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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Must National Parks modernize to remain relevant?

Michael Gray
National parks are all over the news these days. From stories about a “Creepy” graffiti bandit to efforts by some states to seize our national heritage, national parks are at the top of the national discussion. At the heart of many of these stories is a question, one that has perplexed the Park Service from before its inception, how can the park system remain relevant in our modern world? Some even go so far as to question the conservation ethic which serves as the Park Service’s guiding management principle, claiming it should be buried.

Everyone seems to have an idea on how to make the parks relevant. Suggestions range from giving the parks to the states, providing new or expanded access for recreational activities like mountain biking or providing new amenities like high speed internet and cell phone services.

Putting aside the fact that national parks like Glacier and Rocky Mountain continue to break visitation records, pundits bemoan the fact that the current park system is a throwback to an ancient time.  If national parks are to remain relevant especially to millennials and minorities the park system must get with the times.

But is this the case? Are we standing on a historic precipice? Must we so dramatically change the park system to save it, that it would be hardly recognizable to visitors even a decade ago?

Anyone who would answer yes to these questions obviously doesn’t know the Park Service’s history and how it is that we are the beneficiary of a system that is the envy of the world.

Nearly every generation of park defenders is challenged by a misguided segment of the population saying the parks must modernize or risk becoming irrelevant. The parks are too difficult to access, the park service places to many restrictions on visitors, they are too antiquated or out of date they charge.  They need to be run more like a business, offering a resort like broad spectrum of activities and amenities.

However, the park system was created in part as a counter to modernization or as some put it the cheapening of nature.

In the early years of the country, the nation’s best known natural wonder was Niagara Falls. People came from all over the world to see the mighty cataract. Quick thinking entrepreneurs saw dollars signs in those visitors. They bought up many of best viewing spots and walled them off, with a baseball like outfield fence.  Visitors were charged a pretty penny to see the falls through precut viewing holes. Yet, this would only capture so much money and wouldn’t guarantee repeat visits, so these entrepreneurs continually sought ways to capture the public’s attention, to keep the falls “modern.” Promoters brought in high wire acts and traveling circuses to squeeze the crowds of their hard earned money.  Unfortunately, Niagara Falls became little more than a cheap backdrop for the ever sensational and questionable sideshows.

It was against this backdrop that the national park system got its start. Early proponents of the parks realized that private viewing platforms, circus acts, and high wire stunts cheapened Niagara Falls, but even worse the “modernization” cheapened visitor’s experience, rendering a trip to the falls as no different than an experience that could be had at a circus or carnival.  The founders of the national parks knew what made Yellowstone and Yosemite special, they can provide experiences and create memories to be found nowhere else in the world. The park system’s founders deliberately wanted to prevent the cheapening of the country’s scenic wonders; by protecting our most iconic landscapes while providing reasonable access for all. Unlike Europe where public lands were often playgrounds for the rich and powerful, America’s public domain would be open to everyone. As such, the park system and park service were established to preserve and protect our nation’s best natural, cultural and historic wonders for the benefit of both current and future generations.

Parks don’t need Wi-Fi, parks don’t need high speed internet, parks don’t need five-star accommodations and parks don’t need state management. These so-called solutions are actually the quickest path toward rendering the parks irrelevant, merely another side show. Instead the public must demand that park managers focus on what makes national parks’ unique and protect that.

The only reason we have the opportunity to debate the relevance of national parks today is because our ancestors put aside their short term wants by protecting our most treasured places.  We owe them a great debt for this gift. We cannot pay them back for this gift. Rather we can merely pass it forward unimpaired. If we curb our desire to modernize the national parks, future generations will thank us as well.

Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his conservation work and novels, please visit or follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers

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