People’s Place in Parks

(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.

3 responses to “People’s Place in Parks

  1. Never thought about the similarity between creekin’ and ATVs. But I gotta admit, watching video of the Green race in NC was pretty X-Games and hardly low-impact (the spectators were all over everything along the shoreline).

    Hmmmm. I hate it when you make me think when my brain is already tired… :-)

  2. Thanks Pete,

    I wrestle with these concepts too. There is a famous (somewhat radical) environmentalist – I forget his name – who believes that we should “sacrifice” certain areas (Crater Lake as a specific example) so that every-day people can get some sort of connection with an area that they might identify as “wilderness.” This way, when “wilderness” issues come up for a vote, they have a touchpoint inside of them so that they vote “for” rather than “against.”

    Basically, the premise of his argument is that there’s no area in the world that can be protected outside of a human context. In the long-term, people won’t be moved to protect the Bio-Bio or the tundra or the rain-forest if they don’t have a PERSONAL connection with saving wilderness. This means that they have to foster it close-to-home.

    Regarding the X-Games throngs that clammer to creeking events, these seem to be short-term impacts to a particular place. My question is: Doesn’t the land recover fairly quickly from this? Is this really different than a migrating herd of wildebeest, or heavily feeding herd of elephants?

    We used to wrestle with this vis-a-vis big climbing events such as The Phoenix Bouldering comp. 3000 people would descend on the desert outside of Phoenix for this event. But I’ve been there when the event wasn’t going on, and two months later you just couldn’t tell that they were there.

    Aren’t the positive impressions that people get for “wilderness” worth these short-term impacts, and even some longer-term ones in specific places? Creekin’ folk, or boulderers, or even people who only look at the walls of Yosemite (or Crater Lake, or the Grand Canyon) from the tram will probably feel more favorably towards true wilderness issues than those who haven’t had these experiences.

    Or, so the theory goes…


  3. Brad, author John McPhee explores these themes in his 1970’s novel “Encounters with the Archdruid”; I think he discusses Crater Lake specifically. And it is a serious consideration when we talk about limiting tourism in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the other super-popular parks that are getting slammed by the tourist traffic. It strikes me as rather selfish to keep these areas for “core backcountry users” only. I agree – it doesn’t do much to grow our constituency.

    As for creek boating, it is an adrenaline sport, but not always X-Games. You’ll see it on TV once in a while, but it is usually done with a handful of paddlers in a difficult to access area, knee deep in snow. I bet many creek boaters would concede that the miles of hiking (in snow) with the boat over the shoulder (just to get to the put-in) adds significantly to the experience. Creek boating usually happens without an audience. Maybe this is changing, but American Whitewater’s access proposal was based on the user impact studies commissioned by the Forest Service itself, which support controlled access. The conflict at the Chattooga seems to stem more from encountering other users during one’s wilderness experience.

    Here are some quotes from the “Friends of the Upper Chattooga,” which includes the Chattooga Conservancy, private landowners, and several chapters of Trout Unlimited:

    “Like the pervasive motorized vehicles, the easier access resulting from kayaking again threatens the pursuits of backcountry enthusiast and the wilderness itself. Creek boating is considered an intrusive activity for the backcountry angler, wildlife viewer or hiker; Encounters would result in a diminished wilderness experience for these other visitors. Like mountain biking on land trails, it is time the USFS acknowledges and correctly classifies the differences between creekers and other river users.”

    “The U.S. Forest Service has an opportunity to insure that the last protected stream in southern Appalachia does not join the pervasive monoculture of kayaking that has been methodically seizing control of every creek.”

    I would argue the negative impacts of paddling are closer to those of angling rather than mountain biking, but this seems more about subjective notions of who belongs in the wilderness rather than quantifying damage. This is important, because we make the same impassioned calls for snowmobile bans. If we decide to exclude ATV’s it should be based on quantifiable, objective evidence, not because they don’t belong in the wilderness.