Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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Chapter 7
"At the Core of All This Wilderness and Luxury"

Until the early 1960s boating down great untamed western rivers was virtually unknown. Except for a few hardy individuals who took the peril in kayaks and canoes, or in boats they fashioned themselves, the prospect of facing extremely rapid currents, steep falls, and huge waves was too much to permit the development of anything like a mass form of recreation. Wild rivers—the Colorado in Grand Canyon or the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho—presented the challenge of white-water boating carried to its ultimate possibility.

Then a series of things happened to bring about change. Public attention began to be focused much more sharply on wilderness in the years leading up to enactment of the Wilderness Act of 1964. [1] Among the areas that received the most attention were the spectacular canyons through which these wild rivers ran. When proposals were made for the development of hydropower dams in the Grand Canyon area itself, the Sierra Club responded with vigorous opposition, including advertisements in national newspapers and the publications of books containing magnificent nature photography of the inner canyon. [2]

Paradoxically, recreational interest in the Colorado River of Grand Canyon was spurred by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam upstream in 1963. The building of Glen Canyon Dam was passionately, but unsuccessfully, fought by conservationists, a battle that also attracted strong attention to the river/canyon ecosystem as a place of extraordinary beauty. [3] The paradox lies in the effect that the dam has had upon the Colorado River downstream in the Grand Canyon. The river had always been a raging torrent in places, but in its unaltered state it was heavily charged with mud and sand, "too thick to drink and too thin to plow," as the saying went. Once Glen Canyon Dam was built, the Colorado became a clear, cold river, dependent on releases from the dam, but still exciting and far more attractive for recreation than it had been in its natural state.

There was also a technological development. In place of the handcrafted rafts on which John Wesley Powell had first explored the river in 1869 [4] or the hazardous canoe or kayak, large inflated rubber rafts, extremely sturdy and stable and capable of oar (or motor) navigation by a skilled boatman, were adapted from military models. Travel down these rivers became a practical possibility for large numbers of people.

The possibilities of the wild river trip were first perceived by conservation organizations, which added a few such opportunities for their members to their annual mélange of hiking, horseback, and pack trips in the backcountry. Their goal, of course, was to build a constituency of aware citizens to help preserve these rivers from development. But what they saw, others saw as well. River rafting companies began to spring up in substantial numbers. The companies hired and trained boatmen, put together package trips more or less fully outfitted for anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and advertised widely in magazines. Not surprisingly, a clientele developed, and soon the wild river trip was a familiar vacation possibility. In 1957, hardly anyone boated down the Colorado in the Grand Canyon; it was almost as unknown as it had been in Powell's day nearly a century before. By 1967, two thousand people made the trip, and by 1972, the number had increased to fifteen thousand and was still growing. [5] The next year the National Park Service froze total usage at the 1972 level; [6] the remote and mysterious canyon corridor was showing the usual signs of visitor overuse and abuse. By this time there were twenty-one commercial companies offering river trips through the Grand Canyon. [7]

Having put a limit on use at a time when river running was becoming more and more popular, the Park Service found itself in the middle of a familiar dilemma. At one extreme were those who claimed that any form of rationing denied a right of access to many who wanted it. The Park Service's judgment about the capacity of the Canyon was challenged, and certainly capacity is a matter of judgment. There is little doubt that more than fifteen thousand annual users could have been found to take the trip, and enjoy it, even though there was a greater density of people, much more physical impact on the ecosystem, and a significant decline in what the Park Service viewed as an appropriate wilderness-type experience.

At the other extreme were those who preferred to have no commercial river trips offered at all, or who thought that the 1972 levels of use were grossly excessive. Just about every intermediate position was also represented. There were claims that private users should be given priority over those who went as clients of commercial companies; that the allocation the Park Service made between private and commercial users was unbalanced (at first the allocation was based on the 1972 usage by each group—frozen at 8 percent private and 92 percent commercial—and then a recommendation was made to change the ratio to 30 percent and 70 percent); and some people argued that while oar-powered boats should be allowed, motorized rafts should be prohibited. [8]

Several of these complaints led to lawsuits each of which the Park Service won on the ground that it has broad discretion to make management judgments and that there is nothing wrong with a plan that tries—however imperfectly—to accommodate the various demands on the scarce resources of the national park system. [9]

Nonetheless, the Park Service set about trying to make a new, and more considered, management plan for river use within the park. In the usual fashion it solicited public opinion, gathered facts, held a series of public hearings around the country, and published a management plan. [10] One need not read very deeply between the lines to sense that the Park Service saw itself as caught in the middle of an impossible dilemma: too many people, too scarce resources, too much conflict among the various constituencies, and thus inevitably a solution destined to dissatisfy nearly everyone to some degree and to satisfy no one fully.

