Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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I have long been fascinated by the political influence of that small minority who—for lack of a mote exact term—are generally known as preservationists. [1] In good times and bad, for over a century, they have regularly persuaded the Congress to establish and maintain national parks, insulating millions of acres of public land not only from most commercial and industrial use, but even from much of the development that popular tourism demands. During the heyday of utilitarian forestry eighty years ago, they were called "nature fakirs," a cruel joke that expresses almost perfectly the ambivalence of the majority toward the politics of preservation.

The public greatly admires splendid scenery and untrammeled nature, as frequent television specials, magazine articles, and large sales of coffee table picture books attest; and it nods in agreement at a steady flow of press reports, all more or less entitled "Are We Loving Our National Parks to Death?" At the same time there is widespread frustration and resentment when—at the behest of the "nature fakirs"—government refuses to build roads into the wilderness, to accommodate more recreational vehicles in the parks, or to approve an elegant ski resort in an alpine valley.

The preservationist is in rather the same position as the scientist who comes to the government seeking research funds. He speaks for something most people admire without understanding, receives unstinting support for a while, only suddenly to be turned upon by a wave of popular reaction against alleged elitism and arrogance.

Whatever the problems of scientific researchers, it is at least recognized that they know something beyond the ken of most of us, and that somehow what they are doing is important. The preservationist is not quite so fortunate. It isn't at all obvious that he knows anything special. Attitudes toward nature and recreational preferences seem purely matters of private taste. The auto tourist sees himself as every bit as virtuous as the backpacker. The preservationist often appears as nothing more than the voice of effete affluence, trying to save a disproportionate share of the public domain for his own minoritarian pleasures.

Since the preservationist does not seem to speak for the majority and its preferences, at least in much of what he advocates, on what basis does he come to government, seeking official status for his views? Is he, like the scientist or even the museum director or university professor, the bearer of a great cultural or intellectual tradition? Is he a spokesman for minority rights, or diversity, seeking only a small share of our total natural resources? Or is he the prophet of a secular religion—the cult of nature—that he seeks to have Congress establish?

It may seem odd to be raising such questions more than a century after the first national parks were established. It is my thesis that preservationist ideology—though it has never gone unquestioned—long found itself compatible with a number of other popular desires that our parklands served, and therefore never received the scrutiny or the skepticism to which it is now being subjected. The enormous growth of recreation in recent years and the vastly increased range and mobility of large numbers of tourists has brought long-somnolent questions to the surface. Should the national parks [2] basically be treated as recreational commodities, responding to the demands for development and urban comforts that visitors conventionally bring to them; or should they be reserved as temples of nature worship, admitting only the faithful?

Strictly speaking, these are questions that the Congress answers, for it makes the laws that govern the public lands. They are issues to which the National Park Service must respond on a daily basis, for it is the bureaucracy that manages these lands. But neither of these two public institutions operates in a vacuum. Both respond to leadership elites that claim to speak legitimately for important public values; and both are sensitive to the limits of public tolerance for self-appointed leaders of opinion. For this reason I propose to ask how the preservationist justifies his asserted leadership, and why—if at all—the public should be inclined to follow.


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

sax/intro.htm — 22-Jan-2003