Protecting the Golden Goose


Remarks of Michael Frome, Ph.D.
Tourism and Parks Conference
Des Moines, Iowa
April 14, 1987

Our national parks undoubtedly are the most popular and most loved tourist destinations in America. That's all to the good. But like any object of beauty, a park requires protection, with high standards of care and conservation, to sustain the qualities that make it special.

National parks should never be regarded simply as tourist attractions with dollar signs attached to them. I see public recreation as a large and essential factor in contributing to the quality of American life. It serves the economy as well, but that isn't its primary purpose.

Outdoor recreation spans a variety of interests, tastes and goals. Theme parks, such as Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Opryland and Disneyland, fill particular niches. So do commercial resorts and campgrounds. But public recreation areas are something else again, filling a different niche.

Public parks and forests provide an antidote to urbanized living, a return to pioneer pathways, a chance to exercise the body and mind in harmony with the great outdoors. In such places Americans learn to understand and to respect the natural environment. Historic parks maintain the opportunity for successive generations to learn firsthand about the conditions that shaped our culture. Contacts of this nature instill's the vital sense of being an American.

The national parks assuredly were designed for use by the people, not for an elite aristocracy, nor for scientific study alone. Access to parks is a hallmark of American democracy. But with crowds and jingling cash registers, everything changes. I've seen beauty spots in this country and other parts of the world overexploited and milked dry long before their time. The two words "Miami Beach" symbolize uglification of nature for profit. In one word, "Waikiki Beach" is another example. Golden arches, chain motels, convention centers, highway strips overcommercialized with billboard blight and honkytonk tourist traps - they're lookalikes that blot out distinctiveness and beauty.

Forty years ago Gatlinburg, Tennessee, was a friendly country crossroads and gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today the "number one mountain resort of the nation" is like an obstacle course of money machines called "family fun attractions," while the 15- story Sheraton-Gatlinburg Hotel sits perched above the town, flush against the park boundary. There is no escaping the view of this massive white mausoleum, not from hiking trails in the park, nor from the valley below.

Elsewhere in the country, the most cherished national battlefield parks - Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chattanooga and Vicksburg - all have been tarnished by commercial attractions, saloons, souvenir stands, sub divisions and condos encroaching from surrounding lands and sprinkled throughout private inholdings within the parks.

The most glaring example of these eyesores is the 307 foot-high commercial tourist tower dominating the scene of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The tower distracts the eye so thoroughly that a sense of the tragedy of the battle and of Lincoln's eloquence is lost. This should never happen, considering that national parks are set aside to show the best of America to Americans and to visitors from all parts of the world.

Each park needs a deliberate design to preserve the fundamental values of its natural ecosystem and historic integrity. Otherwise, the inroads of cumulative damage are inevitable. Inch-by-inch losses are accepted because they seem inconsequential, but, as at Gatlinburg, Gettysburg and a hundred other places, they add up to the loss of values that can never be replaced.

The same holds true for the types of activities sanctioned in national parks. The greatest reward comes from the challenge of doing something on one's own that demands an expenditure of personal energy, that yields the feeling of self-sufficiency away from a supercivilized world. Yet helicopters and planes are increasingly being used for sightseeing in national parks. The Grand Canyon represents the absolute worst example of furnishing instant wilderness at a price, while jarring the experience of those endeavoring to meet and appreciate the Canyon on its own terms.

It grieves me that national park administrators themselves tend to lose sight of their mandate and mission. As I observed on a recent visit to Virgin Islands National Park, the emphasis in management is on serving development and tourism without concern for preservation of the natural ecosystem. I found reefs damaged and dying, a building boom underway where building should never be allowed, and the national park actually contributing to resource degradation by cutting down handsome palm trees to build wide highways and parking lots.

At Olympic National Park, in Washington State, the superintendent directed construction of a power line through a wilderness study area, in violation of the Park Service's own policies. When I interviewed him about it, his response was simple: "Do you want to keep the ski lodge from opening on schedule this winter?" - as though that was more important than protecting the Olympic wilderness from the endless nibbling that undermines it.

And now I have at hand a statement from the Voyageurs National Park Association, a citizen group, in response to the official proposal for trail plan alternatives. The Association objects, very properly, to the portion of the "preferred alternative" providing for a snowmobile trail across the Kabetogama Peninsula, one of the outstanding natural areas of the upper midwest, furnishing habitat for eagles, wolves and moose. Snowmobiling has been accepted as a fitting use in the park, but that doesn't mean it needs to be everywhere.

The point is that national parks cannot be all things and still be national parks. Prudent and intelligent people must realize that unrestrained pressure on the parks for profit is not progress. It serves to make one generation rich and to impoverish the future. A place of beauty is like a theatre; it may be built to seat 500 persons - if it is, you don't try to cram 1,000 persons into those 500 seats or to give them free reign to do whatever they want.

I believe the travel industry and citizen conservationist organizations can work together for the long range good of the parks and the public interest. In Jackson, Wyoming, last year, I learned of a tourism survey commissioned by the chamber of commerce. It determined that visitors were attracted most by the following assets: Grand Teton National Park; Yellowstone National Park; big game, visible and legendary (moose, elk, deer, coyote, bighorn sheep); outdoor recreation, adventuresome and tranquil; mountain setting and scenery, uncrowded open country; and hospitable, friendly people.

Let us work together to keep it that way. The emphasis needs to be on protecting and enhancing the quality and character of each park, and letting dollar values follow. When the desires of business interests for profit are allowed to dominate, the beauty will be lost - inevitably, and without fail.

"Our very existence and success depend on making sure that pristine and unimpaired wilderness experiences are preserved for tomorrow, next week, next year and for the next generation of visitors to enjoy," states Robert Giersdorf, former president of the Travel Industry Association of America, whose company, Exploration Holidays and Cruises, is a major operator in Alaska and elsewhere in the world.

That makes for a sound approach. It helps to protect a valuable economic resource, rather than squandering and ruining it. At the same time it preserves the parks as the symbols of a proud national heritage.


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