Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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Chapter 6
The Parks as They Ought to Be

Nothing turns upon whether visitors are hiking or riding, young or old, staying in a hotel or sleeping in a tent. The hotly contested question of vehicle use in the parks, for example, is not an issue of transportation, but of pace. Intensity of concentration on the natural scene and attentiveness to detail are simply less likely to occur at forty miles an hour. For this reason it is appropriate to discourage motorized travel. Such a policy would not militate against all road building in reserved parklands. We need reasonable access to the various areas of very large parks. And because reserved lands should affirmatively be made enticing to as wide a spectrum of the public as possible, including newcomers who need a taste of the opportunities the land offers, in makes sense to have—as we do in many parks—a highway designed to provide an introduction for those who are deciding whether they want to come back for more.

The purpose of reserving natural areas, however, is not to keep people in their cars, but to lure them out; to encourage a close look at the infinite detail and variety that the natural scene provides; to expose, rather than to insulate, so that the peculiar character of the desert, or the alpine forest, can be distinctively felt; to rid the visitor of his car, as the fisherman rids himself of tools.

The novice, the elderly, and the infirm, as well as the experienced backcountry user, can all be embraced within the same policy. Those who have little vigor or impaired capacity may be limited to a smaller area or to less grueling terrain, but there is an abundance of experience to be had within easy reach in any complex natural ecosystem for those who are willing to trade intensiveness for extensiveness of experience. Indeed, the more immediately nature is met, the less total land that is required.

The concern that has been expressed for the elderly and the infirm in debate over parkland developments must be taken with a measure of skepticism. People who were active when they were young ordinarily continue to be as active as they can when they get older, and those who are reluctant to leave their cars range widely across age groups. Neither the elderly nor the infirm, if they were active an other times, are in the forefront of those advocating intense development of parklands. Rather, those who urge development have put the elderly and the handicapped on their front line. I have myself climbed in Montana with a fifty-seven-year-old totally blind man, who was continuing—to the best of his ability—to pursue the kind of activity he enjoyed before his injury. And I have walked down and back up the Grand Canyon with a husband and wife in their late sixties, who at a slower pace were repeating adventures they had previously savored.

Management committed to contemplative recreation should be just that, whether for the young and hardy or the old and infirm. One does not provide such an opportunity for older people or inexperienced visitors by building a highway to the top of a mountain. Rather we can assure that places that are accessible to them are not so deprived of their natural qualities as to put such an experience beyond their reach. If it were necessary to go into the rugged backcountry before finding a relatively undisturbed ecosystem, the lesson would be that we had too ruthlessly developed the more accessible places, not that still more places should be deprived of their complexity.

Converting such ideas into specific management practices is often a subtle task where tone and suggestion are the critical factors. Fixed boardwalks in very fragile and accessible areas, such as the Everglades's Anhinga Trail, may be the only option practically available. Even where some guidance is needed, it can be provided with imagination and subtlety, rather than being reduced to drearily fixed tours, with visitors taken in lockstep from place to place at a predetermined pace. The National Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida shows what can be done. Though the physical nature of the swamp requires the presence of established walkways, visitors guide themselves through the sanctuary. Interpreters are stationed at various significant places within, available to help the unsophisticated visitor see things he might otherwise miss, but they are never intrusive and they do not determine the pace or the quality of the experience. Everglades National Park has a similar arrangement.

A motorized nature-road loop in a park like Great Smoky Mountains, on the other hand, is a dubious facility. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in the Smokies, set an the edge of the park nearest the tourist town of Gatlinburg, serves as a magnet for precisely those casual visitors who could be invited to penetrate the park on foot. Yet it serves just the opposite function, offering a vista with a fixed beginning and end and implicitly encouraging the visitor to remain in his car, rather than inviting him to see the Smokies at a reduced pace and at close range.

Perhaps the Park Service sees such places as desirable diversions, isolating the casual visitor who simply wants to say he has been in the Smokies without intruding on others or threatening the park's natural resources. If so, it is a step in the wrong direction, for the inexperienced, urbanized visitor is precisely the one who needs the most attention and on whom the most imagination needs no be expended. Magnet facilities are required for them, but a better attraction would be a short access road leading to a variety of trails which should, where possible, be of indefinite length, with opportunities to cut back an various points, in response to the visitor's own inclinations, but without suggesting that the walk has come to a decisive end. Even the least active visitor could be accommodated by such a system. If even this incentive does not work, then, and only then—but at that point decisively—the Park Service should tell the guest that he has come to the wrong place.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an important resting ground because it is one of the most visited facilities in the system, is close to populous eastern and midwestern population centers, and is subjected to strong pressures for urbanization. In general, it has been admirably managed. The vast bulk of the park has been retained without development and the Park Service has spent considerable effort in closing old roads and resisting demands for new ones.

