It’s that time of year again—if such things still happen—to take your family on vacation. Pile the kids into the car and descend on national parks to see wildlife or snap pictures of mountain ranges, cacti, or other natural wonders. Maybe even take a hike or camp on the hard earth. Hope the kids are smart enough to know that the bubbling geysers of Yellowstone are not for mucking about. If you travel to a national park this year, you’ll be in for a celebration of the system’s centennial, recently touted by President Obama himself, whose family traveled to Carlsbad Caverns and Yosemite for Father’s Day.
Nathan C. Martin, over at The Baffler, thinks it’s high time to rethink the way we see the Park Service. He claims that the National Park Service (NPS) is based upon the principle (or lack thereof) of “aesthetic quarantine,” that is, the setting aside of places of natural and pristine beauty. This creates “an anesthetic that allows us to forget about things like global warming, mass extinction, and ocean acidification. Don’t worry about that melting glacier, folks—just concentrate on the picturesque peak beneath it.”
Martin notes how private capital has infiltrated the NPS, pretty much from the get-go. Turning his attention to Teton National Park, he explains how the tycoon John Rockefeller, back in the 1920s and 1930s, appropriated “land from unsuspecting ranchers using a dummy corporation that concealed his hand in the project. He then foisted responsibility for the cleared-out valley on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declared Jackson Hole a national monument, later to be fused with the rest of Grand Teton National Park.” Private interests, nowadays more than ever, are pressing in on public lands. No surprise here. Martin documents how the Centennial Challenge Projects chartered by Congress specifically calls for contributions from private interests to the parks. “The Park Service, for its part,” Martin adds, “announced in May that it will start to offer naming rights to corporate donors.”
These are legitimate—if not terribly new—concerns. But Martin pile drives his thesis deeper down into the very consciousness at the origin of the National Park Service and the idea of “wilderness” itself. He argues that:
roping off Nature in protected boxes reinforces what environmental historian William Cronon calls the ‘dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature.’ National parks—with their slick marketing, tourist-crammed boardwalks, merchandise-stuffed gift shops, corporate accommodations, and uniformed attendants—resemble nothing so much as outsized theme parks. They encourage people to experience the environment as a consumer product—something to watch in awe through the windshield like a good movie, to enjoy on vacation but not carry back to life in the ‘human world….’
National parks turn nature into something—using the language of 1990s lit crit types—that is distinctly “other.”
But let’s slow down here and first make some necessary distinctions. To begin with, there’s a big difference between the National Park System and “wilderness.” After all, the NPS dates back to 1916, and the Wilderness Act to 1964. Passed in very different times during our past, they had different policy aims. National parks are not synonymous with wilderness itself. This is obvious to anyone who has traversed the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—perhaps one of the most famous national parks that has not a lick of wilderness. Although it should be noted that, no doubt, some parks, like Yosemite and Glacier, do in fact have swaths of real and vast wilderness (in addition to what some refer to as “front country”).
What Martin also fails to note is that the NPS always had as its mission to offer places for people to explore, not just places to protect from outside encroachment. As the Wilderness Act proclaims: “A wilderness…is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The term “visitor” here is important. We have forgotten how the conception of wilderness—even if it threatens to create something “other” in doing so—is also about setting limits on human beings, our ideas of development, and our simplistic faith in “progress.” Wilderness teaches us humility, a sense that we must consider ending our expansionary tendencies and the excessive self-adulation that tells us that we will always improve that which we touch.
In 1960, as activists were organizing their push for the Wilderness Act, Wallace Stegner, perhaps one of America’s best western writers, was asked to articulate the principle of “wilderness.” His words are worth quoting at length. Specifically, Stegner was asked to consider “the Robbers’ Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument.” Of this he wrote:
In that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is…harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers’ Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can’t even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there.
Nature’s apparent uselessness may nonetheless hold valuable lessons, Stegner reminded us.
And this is precisely what wilderness—even that found within our National Park System—can help us remember. The lesson is simple: Public lands are our lands. They don’t belong to the Bundy clan or rich folks. They belong to the people and are protected by the government, on behalf of the people. And most important of all, they highlight the idea of essential limits in our relationship with nature, the idea that we shouldn’t turn every parcel of land over to development. The remaining wild lands of America can still serve to teach us the necessity of caution, the idea that not all places are meant for development and bulldozers.