Too, much

If you haven’t read Mark Sundeen’s Car Camping, you should.  The book, from 2000, appears to be out of print but readily available, and is worthwhile as both a fable of young adult purposeless and as a snapshot of Moab before the latest flood.  Sundeen reappeared recently, with an article in Outside about the Mighty 5 (2013) tourist campaign, and just how much industrial tourism in southern Utah has changed as a result.

The preponderance of obviousness here is as suffocating as the deer flies along the San Rafael in June.  Who doesn’t know about the recent trailhead quotas to hike Angel’s Landing?  About UDOT closing Arches when the entrance road filled all the way to the highway?  About how free and easy and beat down things were on river road was before there were any campgrounds?  Abbey predicted all this, well over half a century ago.  Abbey also predicted, in a less explicit but no less compelling way, how categorical the shift would need to be if we wanted to disentangle ourselves from ourselves and resolve the paradox of wilderness, by going beyond it.

Since the 1970s, when overnight wilderness visits as a percentage of overall visitors peaked (in most parks) the NPS has done nothing systemic to grapple with this.  Quantity of visitation has been put first, with attention to quality only paid when such is necessary to maintain quantity.  The Zion shuttle remains shocking in how much of an outlier it is in the 21st US park service, and in how crowded that park can still be, with Springdale this year putting in place regimented, pay parking throughout the 2 mile strip of shops, hotels, and little houses which makes up that town.  Along with Moab, it is the ideal, simple example of how tourism is not the answer to maintaining a livable and thus sustainably wild western US.

This is what Abbey was thinking when he wrote that “growth for growths sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.”   The parks, and American in general, have yet to grapple with this.  Generalized to the upteenth degree, this question is why the US is having such a rough go of the 21st century, the growing, implicit realization that the status quo is not going to work for too much longer.  The instagramification of the outdoors has served to exaggerate this, to accelerate something like the Mighty 5 campaign beyond what that campaign might have done otherwise.  The specific problems are many.  For one, Utah parks (and indeed the whole Colorado Plateau) presents more of the weird and spectacular than any other landscape in the lower 48, if not the western hemisphere.  Who didn’t know about it before the Mighty 5 campaign?  The same people who, pre ‘gram, might well have avoided the whole stretch between Vegas and Glenwood Springs for being ugly and not having enough trees.

Information isn’t just representation in this sense, it is reification.  Billboards and social media create an image and by extension and in the memory, a thing.  People then go find that thing, ignorant perhaps for years or for ever of how much the method and the process define creation.  You can’t see anything from a car, after all.  And this is the lie of the ‘gram, showing a polished end as proof of a process, and thus of meaning, that we all inherently and necessarily assume without any evidence of existence.  It is the difference between the classical tourist and the resident, and while neither stereotype is definitive, the way the information age has pulled the gap between experience and entertainment so wide so fast merits action.

This is why Venice and Amsterdam and Queenstown are contemplating how to moderate tourism, though these days the debate too often equates quality with money.  This is why America has, in all its bumbling, hesitated to constrain the democracy of opportunity that comes (or used to come) with free and easy access to Parks by car.  Adding a reservation system, an idea Arches floated and then withdrew last year, substitutes the current meritocracy of patience for the meritocracy of planning.  This is why LNT has encouraged vague geotagging.  This is why, in my current axe, I want route databases scrubbed of maps and specifics, and all guidebook authors (including this one) to tread in each step cautious of how many years or decades or longer each footprint across the face of human experience will last.

Experience doesn’t come easily, if by experience we mean something that sticks in the mind longer than the sun will take to set.  There are no shortcuts, and I do not think it is asking too much of the NPS and others, who by rights know as much, to be the guardians of process.  As humans we’ll take shortcuts, and try to use research and record to nail the novel on the first try.  Pity the day when it becomes too easy to not fail.




4 responses to “Too, much”

  1. I agree, but, isn’t it the case the NPS needs to squeeze all the cash it can from the unwashed masses to do anything? I am not up to speed with who does what in national parks (conservation of the landscape and of the biota being the only things I care about [1] — does the NPS do that?), but I have the nagging suspicion that in the cash driven ethics on the last n-years, what can we expect?

    [1] I do get national parks do have cultural heritages in them, either as artefacts or as actual people. As a person myself [2] I have ambivalent feelings about cultural heritages. A lot of them are a chain around the neck (aka stereotypes), plenty are dead and hollow shadows, some are alive. Those that are alive can look after themselves.
    [2] many disagree on that, I am reliably informed.

  2. Funding of public lands, and National Parks especially, changed drastically in 1994 as part of the Gingrich “Revolution.” Less outright funding, more expectation that user fees help a park pay its own way. Problematic in many ways, not least that it has defunded science to a shocking extent. In 2020 terms could be reframed as another way the baby boom generation benefited from a government program in their youth only to eviscerate it in their late-adulthood.

  3. Well written and spot on. We’ve clearly really reached a tipping point in most of our popular National Parks. Obviously most folks who visit a National Park just drive through, few actually hit the trails (which is not a bad thing for those that prefer hitting the trails). Having vehicle quotas is a step, but better yet would be a park and get on a “tour” bus. If you took the traffic and divided it by the number of folks who could fit on a bus the traffic problem wouldn’t be a traffic problem. With a knowledgeable interpretive person on board, folks would see a heck of a lot more (besides the rear bumper of the person in front of you) and learn a heck of a lot more too.

  4. Good needed discussion. As a life long, multi generational native of the West you write about, I’ve had a birds eye, little feet on the ground view of all This and more. You do know It is a Cultural Phenom; actually an Existential Crisis on the Tracks and not so far up ahead.

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