The Smokies also provide an instructive example for the problem of lodging. There is no hotel in the park accessible by automobile, yet there is a facility for those who are not prepared to camp in tents. The Mount LeConte Lodge, deep in the center of the park, is a simple group of cabins with a dining facility and lounge room/office nearby. No roads reach the lodge; provisions are packed in by horse, and visitors walk in by several different trails, each about seven miles from the nearest parking lot. The walk has moderate rises in elevation, but is easily accessible in less than a day by even the most casual hiker. The lodge is frequented by many families with small children and by a good many people well beyond youthful exuberance. Its accommodations are limited to about forty visitors, and in provides no amusements. There is nothing to do when one gets to Mount LeConte except what the visitor finds for himself. The Lodge is an invitation to find out what the park offers, accommodating the relatively inexperienced visitor without lapsing into the familiarity of the conventional resort. While the Park Service has had its problems with the concessioner at Mount LeConte—and has wanted to close the lodge—that facility embodies a concept of affirmative service to the less experienced visitor that the parks should not reject.

Happily, the lodge has not expanded to accommodate all the visitors it could draw, and in that respect in illustrates an important point: Crowds diminish the opportunity for visitors to set their own pace. In may be said that millions of people want to visit these places, and that no one should be denied the opportunity. True enough. Yet it is impossible to provide unlimited visitation and the essential qualities of an unconventional, non-urban experience simultaneously. Here too a compromise is called for: a willingness to trade quantity for quality of experience. There is nothing undemocratic or even unusual in such a trade. The notion that commitment to democratic principles compels the assumption of unlimited abundance and a rejection of the possibility of scarcity is one of the familiar misconceptions of our time. We need a willingness to value a certain kind of experience highly enough that we are prepared to have fewer opportunities for access in exchange for a different sort of experience when we do get access. We already ration backcountry permits in the national parks in order to avoid crowds in the wilderness, and we even ration overnight access to such unremote places as the Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco, or the Año Nuevo California State Park where the elephant seals visit to breed during their annual migration. The private Huntington Library near Pasadena, California, now limits by reservation the number of visitors who can enter its splendid and tranquil gardens on Sundays, thus maintaining the quality of the visit at the expense of numbers. Some states ration big game hunting permits, for which individuals may wait a number of years in order to enjoy one remarkable hunting experience. Indeed, the experience may be more highly valued because of this. The visitor's sense of anticipation is heightened, and entry to the place made more dramatic by "rationing." In all these devices there is equality in the right of access, but a reduction in the total quantum of access in order to exalt quality over quantity of experience.

The challenge of providing an unconventional experience is greatest in those areas where the growth of the national park system has itself been greatest in recent years—at the island and shoreline parks established as national seashores and lakeshores and at the urban parks created within major cities. These places present a number of special problems. They are not, like the early western parks, vast regions of undisturbed wilderness. New York's Fire Island, for example, encompasses existing vacation communities with homes and stores and a building boom in ins midst. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is literally in the shadow of the belching Gary steel industry and has to cope with a nuclear power plant being built at its border. The Gateway parks in New York and San Francisco are within bustling cities. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan consists of a series of unjoined pieces held together by a long-standing vacation home community. In general these places have had to be carved out around private developments, preventing the isolation that has traditionally allowed parks to create their own ambience.

The risk is that these places will simply become appendages to the communities where they have been created; that homeowners will see the parks as enlarged backyards, or as extensions of city parks, distinguished only by the fact that the federal government finances their management. The newer park areas are already viewed by many area residents as unwelcome intruders, suppressing a hoped-for bonanza in real estate values.

New urban area parks cannot feed on the traditional symbolism of wilderness, but they have a rightful contemporary place in the national parks system, for even with the advantages of modern transportation and affluence a great many people will never likely visit remote jewels like Glacier National Park or the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska, or even Yellowstone and the Everglades. The growth of the national park system is justified by a recognition that the symbolism of parks needs to be brought closer to the public, not that the symbol should be urbanized.

The urban-region park provides an ideal opportunity to show city dwellers that the psychology of the spoiled child is not the only choice open to us; that we can draw satisfaction by accommodating to natural forces as well as by harnessing them. By refraining from driving roads into every corner of every park, as the Congress recently did at Assateague Island National Seashore, [1] even a small acreage can be made capacious. Places become much bigger when we are on foot, and a slower pace enlarges the material on which to expend our leisure.

