How Can We Build Advocates for the National Parks?

How can we best work together to preserve the National Park System? NPT file photo of Logan Pass by Kurt Repanshek.

Where do your interests in the National Park System lie? That's a pretty straightforward and seemingly simple question, but is the answer?

Do you care about the health and welfare of the entire 84-million-acre system, or just about the handful of parks you typically visit? Is your concern more for the collective National Park System, or rather for your specific recreational pursuits? Are those two things mutually exclusive?

Why on the Traveler is it that gun issues and deaths inevitably draw attention to the national parks, but stories of insufficient budgets and deteriorating infrastructure and harsh impacts on the "parkscape" draw comparatively scant notice? Why does it seem as if folks are so much less passionate about protecting the parks as a whole than they are about protecting their personal privileges to do the things they like in the parks?

If the creation of a national park is indeed “a pact between generations, a promise from the past to the future,” then we must ask whether Americans today are failing to uphold their end of the bargain. This is not to suggest that Americans are turning their backs on the parks, but rather that they’ve become indifferent to their stewardship, a slight that future generations will suffer.

With the centennial of the National Park Service in sight just eight years off, it seems only fitting that the future of the National Park System be assessed. Such an assessment can't be made without first looking to the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 so we can better understand the purpose of the National Park System. That document so very clearly established the purpose of the national parks: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

While there has been much debate over exactly what that mission statement means -- does it place conservation of resources above enjoyment of those resources? -- it's been clear, and courts have agreed, that the National Park Service's overriding mission is to conserve the resources. That was reinforced by the Redwood National Park Expansion Act of 1978, which reemphasized the Organic Act’s stewardship provisions and affirmed that they are to be applied on a system-wide basis.

National parks clearly are very different animals than national forests and public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Those landscapes are intended to be managed for multiple-use, whether that's recreation, mining, logging or grazing. National parks are to be managed for different purposes...but not necessarily for different audiences. With that understood, it's important to recognize that the intent of the Organic Act was to see that national park vistas would remain protected for time immemorial. As a result, not all activities allowed on U.S. Forest Service or BLM lands are permitted within the national parks. And certainly that can be a point of contention.

But if you accept the mandates, and some would say wisdom, of the National Park Organic Act, what is the key to getting all those who look to the national parks for recreational pursuits, whether they involve birding, or boating, or mountain biking, or ORV pursuits where allowed, concerned about the overall health of the National Park System? How do you accomplish that without any backbiting, without various groups pegging others as "elitist" for their views on what is or isn't appropriate in a national park setting?

What is the key to getting someone who is deeply concerned about access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore concerned about access in Yellowstone? How do you persuade someone who is worried about climate change at Everglades National Park that it's just as important to be concerned about climate change at Glacier? Why are some incredibly concerned about their ability to bring a concealed weapon into the park system, and yet seemingly not concerned about ranger staffing levels?

Granted, there are polarizing issues: Guns, ORVs, snowmobiling just to name three. It's understandable that in many instances not everyone will see eye-to-eye on these. But if the on-the-ground health of the national parks isn't maintained, how will that impact the future of these pursuits in the parks? Shouldn't all who turn to the national parks for recreation and enjoyment, regardless of how that might be pursued, be concerned about dwindling park budgets, about higher and higher user fees in the parks, about management issues that are central to how the National Park System will be run, not just today, but for many years to come?

After all, these are the stories that go to how we enjoy the parks, today and tomorrow.

At the Traveler we're constantly intrigued by which stories draw the most interest. Those about park visitors who get lost or die in accidents never fail to attract readers. Usually travel-related stories are popular as well. But stories such as the recent one concerning the fate of an in-holding surrounded on three sides by Valley Forge National Historic Park, the one about the backroom-deal cut to continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars the Park Service doesn't have and to place park employees and visitors in danger's path along Yellowstone's Sylvan Pass in winter, or others about the National Park Service's lack of fiscal fitness, draw comparatively little interest and comment.

