How We View National Parks Today Matters For Tomorrow
Editor's Note: As the saying goes, they're not making wilderness any more. And they're not making the big, sweeping national parks and seashores that protect and conserve incredible landscapes and, within those landscapes, incredible biodiversity. William Tweed, who ended his National Park Service career as the chief of interpretation and cultural resources for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks and now writes on parks and nature from his Sierra Nevada home, touched on this fact in a recent op-ed.
We all love America's national park system, but we often have different expectations about local federal parks than about places farther away. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in arguments about Point Reyes National Seashore.
When we think about Point Reyes, the situation becomes more complex. We want it to remain unchanged but also to meet local needs. Longer-term concerns with which the Park Service must deal, things like climate change, demographic transformations and shifts in land use, seldom concern us.
The political movement that set out in the 1950s to protect Point Reyes feared that the area would be urbanized. To prevent that outcome they chose to add the area to the National Park System (1962) and set aside part of the resulting park as wilderness (1976). The legislation that defined these twin actions specified that the park would be administered to provide "maximum protection" for the natural environment.
The only exception was a clause that allowed ranch lands that were not in the wilderness portion of the seashore to remain in use. The intent, which remains valid, was to allow the region's historic dairy and beef ranches to continue to operate.
Now, with the seashore's golden anniversary four years away, this idealistic vision has come back to frustrate portions of the county that created it. Should Point Reyes National Seashore be a wild landscape set aside to preserve intact all its natural elements or instead be a scenic landscape managed primarily to support recreation and economic growth? We need both, you say, sensitively balanced, and if current law prevents this it's time to change the law.
Before we do so, however, a moment's reflection is in order
The political will that created Point Reyes National Seashore half a century ago got something profoundly right when it recognized that the region contained biological and cultural resources of exceptional value. What no one knew at the time was how much further the significance of those resources would grow over time. Now we know that no environment on this planet is beyond the reach of human impact.
Even the resources of national parks are not immune. Leading the charge is climate change, which threatens nearly everything biological. Following closely are a host of additional problems including alien species and habitat fragmentation.
Half a century ago, the Bay Area set out to protect the Point Reyes Peninsula and give its natural systems "maximum" protection. Since then much has changed. Population and recreational demand have soared. Economic expectations have grown. Studies document that our society is losing its connection to the natural world. These changes have brought us to a moment of decision regarding the future of the seashore. Many, without realizing it, are questioning the founding assumptions of this amazing park unit.
Those who focus narrowly on issues such as the future of commercial oyster farming within the seashore's wilderness or the perpetuation of exotic deer miss a critical point. Point Reyes National Seashore contains barely 100 square miles, yet this makes it by far the largest piece of preserved coastal land in our region. We have nothing else like it.
Half a century ago, Bay Area leaders created Point Reyes National Seashore and endowed it with a grand vision. Succeeding generations now must decide whether the time has come to abandon the founding purposes of Point Reyes or whether we should renew our commitment to doing the harder things that may be far more important.
The Bay Area prides itself on its world leadership in environmental affairs. But is that commitment strong enough to overcome the most basic of environmental conflicts - whether places like Point Reyes National Seashore belong to the future or just to us now?
William Tweed is a writer and historian who lives in the southern Sierra Nevada. He is working on a book about California's national parks and wilderness areas in the 21st century.