By having some places where structures are not built along fragile ocean shorelines, we provide ourselves with an object lesson in the economies of accommodating to the forces of nature—and we can see, by contrast, the cost when we close our eyes to these matters. Early planning for Gateway National Recreation Area in New York's Jamaica Bay was built upon a recognition that park visitors live in an irrevocably man-made environment most of the time. Thus it set as an objective to

forge an effective link between the urban values systems that characterize communities in New York and New Jersey and the natural systems of Gateway. . . [to] dramatize for the public the gains which can accrue if swimming and shellfishing are enlarged . . . and use Jamaica Bay as proof that modern man can work with nature and reclaim what has been impaired. [2]

The Gateway plan also called for energy supplies and new techniques of resource recovery in the management of the park—the latest solar, wind, and waste systems—that would provide "a working exhibit and testing ground of efforts of man to live in harmony with nature." [3] By illustrating the energy efficiency of natural systems, and employing energy efficient innovations in its own management and transportation regimes, the urban parks can show that a national park is neither a place to which one escapes from the reality of the world, nor a place to which one brings its conventions, but a unique facility with important ideas and experiences germane to our everyday lives. [4]

Most important of all, the new, closer-to-home parks provide an opportunity to show the urbanite what it means to be without what Olmsted called distractions. Though Olmsted's Central Park of the 185Os was not a natural wilderness (indeed it was extensively and cunningly landscaped), it was to be a place without amusements and hawkers to amuse the masses. Olmsted's goal at Central Park lamentably later betrayed in many instances—was to put the New Yorker into a setting designed to stimulate his imagination, and then leave him alone so that his own inclinations and thoughts could take over. With the new facilities of the national park system in New York and San Francisco, Cleveland and Los Angeles, and a number of other places accessible to the great majority of the public, rich and poor, we have a second chance to realize Olmsted's vision.

Setting one's own agenda is one of the most difficult ideas to convert into a set of administrative directions. Yet many of the values articulated earlier, such as freedom from conventional expectations, developing a distinctive personal style, coming to terms with inclinations toward domination and submissiveness, and reaching for the possibilities of boundless involvement, ultimately depend upon setting one's own agenda.

At the simplest level, this means avoiding conditioned responses that get in the way of freshness of experience. Again, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides a useful example. At one time areas along the roadways were carefully cut and trimmed, creating a lawnlike appearance. When a new superintendent was appointed, he ordered this practice stopped, which engendered a good deal of complaint from visitors. The roadsides had been so attractive, they said, so neat, and now they had a rough and ungainly appearance. On this small but significant point the superintendent was adamant, however, and for exactly the right reason. Visitors to the park were reacting to a conventional, familiar, and deeply ingrained image of beauty—the trimmed and landscaped lawn. The goal should not be to stimulate that familiar response, but to confront the visitor with the less familiar setting of an unmanaged natural landscape. [5] The mild shock of a scene to which there is no patterned response, and the engendering of an untutored personal response, is precisely what national park management should seek, even in such seemingly small details.

Exactly the same point might be made about wildlife. Those who came to certain parks loved the housepet quality of the bears who came down nightly to feed at garbage pits that were provided for them in full view of park visitors. This was the familiar Hollywood version of the wild animal, a picture which virtually all of us carry around in our heads. We like it and we respond conventionally to it—the cuteness, the docility, the anthropomorphism of the housepet. [6] But the parks can put the visitor in contact with quite another version: the animal in his own habitat, behaving quite without regard to any predetermined notion of how we would like him to behave, sometimes threatening, almost always elusive, at times quite annoying. When we have to react to park animals in this setting, we are on the way to making our own agenda.

These are simple and obvious examples. The agenda issue has its subtle side as well. In one respect it is certainly true that no one requires the visitor to spend his time in any particular way. There is no social director, as at a resort or on a cruise ship, pulling guests by the arm to do this or that. Nor is there an obtrusive program imprinted on the landscape as at a Disneyland, a completely self-enclosed world where the management affirmatively sets the agenda—moving us along cleverly designed paths from ride to ride and restaurant to gift shop, stimulated by upbeat music and bright colors; the clean and happy world of Wild-West saloons and smiling plastic alligators.

For the park visitor who is able, and who knows what he is looking for, there are no such constraints. He can go off and find what he wants in the outer reaches of the place. But for a great many visitors—for a considerable majority, I have concluded from frequent observation—the agenda question is very much less settled. They come to the famous national parks because it is widely believed that these are among the very special places in the world, in the sense that the major cities or the great European cathedrals are places well worth a voyage. There is a sense that something special is to be found here beyond the routine of daily amusement, something with the power to enlarge, to stimulate, to capture the imagination.

