A 21st Century Park Service

Belly River ranger station, January 2012

The U.S. National Park Service will be a century old in 2016.  I agree with Ken Burns et al that it and the parks they serve may be one of America’s best ideas.  What Burns’ excellent documentary whitewashes, and what is becoming increasingly evident today, is the extent to which the ideals of the National Park Service contradict some of the founding ideals of the United States as cultural and political entity.  This contradiction will only become more obvious, as this century wears on and my country tries to reinvent its birth story in a coherent manner.

Last year the NPS released A Call to Action, a memo concerning the second century of the agency.  Most of the 28 pages are given over to pretty graphics and are not especially inspiring, but the following stood out:

The aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the rights protected for all citizens in the Constitution are based upon our founders’ belief that every individual has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas were formed from the lessons of history shaped by struggles with governments in former homelands. The founders and subsequent generations also knew that the grandeur of the American landscape compared equally to the cathedrals and castles of the Old World. So it was inevitable that an institution to preserve both the lessons of history and the best of the land be conceived and established. That institution, the National Park Service, will be 100 years old in 2016.

Glens Lake

I’ve traveled little in Europe, and am not in a position to evaluate the claim that America has culturally privileged wild places above and beyond the old country, but neither the NPS nor I would be the first to make it, so we’ll let it ride.  The importance of this ideal is the central role it might play, in the 21st century, in enabling “the pursuit of happiness”.  My reading of Jefferson has always seen life and liberty as prerequisites for being able to quest after happiness (meaning).  Access to meaning in life is expressly not guaranteed.  So access to wild places could be seen as an essential precondition to the pursuit of meaning in human life.

The interesting things is that the national parks have done this by removing vast tracts of land from private ownership forever, an act and an ideal which contradicts such inextricably American things as manifest destiny and our pathologic fetishization of the right to private land ownership.  Which explains why so many Americans, especially westerners, get angry over (continued) federal control of the majority of most western states.  Abbey, in multiple works but Solitaire first and primarily, advocated for wilderness as essential to democracy.  It is and can be the spiritual as well as literal centerpiece, where democratic ideals remain in their most potent state.  Spiritually, in the ways touched on above and in most all of my work here, and literally as a base of resistance against the inevitable overreaching of human government.  It is because these two ideas seem to contradict each other so thoroughly in application that leads me to believe that there must be a lot to them.  Bedrock and paradox, right?

Upper Belly River meadows

The NPS may then be in a position of mediating a central conflict in American identity as it matures.  Manifest destiny, radical private property rights, and an unbending acceptance of market capitalism as a moral force are the ideological equivalent of an 11-year-old whose super ego has yet to emerge.  The National Parks can serve as a model of mature democracy for the rest of our culture: they are open to all (they should be free) to enjoy, but reserved from the ownership of anyone.  There will be disagreements and revisions concerning minutia, but it is time for a comparable governing outlook to become more widely practiced in 21st century America.  American identity as it has been imagined since the second world war is untenable.  Now we grow up.


  1. Great post! Thoughts that came to mind.
    1) Learning about eroding liberties, surveillance, and public apathy played a role in my desire to seek out wild(er) places. I didn’t want to sit in front of the telescreen anymore and be bombarded with images designed to manipulate my subconscious. I didn’t want to walk down city streets with cameras with microphones on every corner. I wanted to go places where I could have a little privacy. And lo and behold I found those places were enjoyable beyond my wildest imagination. To the point my notions of “success” and “ambition” were turned on their heads.
    2) The National Parks and other wild lands are about the best thing the U.S. has going and true treasures, but the Native Americans were the oldest known inhabitants of many famous national park lands, such as Yosemite. From what I’ve read, many (most?) Native Americans scoffed at idea of private land ownership. A fundamental “truth” that we have yet to learn?
    3) Spending extended time in wilderness provides several benefits: Disconnecting from mass media and reawakening critical thinking skills; getting in good physical condition and away from the medical system; discovering that truth and beauty are still in abundance. All important to living a free and rewarding life.

  2. One irony, that isn’t unexpected and might just be a sign of growing pains, is that in the parks many of the “adventuresome minority” get in over their heads and expect rangers to bail them out. The number of times the Belly rangers, as noted in the logbook, hauled gimped-out hikers to the TH on horseback was pretty astonishing.

  3. Nice thoughts, Dave. We are, the two of us, traveling two-sides of the same wave-length.

    I’ve got a post called “Libertarian Environmentalism” qued up right now. I’m still hashing out the finer points. I’ve been studying the concepts of free-market environmentalism (or conservation) a lot recently. I believe that beyond the economic uses – timber, ore, etc, – that so much of land use policy is based around, is something much more important. The idea of wilderness. Stegner is brilliant on this subject.

