A bear meanders across the road several hundred yards in front of your slowly moving vehicle. A doe and her fawn leap back into the brush as you approach. The sun shines in such a way that it seems the mountains above you go on forever. This pristine image of our nation's national parks is unfortunately getting harder to find today. The approximately 270 million visitors to the parks annually have begun to take their toll on the wild and preserved areas of our nation.
Congress created the world's first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872. For many years after the beginning of Yellowstone (and other such parks), the wilderness could be viewed from afar, but not entered. Camping within park limits was something that was just not done by visitors (National Park Service, Caring for Legacy, 1). The national parks were much less accessible to the public sector in the early 1900's than they presently are. A staggering 68% of Americans have visited at least one area of the National Park System today, and all these visits have undoubtedly led to the gradual degradation of our parks (Rettie, 124).
Our National Park Service, or the NPS, is the agency responsible for the upkeep and management of the national parks (Rettie, ix). The service was created in 1916 (National Park Service, When Did the NPS, 1). The early parks, including Yellowstone, didn't have a central governing body for over forty years. This meant that the first parks had to struggle to stay alive and running. In addition, many fell into ruin due to lack of public support or due to the fact that some Americans didn't even know that these parks existed. People also weren't sure how to handle themselves within park boundaries, which is still a problem today. Several of the National Park Service's duties and goals currently include managing the daily needs of the national parks, expanding the National Park System, communicating the significance of American heritage through the National Park System, and preserving the land for the enjoyment by future generations (Hartzog, 95). Since Yellowstone's beginning, the U.S. has inspired 125 other countries around the world to initiate national parks and other land preserves (Rettie, x).
Management of the national parks by the NPS has been controversial from the start. Wildlife management has been key among the controversies. Over five decades ago, Lowell Sumner, a regional wildlife technician, was able to convince officials that the parks and their disappearing wildlife needed to be protected (Hendee, Stankey, and Lucas, 33). During Yellowstone's first eleven years, hunting was allowed and encouraged. Elk, bison, and grizzlies were controlled in this manner (Baden and Leal, 140). In the 1960's, the Park Service adopted its current policy of "hands-off" or natural regulation. This rule says that the populations and conditions of the park should be allowed to fluctuate without human intervention (Keiter and Boyce, 3). The NPS has a fight on their hands because many cattle ranchers are trying to overturn the natural regulation policy because the bison in the park are passing diseases onto the ranchers' cattle herds. The ranchers feel hunting and euthanasia of infected animals is necessary (United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 14). In addition, the elk and bison herds have greatly increased, causing severe overgrazing in certain areas of the parks. Erosion and stream sedimentation result, which in turn affects various plant and animal species (Baden and Leal, 13). This chain of events may even lead to the placement of certain organisms on the Endangered Species List. There are still more problems in protecting wildlife, however, as demonstrated by the National Park Service's inefficiency with data.
A study completed in Yellowstone recently shows that there were not 350 grizzlies as was officially reported by the Park Service. In actuality, there were less than 200. Similarly, the black bear population was recorded as 650, as opposed to the actual 50 remaining in the park. A recent census of mule deer showed that there were 76 deer. The NPS had claimed that there were over 2,000 (Baden and Leal, 139-143). There are several reasons for the inaccurate prior estimates. The National Park Service tries to keep its Washington officials happy by erring in their estimations of certain animal populations, or in some cases, censuses of populations are not performed in the first place. Other reasons for incorrect data are numerous. For instance, the National Park Service is "mission oriented." They provide numbers for officials that they want to hear. The Service must deal with keeping the public and the government happy at the same time. In addition, park superintendents decide who they will let research certain topics and may be able to influence them. Often times, park rangers have no more scientific training than our highway patrolmen. Only 2.2% of the superintendents possess the training and experience necessary to properly manage the parks (Baden and Leal, 142-143).
There seems to be a trend in the parks toward there being too many nuisance animals and not enough wildlife that the parks were actually meant to protect. Predators of these "nuisance" animals have, for the most part, been hunted to near extinction. Local ranchers killed off many of these animals so their herds of domesticated animals would not be harmed. The gray wolf is finally making a reappearance in Yellowstone, as well as in other western parks. Humans have disturbed the cycle of allowing predators to have free reign of the parks and are instrumental in returning the balance to the necessary areas.
Fires are yet another component of the controversies of natural regulation. During the 1988 Yellowstone fires, officials let them burn in accordance with the principles of natural regulation (National Park Service, Fire in the National Parks, 1). Nearby residents to the parks did not appreciate this course of action. However, park environmentalists claim that the fires are vitally important to the ecosystems within the forests. The fires are necessary to regenerate growth of the natural vegetation and to cleanse the parks of exotic plant species which have the potential to override the parks (the pesky thistle is one such example). During fires, small animals hide underground, birds fly away, and insects burrow. Large mammals are usually able to escape without too much difficulty. After the fires burn out, mammals, birds, and insects move back into their homes. Plants regenerate from bulbs and seeds that were not scorched, and life begins to repair itself and get back to some semblance of normalcy (National Park Service, Fire in the National Parks, 2-3).
