrounds for the benefit of a few individuals or corporations," but you don't hear much of that any more. Now officials talk about "partnerships," mostly with for-profit entrepreneurs. The director of the Park Service, Robert Stanton, I know as experienced and well intentioned, but politics of profit has become a powerful influence in the administration of our national parks -- politics that weakens laws, regulations and the resolve of public administrators, politics more deadly to wild animals than a poacher's rifle.

Citizen responsibility has always been the vital measure of difference. I look back to the 1950s, when the proposed construction of dams in Dinosaur National Monument, though remote and little known, was defeated by a nationwide citizen campaign; Without broad citizen involvement in the 1960s and 70s there would be no national parks in the Redwoods of California or the North Cascades of Washington State or on the frontiers of Alaska.

Were it not for caring citizens, the Colorado River would be dammed where it runs through the Grand Canyon, the great forests would be long gone from the Olympic Peninsula, the Great Smoky Mountains would be scarred with a transmountain highway, and Civil War battlefields would be covered with shopping malls and subdivisions.

National park personnel would benefit by learning more history and how to apply it to their lives and their careers. They need to learn about the citizen leaders, heroines and heroes who made the parks happen and have worked diligently to safeguard them. Or maybe it would help turn the parks over to the newest employees who come to their work with idealism and hope. The truth is that the National Park Service as an institution with a cause is only a shadow of itself. Many old-guard administrators find it convenient to support, or propose, construction projects designed to draw visitors and to sanction crowd-pleasing activities reduced to a low common denominator, rather than to focus on the values of the resource itself and its protection.

I trace this approach back thirty years to 1966. In that year, dealing with the first national park wilderness proposal, in the Great Smoky Mountains, Director George B. HartzogJr., pressed for a multimillion dollar transmountain road across the park, plus additional inner loops and massive campgrounds. It was something he conceived in the backrooms of political power, without public consultation. He and his agency were motivated not by desire to protect wilderness but to weaken it, so that parks would remain open to mass recreational and commercial development.

In the prevailing politics a national park is considered valid or defensible as long as it helps jingle the cash registers of local merchants, cruise lines and tour companies. The traditional formula has been to "Preserve, Protect, Enjoy, " but the first two plainly come last. Urbanites are made to feel comfortable in the back country with treeless, barren camping suburbias. Congestion, noise, the intrusion of mechanistic supercivilization interfere with qualities that make the parks special. Wild animals and natural process make a park a park, but wildlife has been displayed almost zoo-like and crowded out of its habitat in every national park without exception. Animals are not protected from hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, snowmobiles, sightseeing airplanes and helicopters, roads, tour buses, cars, concessionaires, or park administrators.

Consequently, The heart of Yellowstone, our oldest national park, the so- called flagship, has been reduced to an urban tourist ghetto, complete with crime, litter, defacement and vandalism. Despite Yellowstone's year-round importance as wildlife habitat, each winter that park welcomes 100,000-plus snowmobilers, intruding in areas frequented by bison, elk, and other animals at the very time of year when they should be at rest and undisturbed. Presumably the snowmobiles are limited to the unplowed roads, but there is little ranger supervision or control. As the numbers continue to rise, so does the pressure to open more of the park to the machines.

To make matters worse, Yellowstone is the last fragment of wild America providing shelter to buffalo, but during the winter of 1996-97 the state of Montana and the federal government shot or forced the slaughter of 1,082 buffalo-one third of all Yellowstone's buffalo -- as they crossed out of the park into public lands in Montana. Buffalo Nations, the only group working 365 days a year in and around Yellowstone for the buffalo, has lately warned of terrible flaws in the federal government's current Bison Draft Environmental Impact Statement. All of alternatives include quarantine (in effect, domestication), and killing of buffalo. But bison must be treated like wildlife, not domestic livestock. And sound management must require the vaccination of cattle, not bison. Rifle hunting of bison is unethical, unsporting, and must be prohibited inside and outside of Yellowstone.

The National Park Service gets a failing grade as the presumed defender of the grizzly bear. The draft environmental impact statement for management of Glacier National Park, the heart of the grizzly-critical Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, changes "natural zone" to "visitor services zones." The Protect Glacier Coalition warns that the entire Going to the Sun corridor, including Lakes McDonald and St. Mary, would be changed from natural and historic to "visitor services," thus allowing future congested motorized boating at the lakes with unlimited development. The draft EIS would change wilderness to "backcountry," "rustic" and "day use." "Wilderness" as a classification has been removed and is not mentioned or defined, thus opening the way for the proposed new winterized motel, fast food restaurant, and new parking lot. But Glacier has historically been managed for development of facilities outside the park. We ought to keep it that way and save the park as wilderness for the benefit of the grizzly and the American conscience.