All these involve tough issues that directly affect how the National Park System operates for our collective benefit. There are countless others that time and space don't allow to be listed.

As the saying goes, "those who show up make the decisions." The Traveler's intent is to raise the national dialog of how the parks are managed and, along the way, hopefully educate, generate, and nurture more park advocates for today and tomorrow. By approaching the myriad issues that swirl around the national parks, we aim to increase the public consciousness about how the parks are being managed.

The end goal? It's not whether you agree with the Traveler's positions, but rather that you, the national park enthusiast, not only become better informed on how the parks are being managed but take the time to speak up for how you'd like to see them managed. Hopefully, along the way the parks will regain their health so future generations can benefit from them.

But what's the best way of accomplishing that goal? How can national attention to the plight of the National Park System as a whole be raised? Look out across the 391 units of the National Park System and, if you enjoy heading to a park to hike, boat, learn about America's history, or partake in any of the multitude of activities available, you should be alarmed by what you find:

• Science at times is trumped by recreation and politics – witness the Bush administration’s decision to allow recreational snowmobilers to continue to roam Yellowstone despite roughly $10 million worth of environmental studies that stated unequivocally that snowcoaches would have less impact on the park’s resources.

• More and more parks are becoming ecological islands, genetic outcrops surrounded by development, be it gated communities such as those near Great Smoky Mountains, ranchettes around Yellowstone, energy development, or merely suburbia.

• More than a handful of park lodges – Lake McDonald Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park are key examples -- are worn and weary historic structures that have become too expensive for their concession operators to repair. The conundrum is that they’re too historic for the financially overwhelmed Park Service to let collapse.

• Economics are battling the environment across the “parkscape,” as gateway communities are demanding more and more from the parks in terms of economic development.

These are meaty issues, all that affect how you enjoy and experience the parks, ones that can't be solved overnight. But as the number of park advocates grows and demands better attention from Congress to the National Park System and National Park Service, hopefully we can make meaningful headway.


I can offer a few points of speculation on this:

    - The Federal budget process is very long and very opaque, from the time the President submit's his or her proposed budget to Congress in February, it is typically at least eight months, and often more, before a budget is actually passed. Plus, the intermediate steps to getting to that point involve a lot of parliamentary maneuvering, tons of long meetings, and plenty of spreadsheets - in ther words, budgets can be plenty boring.

    - Budgets don't typically involve matters of principle. Two persons who are equally concerned about the Park System can very honestly reach two different numbers on recommended funding levels for the Park Service for next year. By contrast, this "Guns in Parks" issue has become a proxy battle for those people who wanted to ban most forms of guns and the various friends of the NRA. The "2nd Amendment" debate is perhaps the one of the longest-running debates on the Internet. *Of course* it generated a ton of traffic. (To say nothing of the fact that the Supreme Court had already pushed the issue to near the top of the national agenda for this year.)

    - Most people recognize that one of the basic laws of economics is that "our needs are infinite, and our resources to meet those needs are finite." Everyone understands this in basic way when it comes to our household budgets - and it holds true of Federal budgets as well. The various members of Congress who set funding levels for the National Park Service (outside of NPS-generated revenues) are also hearing about the Nation's needs for:

      - more highways and transit to relieve congestion in our cities
      - more healthcare for the millions of uninsured in this country
      - better classrooms for failing schools in rural areas and inner cities
      - more research into alternative fuels, new cures for diseases, and basic science
      - more safety inspections of imported consumer goods and health inspections of our food supply
    And the list goes on. So the National Parks have to compete against all those funding priorities. Its a good fight - but its also anything but an easy one. And many honest people will set other priorities....

Ouch!! You hit me hard with this one Kurt. I read the NPT daily but I rarely comment except for gun issues. We must ALL be enthusiastic about preserving our Parks. I'm not sure our government has the Parks' best interests at heart; just their own.


