(Not) Protecting our National Parks

America’s national parks present an amazing veneer of pristine eternal beauty. Sometimes we are so overawed by their breathtaking enormity that we forget how fragile they really are.

The power of majestic mountain peaks, of tall trees, of sculpted landscapes, is something that rings true in all of us. Other than my son Jim, no human can help but be moved by images such as this:

In my travels this summer, I experienced some difficult times, but the substantial efforts it took to see the monumental peaks of the Sierra seemed worth it to me. Every once and a while I just had to stop and simply look at the awesome scene before me. I had remind myself not to take too many pictures, lest they inadequately replace my real memories.

For the most part, hikers are conscious of the fragility and transience of the national parks. They stay in the designated camping areas, they keep the trail clean, they bury their excrement. Viewed from the trail, this natural world looks utterly pristine. But when I took a step off the trail (which you must do, as noted previously, for certain activities), I discovered quite quickly that everything is not as it seems. A Doritos bag tossed behind a boulder. A can of Coke half-burnt in an old fire ring. The lid to a tin can tossed in the underbrush. A Ziploc bag buried where I planned to dig a hole to use the “bathroom” (I didn’t dig deep enough to find out what was inside this bag).

All this I saw in just four days in Kings Canyon National Park, in a place where hikers are instructed to “leave no trace,” where hiking is so restricted that reservations are necessary at least a month in advance. The park is operating at full capacity; allowing additional crowds in would destroy even the illusion from the perspective of the trail that this is a pristine wilderness.

Yet, according to the recent New York Times Editorial on the subject, Douglas Hoffman, an undersecretary of the interior, has been charged with revising the policies limiting use of our national parks. The article claims that his revised policy would

open up nearly every park in the nation to off-road vehicles, snowmobiles and Jet Skis. According to his revision, the use of such vehicles would become one of the parks’ purposes. To accommodate such activities, he redefines impairment to mean an irreversible impact. To prove that an activity is impairing the parks, under Mr. Hoffman’s rules, you would have to prove that it is doing so irreversibly – a very high standard of proof.

A Ziploc bag buried in the wilderness isn’t technically irreversible, but who’s going to pack it out when they’re already burdened with heavy packs? I suppose gas cans, beer coolers, and, I don’t know, old spare tires don’t cause “irreversible” damage either, but again, who’s going bother to return a park to its pristine condition when they’re busy getting killer air riding their dirtbike off a high Sierra butte? If enviro-conscious hikers can’t be counted on to keep a park clean, can we really expect four-wheelers, snowmobilers, and jet-skiers to “leave no trace”?

Driving across the American Southwest this summer, I saw vast swaths of land that had already been abandoned to the four-wheelers. In Lake Powell, I saw 200 miles of a formerly wild canyon dominated by speedboats. Do we really need to give them the few small areas that have been carefully preserved with at least a veneer of their natural state? Or will there be nowhere an American can go without seeing the footprints of four-wheelers, hearing the roar of dirtbikes, or feeling the wake of a Jet-Ski?

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