I believe it is an innate human desire to seek out adventure in nature and put our physical abilities to the test.
With so many people travelling to experience the natural marvels of the world, the great question looms, how can we keep these marvels as they are for future generations? In the US we have the National Park Service (NPS), which I focus on here, and programs like Leave No Trace to help preserve these sights, but what really does it take for us to be the best stewards of our environment?
When we reached the South Rim of the Grand Canyon we had already been to four other national parks in the previous three weeks. Each park held a beauty that highlighted its need for safeguarding. It also highlighted the strange dichotomy of a natural rugged environment that was seemingly in chains to the human population. To visit the wild frontier, we have constructed a comfortable periphery so that we can leisurely experience nature. This means stores, cafes, hotels, tours, helicopter rides, paved paths, scenic overlooks, well placed comfort stations, etc. I believe that for some, the beauty of the parks sparks the interest to visit but its the comforts provided often brings people through the gates.
Comfort explicitly isn’t damaging, not completely anyway, but the crowds that seek it may be. Think of the concept of wear and tear. These parks do not come with a capacity limit but there certainly is one in terms of how many people can visit before it starts changing and degrading. Take for example the biological soil crust which is a vital part of the landscapes in areas surrounding Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. People pose a serious threat to that ecosystem if they don’t honor the code of conduct encouraged by the NPS.
The parks are now being visited in record numbers. In 2015, 305 million people visited the national parks. According to an article written by NPR, “As the Park Service likes to point out, that’s more people than went to every single Disney park, NFL, NBA and MLB game and NASCAR race combined.”
I believe it is a bright spot in our society that we are increasingly choosing to spend time outdoors rather than as sitting spectators. The issue though is the crowd concentration at certain popular parks (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Arches) that truly has an impact and cost to nature that we need to be concerned about.
Many have suggested to make parks less accessible through the means of increasing entrance fees (though this targets and discriminates against those with lower incomes) , requiring reservations or having a lottery system. Additionally, limiting the development of the parks in the way of conveniences like paved pathways, overlooks, guided tours and cafés. Obviously several parks have these conveniences established but further growth of these kind of services are being considered in many of our national parks.
Some serious and disturbing talks are underway to further build out the Grand Canyon, which is what incited me to write this piece. The most disturbing is a proposed tram to transport visitors from the rim of the canyon all the way down to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, where shops and restaurants would be built riverside. The Grand Canyon is one of America’s most beloved parks and has been the site of major feats of physical human ability. Now it is at risk of becoming like Disneyland. I will return to the specific issues that face the Grand Canyon in a follow up piece.
This may be an unpopular sentiment but, to me, our parks represent a place for effort and trials of the human spirit. To treat a visit to a national park as a leisure activity seems backwards. Not only that, but to be in nature stands in striking opposition to being in a crowd of people, jostling for a good spot at the guardrail. I would rather have the parks be less accessible not only to preserve the space but to maintain it as a place of solitude. I would take having to make a reservation or put my name in a lottery if it meant our parks would be saved and those who visited would get to experience them how they are meant to be.
This was our experience at The Wave, located in Northern Arizona. Due to high interest as well as a need to preserve the delicate nature of the area, a lottery system is used to limit capacity at 20 people per day. This may seem extreme but there are no facilities at the location and hundreds of people apply nearly daily. Of the 20 spots, 10 are reserved solely for people who walk in the day before they wish to go (10 are booked in advance online.) So we arrived, put our names in and waited and ultimately lost. That was the deal and we hope to be back to try again. We are happy that if we finally do get a chance it will be preserved.
Because of how deeply we were touched by this issue we have planned to do a few pieces surrounding the Grand Canyon. We had a very valuable time and took away so many lessons. It was the tipping point so to speak in our national park experience. We were overwhelmed by the beauty and immensity that has made the Grand Canyon so iconic. We were physically exhausted in our attempts to explore even the tiniest sliver below the rim. And finally we were completely challenged by the endemic issues facing the Grand Canyon and the national parks at large.
A final sentiment. I believe we need to consistently work toward being better stewards of our environment, rather than approach our earth as an object that can be modified if it offers us even the slightest comfort.