Last year, a juvenile bison was placed into a vehicle by tourists who thought they were helping save the bison, which appeared to be cold. After rangers discovered the bison and attempted to return it to the herd, it was rejected, was unable to fend for itself, and died as a result (Brulliard).
This anecdote is just one example of the problems national parks staff have to manage. Even so, our public lands and our interaction with them goes far beyond just wildlife and the National Parks Service. There is a vast array of environmental, ethical, and economic concerns facing the use of public lands in the United States. What started out as a small system to preserve resources has manifested into an enormous facet of public policy.
These United States are home to some of the most strikingly beautiful natural places the world has to offer. The terrain of the North American continent, and more specifically the U.S., spans an entire spectrum of geological biomes and ecosystems. Our geography stretches from the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, to the red desert in the southwest; from the plains and valleys of the badlands, to the soaring heights of the Rocky and Appalachian ranges.
The wild places found within the borders of the U.S. are arguably unequaled to any throughout the world. Their history is rich with the legacy of westward exploration, discovery, and expansion. To understand the present state of these places and what the future holds, their past must be understood first.
The value of the land in the west was recognized long ago, first by the indigenous people and later on by the settlers of the west and the country’s leaders. Paiute and Ahwahneechee tribes occupied areas to the like of Zion and Yosemite for millennia before white settlers moved into the areas. David Mazel cites the Native American occupation of Yosemite as far back as 7,000 years (Mazel). The Native American tribes regarded places like Yosemite as sacred.
Native American land in the West, Monument Valley, 2017
As settlers moved west, they quickly realized the abundance of resources for themselves. However, when something seems limitless, it is easy to squander.
Near the turn of the century in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took the office of President of the United States. Born in 1858, Roosevelt had witnessed firsthand what had become a reckless expansion into the West that followed Lewis and Clarke’s initial voyage. The new settlers saw seemingly endless resources and used them as such. Land, forests, and animals were squandered by the settlers who thought they would never run out.
Theodore Roosevelt was one of the primary witnesses to the squandering of resources in the West. Roosevelt first visited the badlands in the Dakotas in 1883, eighteen years before his presidency began. He went on a hunting trip, but noted in his journals the overuse of resources, overgrazing, and the depletion of herds of elk, bison, and deer (NPS). Roosevelt wrote,
Lone Bison in Yellowstone National Park, 2017
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
When Roosevelt became president in 1901 he took these thoughts of protecting our resources and land for the future; both in the western United States and throughout the country.
While Roosevelt didn’t develop the National Parks Service system, he definitely set a precedent for it. Roosevelt established the National Forest Service in 1905 near the end of his first term, protected 230 million acres of land over the course of his two term presidency, and set up 23 sites that would later become national parks or be incorporated into them (NPS).
National Parks didn’t happen without a lot of convincing from some key people. The work that led to the creation of Yellowstone was largely done by two people. Thomas Moran, a painter, and William Henry Jackson, a photographer played an absolutely crucial role in convincing the United States Congress to designate over 3,000 square miles as national park land.
When they returned from their journey west to demonstrate their work to Congress, people could hardly believe Yellowstone was real. Eleanor Harvey, A curator for the Smithsonian American Art Museum said, “The photographs were proof that what [Moran] was showing really existed” (Strochlic). The creation of the park was also made possible by members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition. This particular expedition is regarded for a “campfire conversation” that perhaps changed the course of all public lands.
As the members of the expedition sat around a fire one night, they discussed how the lands of Yellowstone might be divided up between those members of the expedition looking to make a profit of the land. One member of the group, Cornelius Hedges, then had the radical idea that the land shouldn’t be used for profit, and instead should be preserved and protected for the enjoyment of the public (Dustin et. al). This idea that Hedges had is crucial not only to the idea of public lands, but to the environmental and sociopolitical future of our world.
Wallace Stegner put it best, “The national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Preserving these places for the people is no easy task, however. There are many variables to consider and manage. Introducing humanity into any natural place has dramatic effects, some that aren’t even readily seen.
Consider what is now 4 million people that visit Yellowstone alone over the course of a year, and it is easy to imagine the impact in waste, transit, and facilities. Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said in 2016, Yellowstone’s capacity limits were tested. They are even exploring the possibility of limiting the amount of people allowed into the park at any given time (Wilkinson).
As of 2016, the parks service oversees a grand total of 409 sites, totaling 85 million acres (Burns). With that much land area, most people live close enough to get to some sort of park or national monument within a day’s drive. Park visitation has changed a lot in the last 5 years. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, surprisingly the most popular national park, saw a 7% decrease in their visitation in 2012. In the same year, however, Yosemite and Yellowstone saw an increase in visitation compared to an average year (Bly).
This uptick could be a result of international tourism and the high regard our parks hold outside of the country. In 2015, the parks saw 305 million visitors in their centennial year, more than ever before. Travel and tourism holds either the number one or number two money-making spot in every state, making parks, monuments, and forests an extremely valuable source of revenue. The U.S. tourism sector employs 15.5 million and generates half a trillion dollars a year (Stanton). Public land isn’t just good for our well being. It’s good for the economy.
Tourism is valuable especially in small towns that would otherwise be starved for revenue. Cities and businesses on the edges of places such as Zion, Yosemite, and Yellowstone subsist on the money coming in from tourism. Take the town of Springdale, Utah for example. Five hundred and forty eight. That is the number of residents the town of Springdale reported in 2014, a staggering jump up from 529 two years previously. Visit Springdale on a sunny memorial day weekend however, and you’ll be able to count 500 people from any street corner in the one-road town. Springdale directly borders the west entrance to Zion National Park.
The street is lined with restaurants, rock shops, and hotels welcoming visitors from all over the world. Towns like these survive and thrive on the tourism created by the red rock of Zion and their existence is near impossible without it.
Only four short years ago when the government shutdown in October 2013, the idea of Springdale with no national park became a reality. With the government shutdown, all national parks closed their gates. The effects were felt almost immediately. Restaurants closed their doors and furloughed employees, small, one-of-one businesses felt 50% profit losses. The town saw losses of 3.5 million dollars of visitor spending each day because of Zion’s closure (Healy).
In the present day we’re on the other side of the spectrum. The towns near the parks need tourism, but there can always be too much of a good thing. Zion has seen a 35% increase in visitation in the last six years, even the typically slow winter season has caused logistical issues for the park (Marcus). I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand.
Effects of human visitation seen in Canyonlands National Park, 2017
I spent the last three summers living in Mt. Carmel on the opposite side of the park from Springdale. I remember my first summer there walking into the park on a Saturday in May, still early in the season, and getting right on to the canyon shuttle. I remember the day that I knew things were really changing. It was a Wednesday which is typically one of the slowest days for the park and again in May, before the busy season. I left for the park with my family around 10 a.m., too late in the day for regular season but fine, I imagined, for this day.
We arrived at the visitor center around 11a.m. and waited nearly two hours to get on the shuttle. Considering buses seating about 50 people coming every 15 minutes you can imagine the crowds in line for the bus. The shuttle system is a positive thing (imagine that many people, but they all had vehicles and were fighting for parking.), but it definitely made the visit a lot harder and less enjoyable. Overcrowding and the effects that humans have on parks is just one of many issues that public lands officials will have to deal with moving into the future.