Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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Chapter 8

It must seem curious that a book about the national parks talks so little about nature for its own sake, and may even seem to denigrate ecosystem preservation as central to the mission of the parks. My only explanation is that most conflict over national park policy does not really turn on whether we ought to have nature reserves (for that is widely agreed), but on the uses that people will make of those places—which is neither a subject of general agreement nor capable of resolution by reference to ecological principles. The preservationists are really moralists at heart, and people are very much at the center of their concerns. They encourage people to immerse themselves in natural settings and to behave there in certain ways, because they believe such behavior is redeeming.

Moreover, the preservationists do not merely aspire to persuade individuals how to conduct their personal lives. With the exception of Thoreau, who predated the national park era, they have directed their prescriptions to government. The parks are, after all, public institutions which belong to everyone, not just to wilderness hikers. The weight of the preservationist view, therefore, turns not only on its persuasiveness for the individual as such, but also on its ability to garner the support—or at least the tolerance—of citizens in a democratic society to bring the preservationist vision into operation as official policy. It is not enough to accept the preservationists simply as a minority, speaking for a minority, however impressive. For that reason I have described them as secular prophets, preaching a message of secular salvation. I have attempted to articulate their views as a public philosophy, rather than treating them merely as spokesmen for an avocation of nature appreciation, because the claims they make on government oblige them to bear the weightier burden.

This is not to say that what they preach cannot be rejected as merely a matter of taste, of elitist sentiment or as yet another reworking of pastoral sentimentalism. It is, however, to admit that their desire to dominate a public policy for public parks cannot prevail if their message is taken in so limited a compass. If they cannot persuade a majority that the country needs national parks of the kind they propose, much as it needs public schools and libraries, then the role they have long sought to play in the governmental process cannot be sustained. The claim is bold, and it has often been concealed in a pastiche of argument for scientific protection of nature, minority rights, and sentimental rhetoric. I have tried to isolate and make explicit the political claim as it relates to the fashioning of public policy, and leave it to sail or sink on that basis.

It may also seem curious that I have put the preservationists into the foreground, rather than the Congress or the National Park Service. Of course Congress has the power to be paternalistic if it wishes, and it often is. It thinks a lot of things are good for us, from free trade and a nuclear defense system to public statuary and space exploration. But no unkindness is intended by the observation that Congress doesn't really think at all. At best it responds to the ideas that thinkers put before it, considers the merits of those thoughts, tests them against its sense of the larger themes that give American society coherence, and asks whether the majority will find them attractive or tolerable. The fundamental question then—and the question I have tried to address here—is whether the ideas of nature preservationists meet these tests. If they do, Congress will ultimately reflect them.

The National Park Service, and other bureaucracies that manage nature reserves, are also basically reflective institutions. Strictly speaking, they enforce the rules Congress makes, doing what they are told. But no administrative agency is in fact so mechanical in its operation. It has its own sense of mission, an internal conception of what it ought to be doing, and that sense of mission also harks back to what thinkers have persuaded it, institutionally, to believe. If the Park Service is basically dominated by the ideology of the preservationists, it will act in certain ways, given the opportunity. If, on the other hand, it has come to believe in the commodity-view of the parks, it will behave quite differently. Thus, again, the capacity of the preservationist view to persuade is the essential issue.

At the same time, no bureaucracy behaves simply according to its own sense of mission. It lives in a political milieu, with constituencies of users and neighbors who impose strong, and at times irresistible, pressures on it. What the general public believes about the appropriate mission of the national parks is also essential. If the preservationist is to prevail, he must gain at least the passive support of the public, which will indirectly be felt by the Park Service in the decisions it makes in day to day management.

For these reasons, the preceding pages have been devoted to what preservationists think about the national parks, rather than to park history, assessments of popular demand, or the rules officials have, in fact, made. The preservationist message is addressed to three audiences simultaneously: the Congress, the National Park Service, and the general public.

To Congress it says don't try to make the national parks all things to all people in every location. Do use the public lands to serve conventional recreational preferences, but save some places explicitly for what has been called—lacking any fully satisfactory term—reflective or contemplative recreation. Indeed, try to encourage more of such recreation, and for that reason try to accommodate conventional demands, as much as you can, at other places. Moreover, make some effort to discourage the use of public lands for those forms of recreation that are the most consumptive of the resources, and that rest principally on the inclination toward power and dominion. In so doing, you will both stretch the capacity of our physical resources to meet public recreational needs, and also play a minimally coercive role in giving leadership to a culture value that is worthy of support.

To the Park Service, the message is that your traditional inclination to associate yourselves with the preservationist tradition should be encouraged. Nothing in that tradition intrudes upon the basic values of a democratic society that you are obliged to uphold. Hold fast to the position that park visitors have a duty to themselves to unbundle their various recreational desires: force the duty to choose on them and resist pressures to deprive the parks of authenticity under such labels as "threshold wilderness experiences."

