(originally posted on theCORgroup: Conscious Outdoor Recreation)
“A federal judge ruled Monday that the Bush administration’s plan to allow more than 500 snowmobiles a day into Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks was not in keeping with the National Park Service’s responsibility to protect the parks.”
The New York Times goes on to report that the judge contended “park planners had failed to reconcile their mission to protect the parks’ environment with the increase in air pollution, the disturbance to wildlife and the impact on visitors that the snowmobiles would bring.”
Environmentalist applauded this ruling, but I worry that the question of access is more nuanced, and we need to have a more serious discussion about what our parks and protected area mean to us ecologically, culturally, and recreationally, and what constitutes appropriate use.
Here is an example from a different perspective: American Whitewater is a paddler advocacy group that “restores rivers dewatered by hydropower dams, eliminates water degradation, improves public land management and protects public access to rivers for responsible recreational use.” They historically have been very successful in forging partnerships with other stakeholders to mutual benefit. However American Whitewater finds itself embroiled in a conflict over the Wild & Scenic Chattooga River. Many rivers with Wild & Scenic designation are open to paddlers; canoeists and kayakers are generally considered legitimate backcountry users, akin to hikers and fishers. In public comment on paddler access to the Upper Chattooga, creek boating was compared to mountain biking, adventure sports at odds with wilderness values, and ATV’s on hiking trails.
I agree that there are activities that are fundamentally incompatible with our wilderness values, and should be limited in parks and protected areas. The trouble with these debates is that our wilderness values remain undefined. ‘Wilderness values’ are interpreted by user groups to further political agendas and to exclude other users. Proponents of ‘silent sports’ are quick to fight the expansion of motorized transportation in protected areas, but without a comprehensive examination of our wilderness values – as enunciated by government agencies and the user groups – we risk more political maneuvering and inconsistent policy decisions.
The National Park Service has the mission to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Balancing access and preservation is no easy task, but without examining what our ‘wilderness values’ really mean to us, it seems impossible.