So we come. And the experience is initially stunning. Like walking for the first time into Notre Dame or the Sainte Chapelle of Paris, there is a sensory shock in seeing the redwoods, the Grand Tetons, or Mount Rainier that dazzles all but the deadest souls. Yet the initial experience is not long sustained when it is nothing more than amazement at a stupendous visual prospect. I recall a young man working as a waiter at the El Tovar Hotel in Grand Canyon National Park. After six weeks he was getting ready to leave. "How long can you keep looking into that hole?" he asked. "There isn't anything to do here."

It is at this point that subtle, but vital, questions in administration arise. There is every reason for a park to have hotel facilities for those who do not wish to camp in tents, though Mount LeConte Lodge is a better model than Yosemite's Ahwanee, with its conventions, stuffy elegance, and souvenir shop selling pinecones in cellophane bags. Nor is there any reason to abolish campgrounds suitable for those who do not wish to pay, or cannot afford, nightly hotel prices. Neither need we root out high country camps or trail shelters, where these serve an interpretive function or give protection from particularly heavy weather (though such facilities have a tendency to become garbage dumps and gathering spots for spirituous as well as spirited socializing). Supportive services—supply stores, unpretentious restaurants associated with hotels, and gas stations in more remote parks—are also perfectly appropriate. What do not belong in such places are facilities that are attractions in themselves, lures that have nothing to do with facilitating an experience of the natural resources around which the area has been established.

For example, the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park is a lovely resort hotel, but it disserves the sort of opportunities the park ought to be stimulating. It is an attraction in itself, with its fancy shops, swimming pool, and elegant restaurant. Obviously one need not stay around the hotel using it as the centerpiece of a visit, but to the extent it attracts visitors, it discourages setting one's own agenda within the park's natural resources. Such overdeveloped facilities are unnecessary. We can go to resort hotels elsewhere. If we come to experience the Tetons we should be willing to recognize we are in a distinctive place offering an unfamiliar experience we must search out for ourselves. This is not to suggest that such places do not have their virtues. The new, highly developed balcon resorts in the French Alps, for example, are in many ways highly attractive places at which to be instructed in mountain skiing. As one observer noted, "things are superbly organized. The lifts are close by, the slopes well groomed, ski classes are held on schedule. The balcon resorts are great, efficiently organized machines." [7] No doubt that could be taken as a compliment but it is hardly the ideal metaphor for a national park.

This, of course, is a matter of setting a tone for a place, but creating the appropriate tone is very much at the heart of the matter. The problem is not hypothetical, as even the most casual observer will notice. In the midst of a recent summer season, Jackson Lake Lodge was largely given over to a business convention. Hundreds of people, dressed in resort style, were continually flitting in and around the hotel lobby, going from meetings to shops to restaurants and bars. Doubtless a number of them carried away from their visit a heightened interest in the park's magnificent resources, but certainly they would have done so no less if other amusements and attractions were removed. Undoubtedly some would never have come to the park except for the convention, and the convention might not have gone to the Tetons in the absence of a package of resortlike facilities. But this is just another version of the bundling problem. If a place like the Tetons cannot attract someone based on its own resources, then that visitor may not be ready for an encounter with nature. Like the museum or the university, the park can wait for patronage until the aspirational urge is in the ascendancy. No doubt some people will miss an opportunity to which they would have responded if only they could be lured inside by other means, but to achieve this purpose requires a blurring of mission that—for the reasons set out earlier—is best served by keeping different management goals as distinct as is practically possible.

The other major problem of this kind has to do with the concessioner who offers boat and horse and bus rides, and the like. In theory, there is certainly nothing wrong with such activities. One ought, for example, to be able to rent a horse or a boat in a park. Yet frequently the commercial imperatives of a concessioner reshape these services in a way inconsistent with the demands of management for self-defined recreation. One must rely upon impressionistic evidence, and my strong impression is that a great deal of the activities of concessions on the public lands are designed precisely to fill a void for the visitor who has come expecting to be entertained. For that reason they cut against a policy calculated to force the agenda question back upon the visitor.

Certainly there is a banality and predictability about many of these functions that has little to commend it. The drearily routine mule rides at the South Rim of Grand Canyon for which people line up morning after morning; the one-hour, two-hour, four-hour, horseback loops, with a daily breakfast ride or "chuck wagon dinner" thrown in, that are so common a sight; the round-the-lake commercial boat ride that is a standard feature at a number of parks. All these are nothing but amusements, however beautiful the setting, and they seem indistinguishable from the local pony ride. Their capacity to get visitors deep into the park experience seems minimal, they have a mass production quality about them, and they have a considerable capacity to detract attention from the fashioning of a personal agenda. They can be dispensed with.


Mountains Without Handrails
©1980, The University of Michigan
Published by The University of Michigan Press

sax/chap6.htm — 22-Jan-2003