Most importantly, however, if you do commit yourself to the preservationist view, keep in mind that its implementation is most important in those places where the great bulk of visitors find themselves, places like Yosemite Valley. Do not, therefore, write off such places as irrevocably urbanized, and do not congratulate yourselves simply because the bulk of acreage in the parks is still undeveloped wilderness. Pursue, but even more forcefully, your emerging plans for the reduction of development in places like Yosemite Valley. Pursue also the distinctive role carved out for urban parks that is reflected, at least in part, in the early planning for New York's Gateway East.

Another important message may be drawn from the Olympic Park controversy described earlier. It is that much as public pressures may seem to restrict your scope of action, keep in mind that a bold affirmative strategy is the most effective way to keep those pressures at bay. You must yourselves seek out alternative sites for the users who claim that only parklands can adequately serve conventional tourism. You cannot simply reject pressures without offering attractive substitutes. You need to know much more about what resources are available elsewhere. You can't build a wall around the parks and close your eyes to what goes on outside them. You will also have to be more skillful in dealing with private entrepreneurs and concessioners who consciously build demands for the use of parklands that are extremely difficult to deal with after the fact. If you had been more foresighted in the management of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, for example, and had looked ahead before some twenty commercial operators began generating customers for this remote and fragile place, you would not have had so difficult a time in managing the river as you would like.

You can also affect the popular pressures you feel by affirmatively encouraging opportunities for less urbanized recreation outside the national parks. Ultimately the parks will reflect the kinds of recreation habits most people have. There are many ways in which people can be encouraged to use their leisure time in a slower-paced, less energy-consuming, and more intensive fashion. An old tradition in vacation styles, where people went into a community and lived with local people, learning to savor the indigenous style and pace of the area, could usefully be revived; and doing so would help develop a new constituency amenable to the preservationist prescription for the parks.

The traditional practice of government has been to promote tourism by building new, high-speed roads in an area and encouraging the construction of modern highway motels. Indeed, one sees many such developments near the national parks themselves, and their style of tourism powerfully affects the parks. The result of such government programs, however, is often neither to advantage the local population, which finds itself with dead-end service jobs in motels and stores, nor to give the tourist any distinctive sense of the area he is visiting. He stays in a conventional motel, sees only what is seen by car, and shops in souvenir shops and curio stands that have grown up solely to serve him.

There are many places where a different sort of strategy could pay long-lasting dividends. The fascinating Indian and Spanish communities of the Southwest exemplify one such an opportunity. By immersing himself in the regional culture, the visitor could experience the unique qualities the area possesses, and local people would have the opportunity to benefit more directly from tourist traffic. Rather than being encouraged to abandon their culture to become busboys and waiters, they would have an incentive to maintain the distinctive qualities of their own community.

Successful examples of such efforts already exist. There are commercial enterprises that arrange for American families to spend vacations living with families in the French countryside. [1] The host family, though it is paid for the board and lodging it provides, is just that—a host—offering hospitality and an opportunity to see something of the region from the inside, while maintaining its own dignity, status, and distinctiveness, rather than abandoning it to the international motel style of foreign tourism.

Such arrangements would not directly affect the national parks, for of course there are very few human settlements in the parks themselves. But they could have a profound indirect effect. They would encourage a more deliberate, more probing, style of tourism, with less incentive to change existing communities (both natural and human) to meet the visitor's preconception, and instead encourage the visitor to adapt to the setting of the place visited. Changed attitudes about recreation in the large and in the long run are fundamentally what will determine the future of the parks, and an imaginative National Park Service bureaucracy will have to rake the large view if it is to play a significant role in that future. Efforts directed to stimulating enjoyment of an area's distinctive character will ultimately generate appreciation for the features that give a place what René Dubos calls its "genius," [2] its authenticity of character, whether it is a languid desert, a remote mountain community of villagers, or a bleak intersection of land and seascape.

To those for whom wilderness values and the symbolic message of the parks has never been of more than peripheral importance, this book asks principally for tolerance: a willingness to entertain the suggestion that the parks are more valuable as artifacts of culture than as commodity resources; a willingness to try a new departure in the use of leisure more demanding than conventional recreation; a sympathetic ear tuned to the claim for self-paternalism.

Finally, to the preservationists themselves, in whose ranks I include myself, the message is that the parks are not self-justifying. Your vision is not necessarily one that will commend itself to the majority. It rests on a set of moral and aesthetic attitudes whose force is not strengthened either by contemptuous disdain of those who question your conception of what a national park should be, or by taking refuge in claims of ecological necessity. Tolerance is required on all sides, along with a certain modesty. "I have gone a-fishing while others were struggling and groaning and losing their souls in the great social or political or business maelstrom," the nature writer John Burroughs observed late in his life. "I know too I have gone a-fishing while others have labored in the slums and given their lives to the betterment of their fellows. But I have been a good fisherman, and I should have made a poor reformer. . . . My strength is my calm, my serenity." [3]


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

sax/chap8.htm — 22-Jan-2003