    One of the keys, and I think the primary reason the NP’s are beloved by all stripes, is that we all see the value in them. Not the monetary value, but the value in thier existence. Just knowing they are “there” is, for many, enough. It’s an attitude that I wish more Americans embraced outside the parks, and applied toward wilderness in general. That alone will preserve our wild spaces and primitive experiences more than any law or fencing ever could.

    One counter thought: Private land doesn’t automatically mean restricted land. In many cases, that is true. Many areas here in the Wasatch are privately owned, but are open to recreational travel (such as BC skiing) due to thier proximity to NF land. One of the best consequences of the NP’s is that they’ve eliminated great swaths of land from being leased to oil companies, timber cutters, miners, ranchers, and so forth. Those leases do more damage than private owners ever would – the tragedy of the commons. Like many ills in American society, the problems stem from a government/private alliance that leaves the rest of us in the cold.

    But, you are dead on. The NP’s and wilderness at large are a fundamental part of our national character. The way we choose to preserve and treat the land isa reflection of our national and collective mores.

    I’ve never been to Europe, but I have seen Australia, Jordan, Oman, Israel, Japan (Fuji is amazing), Canada, Central America, and a few other places. There is remarkable landscape everywhere. But I’m not sure any other nation (Australia, maybe?) has tied their national identity to the land quite like we have.

  4. As an expat resident of Europe, I can say that the US has expanses of undeveloped land, especially in the West, that one just does not find here, with the exception of Scandinavia-Russia (including Iceland). “Wilderness” as an ideology or reality doesn’t really exist in the same way; National Parks here limit extractive industries and agribusiness, but traditional grazing, forestry, and agriculture are protected as part of a particular region’s cultural heritage. The effect is different, but not less spectacular. There’s hardly a place here that’s untouched by human history, but there’s a symbiosis in many places that’s aesthetically pleasing, and lightweight upon the landscape. The main drawback, depending on the country, is the illegality of camping, but these regulations are lightly enforced, and a friendly, non-intrusive presence overcomes most limitations.

    On the other hand, if you like simple hotels and farms, there’s no shortage of huts, cottages, and refuges, as well as cute villages in which to stay and partake of the particular fruits of the land. The freeze-dried, industrial character of most trail cookery pales in comparison to even the crudest warm, fresh meal cooked in a well-used country kitchen. The integration of food with the landscape is a wonderful surprise, and an improvement upon the ideological “leave-no-trace” hike which enters and experiences the land as pure-spirit.

    The main difference–and improvement over the US–is the lenient attitude toward private property. Relatively little land is publicly owned, but you’ll see very few fences, and a near-total absence of “No Trespassing” signs, at least outside of obviously urban or industrial areas. Which means it’s possible to simply head out, cross country, through ranch and farmland, along abundant public rights-of-way, without fearing angry, shot-gun-wielding landowners. The landscape is, therefore, despite private ownership and ubiquitous signs of human activity, largely open for light-footed exploration. This cannot be said of much of the US, which has succumbed to the stark either-or of absolute property rights. The fact that mineral and timber rights belong to a property’s owner is extreme, and not typically the case in Europe. This peculiarity of America promotes the hostile battle between absolute plunder and absolute protection. There are solutions to this, but nothing that wouldn’t be slandered as “communist” in the current political climate.

    Our own ideas about enjoying nature have their origins in German idealism, as filtered through the American transcendentalists (notably Emerson) and their interpreters (chiefly Muir). Germans (and the English) had and have a much better reason to fear the total destruction of their landscape than Americans do. But in our typical extremism we vigorously protect “wilderness” with religious fervor, yet think little of cheap gas, cars, and highways make America’s built environment one of the most hostile, ugly, wasteful, and expensive on the planet. I think the national parks are a treasure to be vigorously protected, and wilderness areas as well, if simply to let them be. America in general would be equally well served by putting some serious reform in how it creates and maintains the places in which people actually live, and not just preserve those in which we might recreate.

  5. Fantastic thoughts Adam and Andrew!

    One interesting case example in this is stream access. Here in Montana we’ve got an extremely progressive, even semi-socialist stream access law, which seems driven (based on testimony in the legislature I saw a few years ago) equally by economics (chiefly fishing) and a more spiritual conviction that no one should dictate the fate of a river.

    Rather sad to see how far from that other western states are; http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.12/montanas-stream-access-law-stays-strong/stream-access-laws-on-private-lands-in-the-west

  6. That being said, the local fish stream (La Bruche) is, in fact, owned by the resident fishing clubs. But no one cares if you walk through their vineyard.

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