Thank you for raising this issue on NPT. It's difficult for most people, for whom parks are one-time travel destinations, to become interested in the details of park funding issues when personal finances and free time become more restrictive and gasoline prices soar above $4.00 per gallon. For most people, the present "hot buttons" are the war in Iraq, the economy, health care, illegal immigration, and Election 2008. Amongst those concerned with environmental issues, the future impact of climate change has top billing.

I'm certain that our parks will experience a major decline in park visitation this summer, at least those parks located far from major urban and suburban areas will be effected. Nevertheless, the economic forces of industrial tourism will strive hard to offer incentives to maintain and increase travel stops to parks, and these forces will translate directly into political pressure on how parks are managed at present and in the future.

It is extremely difficult for park managers, focused first and foremost on the protection and preservation of natural an cultural resources, to execute a decision that is perceived by gateway communities to negatively impact park visitation and their economic well-being. For those parks traditionally subject to over-crowding, providing for tranportation means other than the private automobile will require wide-scale public support before the necessary funding can be put in place. Zion Canyon with its shuttle service appears to be one of the major success stories. But Yosemite Valley and Cades Cove still have a long way to go before the private automobile is replaced with another, more resource friendly, form of transportation. The Yosemite Master Plan discussed the elimination of the private automobile from the Valley floor more than 25 years ago, but it has not been implemented due to the perceived impact that such a decision would have on park visitation and the economy of gateway and regional communities.

Unfortunately, few information sources openly discuss the effect of NPS budget shortfalls, and the impact of increased privatization and commercialism on the national park experience. The NPS can't and won't do this. Most of the established environmental organizations shy away from this level of detail as well. So, it's very difficult for the general public to become informed about park issues, unless the story is featured in local news.

Fortunately online, NPT is becoming a major outlet of system-wide information about the the parks and the NPS. I find NPT to be quite effective in communicating the multifaceted story about national parks and the national parks system, including the present and future challenges faced by park managers and the various ways in which parks are relevant to the American public at large. Don't let the apparent disproportionate reader commentary on guns and deaths in parks get you down. Please keep up the good work.

I am certain that your excellent article will generate much more discussion.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Thanks for your comments Owen. I agree that Kurt does an outstanding job of demonstrating his love and concern for the Parks. The NPT is a daily read for me so that I can find out what's REALLY going on in the world. I join with you in saying, "Keep up the good work Kurt, and please don't get discouraged".

Most people don't advocate for anything at all.

However, of the small minority that advocate for something, it seems that most people will advocate for those things which are closest to them. Very few people have a direct relationship with the national parks that isn't trumped by some other interest. Even if you are interested in national parks, more likely you will be - like me, interested in a particular region rather than the parks as a whole themselves.

People understand taxes and guns - health and food and education. It's a lot easier to get people to mobilize around those things which they are familiar.

If we think of why the national park system is what it is - lands and places set aside as exceptions to the rule, as places that are supposed to be preserved because left to our own devices, we probably would have destroyed them - the park has always been kind of abstract from the direct experience of most. It is a place someone must go to - a place that is not immediately there. It takes an extra step, an extra step that is required because we don't really know how to care for anything on our own.

I'm not sure there is an easy answer to advocacy for the parks - not sure there should be such a thing, at least as it is being imagined here. I can imagine what it would be like to advocate for a park, for a place - much harder for me to grasp how to build meaningful support for a set of places. It's not that it's impossible - people advocate for their country, which is even more abstract than the park system (but even then, people don't have to go to their country; they are already there). How do you advocate for parks when we are disconnected from them? It suggests strongly to me that we cannot really advocate for parks unless we also see something in the park ideal that is missing and should be present in our own lives. That's why guns in the parks resonates as an issue - it touches home, whether it's people's liberty or people's sense of safety. That's no doubt why buffalo in Yellowstone or snowmobiles doesn't. Very few of us have truly been touched by that issue.