Plainly the Park Service can't satisfy everyone with only one Grand Canyon and one Colorado River, as the wide range of differing, and conflicting, views expressed at the hearings made eminently clear. It was impossible to sit through such a minidrama and not feel compassion for the bureaucratic Solomon who had to divide that baby. But the task of the Park Service at Grand Canyon need not be to satisfy everyone.

If the Park Service was given a mandate to pursue the policies suggested here, its response would be something like this: First, as an ecosystem of unusually high quality, the river within the Canyon would be reserved from conventional tourism. Access would be restricted to minimize modification of its natural ecosystem—as measured by standards such as water quality, landform protection, and maintenance of wildlife and flora; and the numbers of users would be limited so as to leave them free to set their own agenda within broad limits—to go where they want without being displaced or rushed on by other groups, to set their own pace and to linger, if they wish, so that they can experience the canyon intensely. [11]

To implement such policy, it would first be necessary to unbundle other kinds of demands that are mixed together under the management practices that presently exist. The first of these is the demand for a resort-type vacation experience, the prepackaged, tightly scheduled, and managed vacation in which every service is provided. It is clear from a reading of the brochures of commercial river-running companies that a considerable, though by no means sole, effort is made to stimulate demand for river trips from such a clientele. [12]

The most revealing parts of these brochures are the sections usually entitled "People Ask Us...," or "Questions and Answers. . . ." [13] One such question is "Am I expected to work on this trip?", to which the answer is "No, please use your time on the river to hike, swim, fish, socialize or just loaf. Our trained guides will handle the rafts, pack and unpack the rafts, and prepare all meals." [14] Another brochure says "Q: What about Snakes? A: Snakes are very rarely seen. . . . They generally stay away from the camping sites . . . they don't like us any better than we like them!" [15] Or, "we take portable sanitary facilities which are as clean, comfortable, and convenient as your facilities at home . . . almost identical to the toilet units used by the airlines." [16] And "meals are expertly prepared by our guides." [17]

These, of course, are reasonable enough questions to ask of a resort manager, but they are obviously questions designed for a person whose interest in coming on the river is limited to an experience that will provide the essential qualities of a resort vacation. As with the ski resorts discussed earlier, this is a clientele whom the entrepreneur wants to attract, and whom he may need to attract to build a profitable volume of business. (Fees are equivalent to the prices in a luxury hotel.) [18] But it is not the sort of clientele that the Park Service needs to stimulate for the Colorado River. Those who want a resort experience need not be encouraged to take it on the river.

A second category of visitors are those who would simply like to raft down an exciting river. This is a form of recreational demand that should be met and public policy cannot ignore it. The quantum of this demand could be more acutely measured in the absence of commercial companies on the public lands setting out to stimulate it. Public land managers should stand ready to provide areas for those interested in river rafting, identifying some places that have good qualities for water use but are not otherwise the most pristine ecosystems. Those places can be devoted to rafting at the higher densities of use that are acceptable to many users, [19] and with a considerable range of services and planned agendas. Only as such places reach their capacities for acceptable use by the clientele, following a thorough search for alternatives, need places like the Colorado River in Grand Canyon even be considered for such use. [20]

In what would the use for which the canyon was reserved consist? Certainly it need not be limited solely to those who are able to navigate the river themselves, for this is a very small number indeed. The inner Canyon stretch of the river should, however, be limited to those who are willing to make their own schedule, to encounter snakes, and to prepare their own meals. There is no reason to prohibit people from engaging a boatman and hiring a boat, just as a mountaineer or fisherman in an unfamiliar place might engage a guide. The Park Service itself can provide interpretive trips on the river just as it provides extended interpretive programs elsewhere. [21]

Obviously there is no theoretical difference between hiring a boat and guide, and a commercial outfitter running a trip and calling himself a guide for hire. Plainly some of the commercial river-running trips are designed to do no more than provide guidance and interpretive services. The problem is not one of labeling; it is a practical problem of unbundling various kinds of demands. Under the present practice, with a plethora of concessioners offering a wide variety of services, and with strong economic incentives to stimulate additional clientele, the system works to bundle together as much as possible of what should be separate. Under the approach suggested here, the emphasis would be on the maximum possible separation.