South of Yellowstone, the airport in Grand Teton National Park, the only airport in a national park, keeps growing, instead of being phased out and closed. In Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, where a choice must be made between protecting whales or increasing the number of large intrusive cruise vessels the decision comes down in favor of the cruise companies. In these two cases it is safe to say the Park Service has tried to resist commercial pressures, but the politics of profit have prevailed. On the other hand, in Virgin Islands National Park a few years ago I saw beautiful palm trees uprooted to make way for pavement and parking, a hillside bulldozed flat by the National Park Service so that a quiet road meant for leisurely touring could be "upgraded" into a high-speed highway to accommodate cruise-ship passengers on quickie excursions. Tight little Yosemite Valley, with 30,000 visitors daily, is more like a city than a park. Park personnel call these places "sacrifice areas," as though to legitimize the sacrifice. John Muir said, "Come to the mountains, for here there is rest." He didn't say it would be in a lodging facility with bath, bar, restaurant, entertainment, bike rentals, ice skating and room service. If that valley was relieved of one-half of its buildings, automobiles and people, Yosemite would become twice the national park it is today.

Beyond the natural areas of the National Park System, the cultural and historic units are also targeted as popcorn playgrounds and taking heavy hits. Two years ago I went to see Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico. With its eloquent ageless images, it impressed me as a treasure of transcendent value, affording civilization a new and better way to address spiritual and community needs in the twenty-first century. So it saddened me while in Albuquerque to read a statement attributed to the monument superintendent, Judith Cordova: "You can't please everyone. We are not a rural area. We are an urban area." That did not ring true, coming from the guardian of such a choice living cathedral.

Consequently, on returning home, I wrote for clarification to John Cook, the Southwest regional director of the National Park Service. I hoped he would agree that personnel of his agency are not mandated to please everyone, but to do their best to protect the treasures in their trust. It grieved me when the letter I received from Mr. Cook reiterated the same old political pap about "conflicting public ideas" and "appropriate balance" between preservation and use. No, Petroglyph National Monument should not be administered as an urban recreation area for recreationists on bikes and horses, nor "balanced appropriately" with a six-lane highway. To the contrary, the monument should be nurtured as a sacred site. The real challenge as I see it is not whether to build the proposed road, nor what kind of recreation to foster at the monument, but how to look at the landscape with a point of view that rises above the ordinary into the higher order of ethics and spirituality

Back east in Asheville, North Carolina, one month ago I went to participate in a public forum conducted by citizen organizations deeply concerned with the management, or mismanagement, of the Blue Ridge Parkway, an area I knew intimately in years past. That parkway is more than a scenic drive connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, but a composition of unspoiled natural, historical and recreation areas. It should be administered to protect those values. There is nothing wrong with tourist interests in local communities benefiting from the Blue Ridge Parkway, or from any national park, as long as priorities are clearly understood. But the citizen groups in North Carolina have been disturbed by incompatible developments encroaching on the parkway boundaries without resistance, the ongoing construction of a ten million dollar headquarters without adequate public input, and plans for an Imax theater, of all things, on public land. Whatever the issue, people who care belong at the table and should feel welcome by park administrators. But then, as one park administrator confided recently, "After 27 years in the NPS, I have been imbued with the genius of management, and therefore what I do to this park is what is best for this park."

Good folks in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, are also unhappy with Park Service plans, in their case for a new $39.3 million visitor center and museum at Gettysburg battlefield, to be run by a private operator with borrowed money, private grants and public donations. The park service said it must turn to private help because Congress won't give it money, but I cannot think of a shabbier, less defensible rationale. And I should not overlook Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota, where a massive new portal structure, with huge souvenir shop, is shamelessly more commanding than the Four Faces. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt are all weeping on the mountain and asking, "How could you do this? Where was your public involvement beyond the Black Hills tourist industry and the political power structure of South Dakota?"

These examples are not the exception, they are the rule. National parks in our time are being converted to popcorn playgrounds, resource commodities for at the service of park concessionaires, tour companies, and business interests in park-bordering communities, once attractive places that have paid a heavy price in community character and quality of life.

