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Our National Parks and the Search for Sustainability

Our National Parks and the Search for Sustainability
Drawings by Gary O'Brien

In this book, longtime park visitor and professional geographer Bob O’Brien explores the National Park Service’s attempt to achieve "sustainability"—a balance that allows as many people as possible to visit a park that is kept in as natural a state as possible.

April 1999
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
264 pages | 6 x 9 | 50 b&w photos, 6 maps, 6 line drawings |

"Yosemite Valley in July of 1967 would have had to be seen to be believed. There was never an empty campsite in the valley; you had to create a space for yourself in a sea of cars, tents, and humanity.... The camp next to ours had fifty people in it, with rugs hung between the trees, incense burning, and a stereo set going full volume."

Scenes such as this will probably never be repeated in Yosemite or any other national park, yet the urgent problem remains of balancing the public's desire to visit the parks with the parks' need to be protected from too many people and cars and too much development. In this book, longtime park visitor and professional geographer Bob O'Brien explores the National Park Service's attempt to achieve "sustainability"—a balance that allows as many people as possible to visit a park that is kept in as natural a state as possible.

O'Brien details methods the NPS has used to walk the line between those who would preserve vast tracts of land for "no use" and those who would tap the Yellowstone geysers to generate electricity. His case studies of six western "crown jewel" parks show how rangers and other NPS employees are coping with issues that impact these cherished public landscapes, including visitation, development, and recreational use.

  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Nature of the System
  • 3. History
  • Case Study: Yellowstone National Park
  • 4. Preserving the Parks from Commercial Use
  • 5. External Threats
  • Case Study: Grand Canyon National Park
  • 6. Wilderness
  • Case Study: Denali National Park
  • 7. Wildlife
  • 8. Visitation
  • 9. Recreational Land Use
  • Case Study: Canyonlands National Park
  • 10. Care and Feeding of Visitors
  • Case Study: Yosemite National Park
  • 11. Administration, Politics, and Finance
  • Case Study: Grand Teton National Park
  • 12. Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

A professor of geography at San Diego State University, Bob R. O'Brien currently teaches courses on the national parks, outdoor recreation, and ecotourism.


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When we complain about lack of political concern with the environment we should think back 125 years, to the time when the first national park was established, and be thankful for what we have. Then, there were no environmental legislation, no environmental organizations, and almost no ecological concern. There were of course far fewer people in the United States, only about 40 million in 1872, but they were capable of immense destruction with no environmental laws or ethics to stop them. Most of the big game animals in America, such as bison, elk, and antelope, were in danger of becoming extinct, and landscapes from forests to grasslands were losing their productivity. The entire natural landscape had little value for most people, and without the environmental consciousness that came with the national parks movement, the nation would be far bleaker than it is today.

I consider the establishment of Yellowstone National Park one of the real miracles of American history. In the midst of one of the most rapacious eras in our history, we quietly set aside an area the size of one of the original states to be preserved in perpetuity. The establishment of national parks has probably been the most copied of American institutions, emulated by over a hundred nations today.

President Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Act on March 1, 1872. The key words in this act of only six hundred words were: "[Yellowstone Park] ... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people ... [and] such regulations shall provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition."

Here we have an act that breaks new ground in two major fields: it gave to the people of the United States—not individuals, not states—a large parcel of land to enjoy as a park, and it called for the preservation of that landscape in its natural state, in perpetuity. We have then the forerunner of thousands of areas throughout the world preserved as parks, wilderness areas, game refuges, and other areas for the enjoyment of the people. We also have, in reality, one of the first attempts at a sustainable use of a landscape.

Sustainability is the key word for environmentalists today, or for that matter anyone who cares about the future of this planet. At one time it may have been possible to live off the capital of the land, to leave the world a little less able to support those who came afterwards; now we have to find a sustainable lifestyle to have any hope at all for the future. Yet, with so many people of the world living in grinding poverty, sustainability becomes an almost impossible dream. The rainforest and its priceless contribution to world biodiversity and climatic stability count for less than the few years' survival it can promise to those who slash and burn. On a different level, even in the United States and Canada it is hard to preserve the small amount of ancient forest left when jobs in lumbering are at stake. Here, and through much of the world where remnants of the natural landscape exist, ecotourism offers almost the only hope of saving those landscapes.

Ecotourism is a form of tourism that offers economic support to attractive tourist destinations that would otherwise be exploited for timber, minerals, agriculture, or water resources. Classic ecotourism locations—Costa Rica, Nepal, Africa—are relatively poor areas where the influx of foreign travel dollars offers the alternative to cutting the rainforest, farming steep hillsides, or killing elephants. The same principles, however, can be applied to raft trips through the Grand Canyon, which helped keep dams out of the canyon, or making a tourist destination out of a historic village where a shopping center is planned.

The basic idea of national parks, from the beginning, was to preserve the parks for the people's enjoyment. It became obvious, however, that if a person's enjoyment consisted of breaking off pieces of one of Yellowstone's geyser cones for souvenirs or catching hundreds of trout in an afternoon, this brand of ecotourism was not going to work. The use must be sustainable. Protecting the parks meant preserving the park from commercial exploitation, and preserving it from the tourists. The first goal was the most important in the early years of the national parks, while the second has been the most important in recent years.

