Jordan Fisher Smith, who has an excellent new book out called Engineering Eden, (on the challenge of managing wild bears in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite), brings his experience as a naturalist, a ranger, and a writer to bear on the meaning of our parks in an essay in the author’s on-line magazine Signature Reads.
It’s fascinating. For one, for Smith’s grasp of the parks’ history, and its founders’ thoughtfulness.
In the early 1930’s the Park Service’s George M. Wright noted that it would have been far easier to operate national parks purely as nature reserves, without visitors. But, very presciently, Wright argued that in a time of growing human populations, it was far more interesting to try to meet the needs of people and wildlife in one place. Wright’s world had only two billion inhabitants. Today, with over three times that many, there is much to be learned from how millions of people and irreplaceable wild treasures have been accommodated shoulder-to-shoulder in national parks.
Second, Smith knows how the parks at times have struggled to balance the needs of wildlife versus the needs of its human visitors — but he also knows how much the park service has learned.
…the Park Service [has gotten] much better at managing relations between people and nature. The agency finished installation of animal-proof trash receptacles and food storage vaults at all of its campgrounds, and working with private companies, encouraged the development of portable bear-proof food canisters for backpackers to carry when they were away from fixed facilities. At Sequoia National Park the Park Service demolished hundreds of rental cabins and hotel facilities in the sequoia groves and began allowing natural wildfire to do its necessary work, much to the benefit of the redwoods. The rangers reintroduced missing animals like wolves to Yellowstone and California condors to Pinnacles National Monument. A multi-decade public relations effort promoted “no-trace” or “minimum-impact” camping, resulting in a near-total change in behavior among backpackers, canoeists, and whitewater boaters. In some areas today you can walk or float for miles without seeing so much as a chewing gum wrapper on a busy trail or campsite.
And he calls for a transfer of the leave-no-trace ethic we have learned — or are trying to learn — from the wilderness to the world at large.
The parks have been a teaching institution for a way of looking at our impact on nature. And in my opinion it’s time to take the “no-trace” ethic I taught campers when I worked as a park ranger – in which you endeavor to have the least possible impact on the places you roll out your sleeping bag – out of the campgrounds and into the rest of the world, where climate change and other factors that will ultimately determine the survival of the national parks come from. Are you, the visitor, loving parks to death? No! Go enjoy them. If the oldest, most famous ones are crowded this summer, learn to know and love the lesser-known sites. Take only memories and photographs, leave only footprints, and try to carry this way of studying your relationship with nature back into a world that sorely needs it now. Happy birthday, national parks!
President Obama will visit Yosemite this weekend to commemorate the centennial; may his visit be blessed wth vast appreciation for what Ken Burns aptly called “America’s Best Idea.”
Stephen Wilkes photo, made of hundreds of images taken over 24 hours. for National Geographic.