Where do the parks make their money (before the government takes the majority of it)? The answer lies in the entrance fees that they charge visitors. A common fee charged is around ten dollars for a carload of visitors for a week. You can't even get one person into Disney World on that kind of money. To put things in perspective, Yellowstone's annual vehicle pass is around $40 today compared to $133 (in today's funds) back in 1916 (2). No wonder the parks are having problems. If these facts aren't enough, in 1995, proceeds from park recreation fees totaled $80.5 million, or about 7.5% of the total cost of park operations. At 270 million visitors, this averages out to be about thirty cents a person (2). In addition, carloads of visitors are disruptive to the wildlife and can easily kill an unknowing or slow-moving creature.
Worse yet, 85% of this revenue is taken from the parks and put into the U.S. Treasury to defray the national debt. Very little money is then left for daily repairs and yearly maintenance (Leal and Fretwell, 2). Our government is using the NP's money to reduce our national debt, but it is ignoring the needs of the system almost entirely. A meager one tenth of one percent of the federal budget is allotted to the National Park Service annually (Rettie, 126). Our government obviously needs to reconsider their course of action and try to determine one that will actually help the parks, rather than harm them.
A whopping $4.5 billion is currently needed in order to make construction improvements in the parks. Potholes are beginning to riddle the road systems of various parks. Buildings for visitors (often for lodging) are falling apart and monuments are beginning to crumble. Just to make some of these major maintenance repairs, it will take $800 million (Leal and Fretwell, 1). Small parks are often the biggest losers in the competition for funds. Well-known parks, or the "crown jewels" of the system such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, often receive most of the funds going to these parks. Officials don't realize, or choose to ignore, that the longer they let maintenance problems linger, the worse these problems will become.
Other key issues of environmental destruction include air and water pollution, blight and decay, and the spread of exotic animal and plant species (Rettie, 3). In many cases trouble is related directly to humans. Disorderly conduct, theft of Native American pottery and Civil War relics, trespassing, poaching, and destruction of some natural features are the main concerns (Hartzog, 22). In the last five years, violations on National Park Service lands have increased by 123%. 16,644 resource violations, ranging from purposely cutting live trees to defacing historic structures, have been investigated by park staff. At Petrified National Forest, studies show that about twelve tons of petrified wood have been removed by park visitors yearly as souvenirs or black market sales items (National Park Service, Resources in Peril, 1).
Not all destruction that occurs in national parks is intentional, however. Park visitors unknowingly cause resource damage by doing things such as running their hands over monuments or walking on plants. Running over park resources with vehicles is another unintentional problem that I eluded to earlier. If there were only a few people doing these actions, there wouldn't be a big problem, but the damages quickly accumulate when more than 273 million people are doing these types of things in the national parks each year. In order to prevent some of this damage, park managers are limiting the number of visitors allowed into parks each day. Tour guides are also being used to prevent people from unintentionally harming the features of the parks (1) education.
The NPS is trying to educate visitors and nearby residents to the parks by teaching environmental education courses in local schools, and by giving presentations to clubs, boards, and committees. By giving people some idea of the harm they can cause, the NPS hopes this will help reduce violations in the parks (National Park Service, Resources in Peril, 1).
The question of letting people have free-reign of our national parks is a big one. The parks have supposedly been preserved over the years for "future generations to enjoy". People should not have access to every area of the parks because the animals need some place to themselves. If they are around humans too often, they will not realize them as a hazard. Some visitor areas are definitely overlapping too far into wildlife habitats. A case in point is the Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone. The Fishing Bridge is within a developed area on the north end of Yellowstone Lake. A trout spawning area where grizzly bears feed is located right in the middle of this popular attraction. In eight years, there were forty-five incidents between grizzlies and humans here (Baden and Leal, 39). The majority of the incidents were the fault of the humans for being to close to the grizzlies' feeding grounds. It is unlawful to approach within 100 yards of bears, and people were obviously not abiding by this law (Visitor Impacts in Yellowstone, 1).
The building of roads within our parks is still another example of human intrusion. The natural surroundings of many species are totally destroyed when pavement is slapped onto the earth. Rick Bass's The Book of Yaak goes into great detail on why we should not finish paving every last inch of our parks. The book showed the side of the story that officials don't wish to have heard. Bass gives life to the wilderness area where he lives. He makes the reader feel as if someone or something is truly dying as the forests are intruded upon for their lumber.