Anyhow, there's a lot here to think about.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

There is an additional challenge for increasing national parks advocacy besides the ones mentioned in Kurt's post and by other commenters. In the last few years, many environmental groups have responded to the threat of global climate change by focusing the lion's share of their resources on it.

This has meant not only that there are fewer professional opportunties for people intersted in traditional public lands advocacy but also that young people coming into the environmental movement are being channeled mostly toward global climate change issues.

It's hard to say how much of this is driven by the groups themselves. Foundation funding for more traditional conservation work is shrinking as funders increasingly move their money into slowing global climate change. Since many environmental nonprofits are dependent on foundation funding for a big part of their budgets, that shift changes what they can do.

As a result, citizen advocacy is more important than ever. I know there are huge systematic issues that could really use more people paying attention, but I would settle for more people standing up for the parks they care about. My own experience is that you can indeed get many recreationists to become public-lands advocates, but it happens only when there is a huge threat to their personal playground. Once they start speaking out, however, they are some of the most ardent advocates around.

Kurt, just one question. Your photo on this page, when was it taken? Nice composition and color...and what kind of camera used?

It was a Nikon, I believe my old N-70, which since has been replaced by a D80.

Good point, Kurt.

However, advocacy begins from within, and you are not going to see the kind of advocacy that our Parks need until we once again have Directors, Regional Directors and Park Superintendents who will hold fast to the ideals as expressed in the Organic Act of 1916, even in the face of political pressure: until we once again have Directors, Regional Directors and Park Superintendents who are willing to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough! We cannot do more with less, and we will not put the resources with which we have been entrusted at risk, nor our people or our visitors, just to appease politicians’: or until we once again have Regional Directors and Park Superintendents who are willing to lay their careers on-the-line, and curtail or even shut down management-related activities that cannot be sustained without ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. Until a new generation of Managers the likes of Hartzog, Chapman, Anderson, Cone, Kowski, or Thompson take the reins and lead in accord with the ideals as expressed in the Organic Act of 1916, advocacy from within doesn’t stand a chance.

Here are a couple of ideas that would never fly, but since you asked:

Since the majority of Americans are basically slothful couch potatoes, who's idea of "reality" is directly linked to such nonsense as what is purported to be classified as such by the brainless marketing and production staffs that are television executives, how about a "real" reality show about the status of the American landscape? We're SO good at throwing our hard-earned monies at sympathy causes all over the globe that maybe, for once; we as a nation might concentrate on some domestic issues within our own borders, generate some personal and national pride in restoring the images and landmarks that comprise our collective heritage and future.

Another option is exposing the youth of America, the elementary, middle and high school aged children, to stories, images and the general history and current conditions that are the NPS. Play on their sympathies and jump-start their guilty consciences. Show what was, what currently is and what is projected to be if we continue with business as usual. The younger minds are most easily influenced (ok, pliable, malleable, preyed upon, whatever) and are the most likely to institute the movement required for the needed changes in attitude, funding and general advocacy to take place anytime in the near future. If you're waiting for political intervention you're a fool. Likewise with funding from the private sector in amounts that would truly be substantial enough to make a difference, in the short term at least. A "benevolent benefactor" with the available resources to ride in like the proverbial knight in shining armour doesn't exist in this world, mostly due to the fact that they wouldn't receive the "personal recognition / promotion" that those morons usually demand. This is a "for the good of all people" project, not some personal gratification /furthering of one's image and status program. So let's utilize those who are most likely to come under the spell of the Great Outdoors, those who have probably yet to live the experience, but who would at the same time be most likely to be forever influenced by such exposure.

Reporting, as usual, from La-La Land............

I guess a Bernard DeVoto of our times should stand up and say "Let's close the National Parks", if Congress does not fund them properly, as he did in 1953 in Harper's Magazine - in full at His outcry was influential in starting the Mission 66.

"Therefore only one course seems possible. The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened."