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The problem with our national parks is that they are no longer for the people

Tuesday 14 July 2009 at 2:44 pm. In an interesting blog posted on the New York Times Web site last week and republished as an op-ed piece in some newspapers, Timothy Egan, Seattle bureau chief for the newspaper, bemoans the state of the national park system.

He cites the declining visits to the parks and that all visitors look the same – “generally white, fairly prosperous, sensible-shoe-wearing adults.”

He links this decline of interest in the parks to today’s youngsters – too overweight, too devoted to electronic media, and lacking an interest in nature and the outdoors.

It’s a good blog, and Egan makes many good points about the state of our parks and the need for “a new generation of stewardship.”

His solution is an interesting one – get first lady Michelle Obama to make the parks her next mission – sort of do for the national parks what she did for growing lettuce.

Egan says we need a “superstar” and a “style shaper” to help the parks, and he says Obama is just the right person. I like Michelle Obama very much.  She is smart, and she is a superstar and a style shaper with real class.

However, Egan has missed the mark in diagnosing the problem with the parks and with his solution.

Island Free Press reader Dennis Gray of Dayton, Ohio, hit the nail on the head with his diagnosis of the problems with our national parks.

“Simply put, the parks are no longer for people,” he wrote in his response to Timothy Egan.

And I want to share his full response with you.

Here is what Gray wrote:

Timothy Egan's blog, "We Need Michelle Obama to Rescue National Parks," makes some good points about the declining visitation to our national parks and seashores.  Unfortunately, he terribly misses the mark about the cause of and solution to this problem.

There certainly are concerns about today’s children and young adults not getting out and experiencing the great outdoors, but this is not the major problem with our parks. And neither is childhood obesity the fault of the national parks.  

Perhaps the biggest problem in our parks system goes back to the '70s when the focus of park management went from visitors experience balanced with conservation to predominantly environmental/wildlife management.

This shift also brought in "top-down, one-size-fits-all" management of our parks with far more focus on the environment than the visitors.  

Simply put, the parks are no longer for people.

When you ban rock climbing from Devils Tower National Monument, does visitation go up or down?  When you ban snowmobiles from all parts of Yellowstone National Park, does visitation go up or down?  When you close off miles of the best beaches in Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area, does visitation go up or down?

How can you manage all these spaces with basically the same set of rules?  Can you manage the Grand Canyon National Park with the same rules as Gettysburg Battlefield National Park? Or the cluster of urban buildings that make up Dayton Aviation National Park?  

There was a time when superintendents had more autonomy in the management of each park that would allow it to better reflect the unique history, character, and natural settings of each, as well as the historic lifestyles of the people who live there.  

Our parks are becoming museums, roped off expanses with "Don't touch" or "People stay out" signs all over them.  

And people wonder why visitation is down?  

This centralized bureaucratic management has also made the parks system more malleable to the whims of special interest groups through litigation.  The desire of these groups is to make our national parks more like our national wildlife refuge system, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  As this shift has been forced on the National Park Service, its managers have had to redirect their money and resources away from visiting guests to wildlife management.  Accordingly the campgrounds, visitation centers, and other infrastructure have fallen into decay.  

And they wonder why visitation is down?  

If people can't get out and actually experience the great outdoors, how can they ever learn to appreciate it?

What's really interesting is that the original supporters of our parks system were hunters, fishermen, skiers, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts.  They not only supported the parks as a way to conserve spaces for their activities as a concept decades before today’s environmentalists, but they have also supported the parks financially through their user fees, license fees, and surtaxes paid on the sporting equipment used in their endeavors.  These recreational groups have long favored reasonable conservation, balanced with the needs of the visitors -- the sensible belief that there is plenty of space for all types of activities.  Today these are the very people the environmentalists wish to ban as part of their own narrow-minded, preservationist views of the purpose of our park system.  

These environmental groups -- such as Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, and the World Wildlife Federation -- contribute little if anything monetarily toward the operation of our parks, but will spend millions in legal fees to force the Park Service’s hand on management issues.  Even worse, in many of these lawsuits, the Park Service has to reimburse these groups their legal fees, more money that could have gone toward the operation of our parks.

The idea that we need to get today’s kids more active in outdoor recreation is a good idea.  However it would probably be better accomplished on a local level by supporting local Boy and Girl Scout troops, as well as other organizations that organize these types of activities.  The real problem here is a parenting one.  

The notion that the answer is as simple as getting the first lady to walk around in our parks in $600 tennis shoes is absurd.  Sure it might be good to get the publicity and the sentiment is nice, but it would do nothing to fix the real problems that underlay the management and falling visitation of our parks system.  

Egan offers this as a solution and parallels his idea with Michelle Obama's gardening initiative to get kids to eat more vegetables.  Is there information indicating that kids are now gobbling down their vegetables?  Of course not.

six comments

Mike Berry

Dennis Gray is absolutely correct. And Timothy Eagan needs to get out from behind his desk more often.

The denial of public use and managed access such as we currently see on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is an every growing common occurrence around the country. Visitors do not go to places that deny access. What choice does the public have but to by-pass the National Parks in face of closures and limited use and access?

Over a year and a half ago, a federal judge was convinced to sign a consent decree to convert the most popular and frequented sections of the “Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area" into mile after mile of exclusive “Bird Use Area." This year, five bird species, totaling less than three dozen birds, have displaced thousands of visitors from around the world into now much overcrowded sections of the seashore, in some cases overrunning the carrying capacity of those ecosystems.

From limited accessible sections of the national seashore, it is difficult to observe wildlife interactions let alone enjoy what was once a recreational area.

Environmental activist organizations have found the National Parks to be easy targets for justifying their existence. The paid leadership and staffs of some of these more radical, non-governmental environmental organizations are constantly searching for a mission to justify their paycheck. They use environmental law—a body of law as big and confusing as the US Tax Code—to focus on Parks.

When allowed to do their job unimpeded by environmental activism, the National Park Service has shown itself to be fully capable of providing public access while protecting and preserving natural resources. However, growing litigation and political correctness such as what we see in the current consent decree essentially takes away access management authority from National Park Service.

Increasingly, the public has limited opportunity to even comment on and take part in the formulation of balanced environmental management policy for the National Parks and Seashores. Until such time it recognized that Parks are primarily for the benefit of people, especially hard working taxpayers, visitor decline will increase. And that is exactly what the environmental activist organization want to see happen.

Mike Berry (Email ) - 14-07-’09 16:27
Scott Lambright

Nice article Irene. Both Dennis Gray and Dr. Berry have hit the nail on the head. The sickening part about CHNSRA, is that the National Park Service and the Courts are not following the guidance that Congress clarified, reaffirmed, declared and directed per the “Redwood Amendment”. By this act (16USC1a-1) Congress has specifically defined the purpose as “to the common benefit of all the people of the United States.” They stated further that “the authorization of activities shall be “construed” (Meaning that they should be for “the common benefit of all the people of the United States.” Somehow this purpose interpretation has been replaced with “the common benefit of all the wildlife (with exception to raccoons, opossum, ghost crabs, and fox) of the United States” regardless, or without any consideration or deference to specific congressional mandates of the Enabling Legislation.
Congress specifically states that the protection, management, and administration of the specific areas are to be conducted in the light of high public value and integrity of the National Park System. Is modifying an approved legal NEPA document and making new environmental rule without public comment and review “In the light of high public value”, specifically when it has significant impact on the human environment? Is using non-peered reviewed, precedent setting resource closure distance buffers best available science and “In the light of high public value? Is disregarding all factors of the Federal Administrative Procedures Act, that should have been considered prior to entering a Consent Agreement “In the light of high public value? Is severely restricting the Public access to their congressional mandated recreational exception areas when there is no proof that the resource has been impaired “In the light of high public value”? Is severely restricting the legal residents congressional mandated right to earn a livelihood by fishing within the boundaries, under these current economic times “In the light of high public value”?

Are the resources any better off this year than last? No. Are we derogating from the values and purpose of why CHNSRA was established? Yes. Do we have specific Congressional approval to do this? No. Are we “In the light of high public value”? No. How much longer does this prejudice and foolery have to last?

Scott Lambright (Email ) - 14-07-’09 20:27
Rob Alderman

The CD and Reg Neg were unable to create a positive solution or medium for the ORVs and the enviroment. The CD has not created a better habitat for the bird species as Derb Carter has claimed.