With separation of goals in place, potential visitors would have a range of choice and a degree of clarity about what they were choosing. If the principal concern is for a package of resort-type services, visitors would know where to look, and would know clearly that those expectations would not be met in most national parks or in other high quality public land areas. Most importantly, they would know that there is a special kind of experience available to them if they go to certain places on public land. What is more, public land managers would be free to emphasize and to articulate clearly the elements of that experience, and even to stimulate demand for it. It would be possible even for novices to go down the river in Grand Canyon, but only if they were willing to do more than lie back and have someone serve them as if they were visitors at Grand Hotel, rather than Grand Canyon.

To speak of unbundling demand leaves out of consideration the individual in whom various desires are themselves mixed. Certainly it is possible to seek the experience that river running or skiing offers and, simultaneously, to be attracted by safari or resort services. I have already suggested the managerial reasons that militate in favor of separating these different desires, but is there any good reason why we should want to separate them within ourselves, and thereby to support public policies that induce us to make this separation? I think there is, and, indeed, that making such a separation lies very close to the heart of the reasons for having a distinctive park policy at all.

The issue is strikingly illustrated by the advertising literature of commercial concessioners who offer trips down wild rivers. There is in such advertising an associational quality that plays strongly upon our capacity for self-deception. To recognize that we all have competing desires to be amused and to strike out on our own is to be aware of powerful ambivalence within. To confound these competing strains so as to purport to serve longings for independence in the form of packaged entertainment is to dull the very qualities of personal engagement that give the river experience authenticity. It is rather like reading about great books so as to seem knowledgeable rather than reading the books themselves, or longing for adventure without giving up the desire for security. There is a pathetic quality in this familiar duality, and the question is whether we are ready to resist it.

At its extreme there is the commercial readiness to take an idea full of one kind of associational quality—an idea like wilderness—and to deprive it in practice of all the authentic quality that generates the association, to tame it, as Thoreau would have said. Outdoor Resorts of America, a company that has been described as being to campgrounds what Disneyland is to amusement parks, recently announced a new facility in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains that would "provide campers with nearly unlimited resort amenities in a spectacular wilderness setting." Its "back-to-nature features" include stocked fishing lakes, a hunting preserve, four-wheel-drive trails, an indoor pistol range, lighted tennis courts, swimming pools, miniature golf, playground, bar, health club, live entertainment, cartoons and movies, and much, much more. The description ends by noting that "at the core of all this wilderness and luxury are 800 campsites . . . equipped with a paved drive, full hookups and a wood deck." [22]

Of course Outdoor Resorts of America is a private enterprise, and it can sell any kind of dreams it wishes. Whether we are well-advised to encourage such fantasies in ourselves and in the structure of public land policy is quite another matter.

The Colorado is, after all, the river that the great explorer John Wesley Powell navigated at great peril and with great intrepidity to come back a hero. [23] To invoke Powell's achievement is to suggest associations with the personal qualities of courage, independence, and self-reliance that mirror some of our most strongly felt aspirations. The wild river trip promoters play explicitly on this theme. "Would you like to retrace the journeys of some of the great explorers of history, men like Lewis and Clark or John Wesley Powell?" one brochure asks. [24] "The thrills and excitement are much as they were when Major John Wesley Powell made his historic exploration . . .," another asserts. [25] Yet these same companies repeatedly emphasize that hired men will do the work, that the guest can lie back and relax, enjoying deluxe meals in snake-free and virtually risk-free surroundings: "For the most part, the guides do the work, while you simply enjoy the scenery. . . ." [26]

The river of Powell's 1869 is, in one sense, irrevocably gone. No one can hope to reenact fully the challenge of an original exploration and come home—five or fifteen days later in the 1980s—imbued with greatness. [27] But this was in general the case even when Powell was exploring, or some real Leatherstocking was at large in the untrammeled American wilderness. The vast majority of people were at home living lives of conventional placidity.