The national parks have been highly successful in achieving their earliest goals: to preserve the parks from commercial exploitation and to make easily accessible the most scenic portions of the United States. The preservation question is the subject of this book, but let's look at the geographic question: are the most scenic portions of the United States in the National Park System? One has only to flip through any travel brochure or picture book of the United States to answer in the affirmative, but listing superlatives also hints at the attractiveness of the national parks. Here are a few: tallest mountain in North America and one of tallest in the world from base to top (Mount McKinley in Denali National Park); most active volcanic area in United States (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park); most recent volcano in the conterminous United States (Mount Saint Helens Volcanic National Monument, run by the U.S. Forest Service); largest canyon in the world (Grand Canyon); tallest waterfalls in the United States (Yosemite); deepest lake in the United States (Crater Lake); tallest, largest, and oldest trees in the world (Redwood, Sequoia, and Great Basin National Parks); highest temperature in the United States (Death Valley); and greatest annual snowfall in the world (Mount Rainier).

Focusing on the unique and spectacular might cause us to ignore what ultimately will be the most important factor in park management: preserving habitat and ecosystems. The value of park areas has climbed sharply in the last few decades as the acreage of natural areas in the United States has been reduced. Rocky Mountain National Park was probably not the most beautiful section of the Colorado Rocky Mountains that could have been preserved in a park, but as the years go by it is becoming increasingly unique as ski resorts and backcountry vehicles scar the rest of the Colorado backcountry. It is becoming evident that we should have paid more attention to the "ordinary" landscapes such as prairie, coastal lagoons, marshlands, and hardwood forests, which might be ecologically more important than spectacular landscapes like mountains.

Other benefits seemed even more obscure when the national parks were first established. Wildlife, for example, was not particularly abundant in Yellowstone National Park compared to areas outside the park in the 1870's. Animals, like humans, prefer rich, warm lowlands to high, cold plateaus. The animals will live, however, where they need to live to survive, and in the days when game laws were virtually nonexistent they found safety inside park boundaries. Because it was protected, Yellowstone National Park became the home of the last wild buffalo herd in the United States, some of the last elk, and some of the last trumpeter swans. National parks gave breathing room to many species in the days before game laws had a chance to protect wildlife.

Watershed protection is an added bonus in having national parks. Many rivers, such as the Snake, Yellowstone, and Missouri, flow out of our parks pure and naturally regulated by uncut vegetation and undisturbed soil that absorbs the often copious rainfall. How many dams and water treatment plants would be necessary to replace what we get for free in the parks? The sight of a free-flowing stream, undammed and unpolluted, is a sight rare enough to thrill many park visitors.

Wilderness travel has become a major form of outdoor recreation. More and more people are discovering the ultimate delight in the out-of-doors, where the landscape is unmarred by roads, buildings, and the crush of people. In the national parks, wilderness begins just beyond the shoulder of the road and can be enjoyed by visitors the minute they enter park boundaries. Outside the national parks, roads invariably mean development, whether cutover forests, mined hillsides, or dammed streams. To the park motorist, roads seem numerous, but by far the greatest acreage in most national parks is roadless. Of course, the best wilderness experience comes when you leave roads far behind, and set out on foot to discover land affected only by nature.

Most visitors want only to escape the urban environment, and even the most crowded areas of the parks can fill that need. Visitors are apt to feel they are back in the city in the area surrounding Old Faithful, where thousands of people mingle for food, lodging, and parking. Then they catch a glimpse of a buffalo in the distance and can look miles beyond into pristine wilderness.

The first attention given to outdoor recreation by the federal government centered on the national parks, although it was not intended as a primary purpose of the parks. Recreational travel by car, bicycle, or on foot; recreational living in tent, trailer, cabin, or resort; boating, swimming, fishing, nature study, cross-country skiing, and mountaineering can reach their qualitative peak in the national parks. The escalation of these pursuits has worried many who feel that they could take place just as easily outside the parks, but most of the pursuits mentioned above can, with care, continue to be enjoyed at their present level, and some, like hiking, can be much expanded.

In a situation that makes local chambers of commerce happy and fills environmentalists with foreboding, the National Park System has become one of the top tourist attractions in the world. It would be hard to think of a way to extract a greater monetary benefit from developing the resources of any park than the tourist dollars that flow into it now. Even cutting back development within the parks would not stem the flow of tourist income into the surrounding areas, because the more beautiful the parks become, the more people are going to want to see them.

Finally, the educational value of the national parks is immense. People come to the Grand Canyon primarily to see one of the great natural wonders in the world. Many of them will also just look awhile, take a picture, and leave. But most will wonder how the canyon was formed and stand in awe at the unimaginable duration represented by one of the greatest exposures of geologic time in the world. They might also wonder how the area is being preserved by the National Park Service (NPS) for future generations and what is being done about current problems such as the noise from overflights and overcrowding. The answers are available there from rangers, in visitor centers, and in an extensive literature on the canyon and the park, although lack of funds has reduced the educational potential of this and other national parks.

We must be proud of our wisdom in setting aside national parks. We all sometimes look at our past and think of ourselves as heartless exploiters of the country's natural wealth. Thanks to the national parks, however, and other forms of preservation that have followed, we have probably saved more of the country's outstanding scenic, historic, and scientific areas than we have lost. Furthermore, there is every expectation that the national parks might someday represent one of the largest areas of sustainable use in the world.


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