However, the CD has created a communtity of upset and hostile residents and visitors. The CD has taken a commutity of widlife and enviroment lovers and turned them into a society that would rather see the wildlife fail, then succeed. The CD has created and great distrust amongst citizens and their Goverment. The CD has been an over achiever in the economic damage category. And, the CD has been succesfull in turning neighbors, friends and family on one another over their beliefs — like a pack of wild dogs.

I agree with Derb Cater..The CD is working—but I do not share his enthusiasm, nor idea that it has been better for anything in anyway.>-(

It is because of the CD that I know in my heart—That the National Parks are no longer for the people..

Rob Alderman - 15-07-’09 07:33
Hawk Hawkins

Well said,all!I’ve often wondered why the “symbolic fencing”,strung around the “bird enclosures“is not police “do not cross-crime scene“tape.There certainly IS a crime being committed…the theft of FREEDOM from the American people.

Hawk Hawkins (Email ) - 15-07-’09 09:54
chuck allison

all at once the ‘symbolic fencing’ makes sense to me this morning, it’s us the victims on the outside of the tape!

chuck allison (Email ) - 17-07-’09 07:58

I have had it with Derb and Jason spinning the version of the real facts and truth about the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area, to meet their own needs and desires and to justify their existance and jobs.

They talk as if they know what is going on in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area. Well folks they do not, and let me tell you about their figures, do not believe them.

Getting the number of cars on the ferries that depart and dock at Hatteras Inlet and multiplying them by some made up factor to then tell you how many people visited Hatteras Island is about as accurate science as what they use to disrupt and assure that that the negoiated rule making process did not reach a succesful conclusion.

S 1557 and HR 718 will return control of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore back to the NPS and let the professionals manage the Park, not Derb from Chapel Hill and Jason from DC but on the ground professionals who know what is happening everyday. Both S 1557 and HR 718 will give access to all Americans to America’s Beach. What a shame the last two summers have been. Thanks to Derb and Jason many people have suffered, jobs have been lost, businesses have closed and poor vacationing Americans have come to their beach for that one week a year that they have dreamed of to see the sign posted that says “STOP YOU ARE NOT WELCOMED HERE” Derb and Jason I hope you are proud of yourselves, I hope that you sleep at night, because I know of many who are not sleeping at night, crying their eyes out because they have lost homes and businesses. But you all do not care, do you.
Both S 1557 and HR 718 will allow you to walk to the beach, will allow you to walk on the beach, will allow you to walk down the beach, will allow you to spread your beach blanket and enjoy a day in the sun, sand and surf with you family, will allow you to fish, fly kites, play on the beach as you did as a child. And oh yes it will allow you to drive out to the beach and park so that you can do all of these things, and it will allow Americans with Disablities to have access to the beach.

To those of you who might be moved by Jason’s comments on driving and parking lots. Ask him how the NPS develoed the beach. Ask him how people access the beach. Ask him if there are pedestrian walk overs. Ask him if driving to the beach was not the preferred alternative why did the NPS build ramps for vehicles to access the beach, why didn’t the NPS provide more parking lots and more accesses on the seashore so you could park and then walk over the dunes on pedestrian walkways and down to the beach.

Shame on the two of you, trying to put fear in people’s minds when you talk about baby birds. There are more people who live on Hatteras Island who care more about the birds, their nests, their eggs and a successful hatch and fledging than all the people in all your offices combined. And turtles, when was the last time either of you stayed up all night, to help new turtles as the hatch make it to the waters edge and into the water. I tell you that you all do not care one bit abut these birds, turtles and people.

Observer, Anchorman, Derb, do not try to tell these people about the Consent Decree. You do not tell them that we never had a seat at the negoiating table, we were told take it or leave it and the leave it would have meant total closure of the beach. Now why don’t you tell the world that in your press releases, why don’t you tell them that the only reason we signed was because we had a gun at our head, with a choice of being shot in the head or shot in the foot, well we chose the foot, which has become the whole leg, thigh and is moving up our to our arms.

To all Americans, the fine men and women of Dare County and all who visit this beautiful land care about every creature that shares the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and we are the true conservationists and environmentalists. Please call your Congressman and your Senators ask them to support HR 718 and S 1557, these bills are good for American and Americans, these bills will be good for the birds and turtles. After all more birds hatched in 2008 under the succesful nesting of the Interim Management Plan then in 2009 under the Consent Decree. We need your help.

Thank you,

Warren (Email ) - 12-08-’09 22:16

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