The parks are also used for purposes other than human enjoyment (or destruction-however one looks at it). For instance, the United States military is expanding its training and combat facilities into the NP's or the west in general, which makes it even harder for the parks to remain clean and natural environments (15 Most Endangered, 1). Scientists, however, use the parks as a means to track animal migration (such as wolves). This allows rangers to see how certain populations of animals are surviving in the wilderness. Research on certain types of plants is also being conducted to see if they have any medicinal value for possible human use. This point is in support of why we should not cut down all of our national forests just for lumber.
Overall, in order to protect our parks, we need to let the rangers do their jobs. People need to start taking more responsibility for their actions when they are within park limits and realize that they are in areas preserved for their benefit. It seems reasonable to allow rangers to hunt in order to eliminate some of the diseased or unnecessary animals. Destroying some of the "problematic" wildlife for the overall benefit of a park's ecosystem is something that not many people like to think about, but is necessary. Endangered species must be protected as well.
Park rangers need to have appropriate skills to deal with problems in the parks. The National Park Service should make sure that they are hiring rangers with educational backgrounds in various areas. Naturalists, historians, biologists, and other such individuals with similar qualifications should be hired into the system.
As a part of the job description, the rangers should be responsible for all transportation modes in the parks. Cars should not be allowed unlimited access within the parks. Perhaps park staff should be the only people allowed to operate motor vehicles within park limits. This solution would help reduce accidental destruction. Hiking would be a preferable way for people to enjoy the national parks. Biking is also allowed, but guides should accompany the visitors so they remain on trails and don't run over valuable plants, animals, etc.
In addition, fires are extremely important to the ecosystem of all parks. If fires were never allowed to burn naturally, our parks would be so overgrown with weeds and the land would never be able to rejuvenate itself. The soil would eventually worsen and the future of entire parks would be in jeopardy. Fires are necessary to keep the parks alive. Despite complaints from residents near parks, the fires must be allowed to burn.
Similarily, some areas of the parks should be off limits to visitors. The parks were established to be havens for plants and animals and to keep the environment as natural as possible. This philosophy keeps coming unglued and will continue to as long as we humans allow it to. Private ownership within our parks (5% of the Yellowstone Ecosystem alone) needs to be eliminated, as many of the privately owned areas are in lower valleys where wildlife congregate (Baden and Leal, 101-102). As far as I'm concerned, the parks should not be owned by individuals, but cherished by people across the country. One day I would like my kids to see the beauty that our national parks hold within them. I would like them to be able to see a grizzly or a wolf from a distance. I would like us to be able to stay in cabins at the edge of a park and not camp on top of a small animal's home. When we travel to our national parks, we should be able to see them as symbols of our heritage, not as places where potholes fill roads or animals are endangered in their own back yards. I want my entrance fees to go directly to funding maintenance tasks and infrastructure repairs, not lining the pockets of wealthy bureaucrats in Washington. The government may be able to receive a portion of what the parks make in the form of a tax, but receiving the majority of a park's funds does not even make sense. It is my hope that by sharing my research on the condition of our national parks, that I have informed everyone on the value that lies within our national treasures and that we should make every effort imaginable to preserve them for generations to come. After all, would you like to visit a forest without trees, a pond devoid of fish, or a meadow scattered with sickly animals? I didn't think so.
Map of the U.S.'s Parks
Class Home Page
"15 Most Endangered Wild Lands." http://www.wilderness.org/standbylands/15most/ (5 Oct. 1998).
Baden, John A., and Donald Leal. The Yellowstone Primer. San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1990.
Bass, Rick. The Book of Yaak. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
Hartzog, George B. Jr. Battling for the National Parks. Mt. Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell Limited, 1988.
Hendee, John C., George H. Stankey, and Robert C. Lucas. Wilderness Management. 2nd ed. Golden, CO: North American Press, 1990.
Keiter, Robert B., and Mark S. Boyce, eds. The Greater Yellowstone System. London: Yale University Press, 1991.
Leal, Donald R., and Holly Lippke Fretwell. "Users Must Pay to Save Our National Parks." Consumers' Research Magazine, August 1997. First Search. Online. 12 Oct. 1998.
National Park Service. "Caring for the American Legacy." http://www.nps.gov/legacy/mission.html. (24 Nov. 1998).
National Park Service. "Fire in the National Parks." http://www.nps.gov/pub_aff/issues/fire.html. (15 Nov. 1998).
National Park Service. "National Park Resources in Peril." http://www.nps.gov/pub_aff/issues/paril_p_.html. (20 Nov. 1998).
National Park Service. "When Did the NPS Begin?" http://www.nps.gov/legacy/legacy.html. (20 Nov. 1998).
Rettie, Dwight F. Our National Park System. Urbana and Chicago: University Of Illinois Press, 1995.