The practical choice has always been between an effort, within our means, to build the qualities of character such figures preeminently embodied, or simply to identify with them by some form of passive association, turning aspiration into a pale illusion. This is one of the great divides in recreational choice.

The failure to cross this divide is not limited to commercial entrepreneurs. Federal land managers themselves at times slip into serving the very illusions that a clearly articulated dual policy ought to eschew. The United States Forest Service Manual, attempting to explain how it develops various kinds of campsites, provides an instructive example.

Within the manual is an exhibit setting out in graphic form what purports to be a purely descriptive explanation of the different kinds of national forest camp and picnic sites, and the recreational experiences associated with them. [28] Thus, along one column there appears a five-fold classification of types of site development, ranging from primitive to modern; and along a parallel column a description of the associated "recreation experiences" engendered by them. The first column, for example, describes a primitive site as one with very few facilities, a genuinely natural setting with native foliage intact, and only such improvements as are required for the physical protection of the site (perhaps a ring of rocks indicating a campfire site, or a small cleared area suggesting that campers should stay back a certain distance from a lake). The categories describe increasingly developed sites, culminating in the "modern" area, which will have access by high-speed roads, replacement of a natural forest environment with clipped shrubs and mown grass lawns, and facilities such as flush toilets, showers, bath houses, laundry facilities, and electrical hookups.

The idea, of course, is that the Forest Service is providing a range of opportunities for everyone from the wilderness backpacker to the driver of a fully electrified recreation vehicle. All this is routine enough. What makes the exhibit fascinating is the way in which it describes the needs of the various users for whom these facilities are provided. A more conventional document of this sort would simply say that some people want electric hookups and showers, and others want hiking trails in the woods. But this exhibit comes about as close as is possible to saying that people want illusions that provide the comfort of familiar services while suggesting self-reliant adventure, and that the Forest Service is calculatingly giving them exactly that.

Consider the recreation experience of the most developed modern site. Such a place, the exhibit notes, is designed to "satisfy the urbanite's need for compensating experiences and relative solitude" (precisely the need that induces people to leave the city and seek out a natural environment); but, it continues, it is "obvious to user that he is in secure situation where ample provision is made for his personal comfort and he will not be called upon to use undeveloped skills." In short, to the visitor who can barely, but only barely, sense a need to break out of the managed pattern of urban life, such a site will give the sense that it is possible to do so without in any respect suggesting the burden that is necessary to make that break. Indeed, in such a site "regimentation of users is obvious"—and comforting.

This leads to the next category, which is designated secondary modern. Here the "contrast to daily living routines is moderate. Invites marked sense of security." As one moves up the ladder toward the more primitive site, managerial control becomes increasingly less visible, but not less real. The intermediate site continues to be significantly developed, but native materials are used to provide the sense of a natural setting, and control of patterns of movement is "inconspicuous." The goal is to provide enough "control and regimentation" for the safety of the user, and to make them "obvious enough to afford a sense of security but subtle enough to leave the taste of adventure." By the time one gets to the two least developed categories, primitive and secondary primitive, it is clear that the taste of adventure has some reality to it, but even in the primitive category the unseen presence of the Forest Service managers is powerful. The camper at a primitive site "senses no regimentation," but what he senses is not exactly what he gets, for while there are only minimal controls, these "minimum controls are subtle." There is just "no obvious means [of] regimentation."

Perhaps this description makes the Forest Service's plan seem rather sinister. In fact there is nothing sinister about the goal. The Forest Service—like the Park Service at Grand Canyon—has been providing a rather wide range of outdoor recreation experiences graduated to the range of demands it perceives in its clientele. [29] They sense quite accurately a desire for "controls," "regimentation," and "security," and at the same time a demand for "a taste of adventure," "solitude," and "testing of skills."

If these competing intuitions were unbundled and presented separately as choices to be faced we would be well on the way to a mature system of public recreation attuned to the ambivalence within. [30] Instead we are offered illusions. [31]


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

sax/chap7.htm — 22-Jan-2003