National parks cannot be all things and still be national parks; we cannot allow them to become outdoor amusement centers, theme parks in the Disney mode. Prudent and intelligent people must realize that unrestrained pressure on the parks for profit is not progress. Keeping people out is not the issue -- adventures in the outdoors are essential to appreciation of the mechanism of the land, but when people come into national parks they find scant emphasis on self-reliance or on the need to respect the natural environment. I recently read a National Park Service research report indicating the average visitor spends less than six hours in a park, much of the time in visitor centers and gift shops. The most disheartening data is that visitors barely walk away from their cars and the visitor centers.

In trying to define a new national parks agenda, I hearken to Theodore Roosevelt. When he spoke at Stanford University in 1903, he said there is nothing more practical than the preservation of beauty, than preservation that appeals to the higher emotions of mankind. That should be the goal and the way to attain and insure it is to inform the people and to keep the channels open, as he did.

Another time T.R. called the Grand Canyon "one of the great sights which every American should see," but he didn't say they should all come at once. To the contrary, he pleaded with Americans to do nothing to mar the Canyon's grandeur. Overuse and misuse clearly deplete the visible physical resource that people care about, and they do something to the invisible spirit of place as well. We Americans love to travel, when, where and however we want. I hate to moralize, or to advocate strict rules and regulations, or restraints on individual freedom in the out-of-doors. But with this freedom of mobility comes the responsibility to protect the environment and the ability of others to travel freely. I believe that Americans make mistakes in the out-of-doors without malice. When problems are explained properly, Americans will understand and respond appropriately, and, hopefully, influence the body politic that serves us.

Director Newton B. Drury during World War II resisted pressures to open the parks for military purposes. Consequently, little damage was done. Following the war, new demands arose to open the parks to mining, logging, grazing and dams. Drury warned of the consequences:

If we are going to succeed in preserving the greatness of the national parks, they must be held inviolate. They represent the last stands of primitive America. If we are going to whittle away at them we should recognize, at the very beginning, that all such whittlings are cumulative and that the end result will be mediocrity.

There must be no more whittling in our national parks. Citizen organizations and caring individuals must prevent any more of it. It takes serious commitment, but the effort in itself is rewarding, even more than whatever success the effort may bring. Involvement evokes the best in people: To say it another way, democracy is what we make of it, a system under which we the people get what we deserve, and what we demand. I love the work that individuals do, rising above themselves, and above institutions. In this age of distrust and disillusionment, answers come when thought, hope and dream rise above the average, when intangible values of human heart take precedence. Human touch, not money, is required.

Democracy starts with community action, scarcely ever with answers from above. True enough, the environmental crisis is global, which means that government -- along with universities, media, science, and organizations -- have their place and purpose, but the primary role belongs to people exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Community involvement enables people to analyze problems, test ideas, learn from experience of others, and feel empowered.

In the National Park Service many do care and try their best, but the principles of preservation and genuine public involvement need reaffirmation and strengthening. The early park pioneers, both in and out of government, did their best, but they had no way of anticipating the cataclysmic changes in society -- in population, transportation, the power of concessionaires, the emergence of a vast outdoor recreational industry, the advent of off-road, "all-terrain" vehicles (as Barry Goldwater called them, "the Japanese revenge"), the transformation of gateway communities into tourist ghettos.

National parks when they were new yielded discovery, adventure, and challenge. They should always do that. As the rest of the country becomes developed, and supercivilized, national parks should be held apart, safeguarded to represent another side of America, free of technology, free of automobiles, snowmobiles and flightseeing, free of commerce and crowds, free of instant gratification, a pioneer, self-reliant side of America.

National parks have become a powerful social ideal throughout the world. Virtually every country needs and wants them. Parks certainly make better calling cards than bombs do, and contribute more to peace. The rest of the world looks to the United States, where park systems are most advanced, and the United States must not betray that trust.

Something new must be done by a new group or groups of people. We need to reach out to find allies. I hope Olympic Park Associates and other citizen groups across the country will lead the way. The priority item on the agenda may be for those who hope to heal the earth to join with those who hope to heal the souls of our fellows to bring something new to bear. When we look at the revolutionary task of reordering priorities, and the sheer power of entrenched, interlocking institutions, the challenge may seem utterly impossible. Yet individuals working together, sometimes even alone, have worked miracles. That is the history of our national parks and the history of our country.

In setting the national parks agenda for tomorrow, miracles large and small are within reach. Earlier I cited Theodore Roosevelt's declaration in 1903 that nothing is more practical than the preservation of beauty that appeals to the higher emotions of mankind. I feel it safe to add in 1998: Those who work to safeguard the Olympic National Park as a sanctuary of hope will be blessed.

 


This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director,
Wild Wilderness
248 NW Wilmington Avenue,  Bend  OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261    E-mail: ssilver@wildwilderness.org