Reader Participation Day: Why Are National Parks So Controversial?

When I first started the Traveler back in '05, I never expected some stories about the National Park System to be so controversial.

Who thought the snowmobile issue in Yellowstone National Park would still be slogging on, a decade and more than $10 million since it first arose back in 2000? And would anyone think that some birds and turtles would be such a hot-button topic at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

There are other examples -- whether to drain Hetch Hetchy at Yosemite National Park, mule rides at Grand Canyon National Park, hunting/culling issues in any number of parks, and even oysters at Point Reyes National Seashore.

No, I figured writing about national parks would be relatively safe, a continuing series of feel-good stories about some of the most gorgeous and interesting (culturally and historically) places in America. After all, units of the National Park System are set aside for the preservation of their resources for today's and tomorrow's generations, and for the public's enjoyment.

But instead it seems there is controversy (not to mention firebrand politics!) lurking in every nook and cranny of the park system. Why do you think that is?


I think the problem is that Americans have forgotten the art of compromise. In all of the situations you mentioned, you have two extreme opposing sides who believe that their way is the only way and refuse to listen to any opposing view. This seems to be what is also happening in Washington today. Two centuries ago, the founders of our country were able to reach a Declaration of Independence and a constitution because they were able to listen to opposing views and strike a compromise. Until we can learn how to compromise once again, I believe that we will continue to have the problems we have today.

Lack of compromise, yes, but its more than that. Around 100 years ago, the powers that be, whomever that may be, could make decisions for themselves without serious worry of being waggled a finger at, be it by special interest groups or by the powers above them. It seems now, you just can't make any descision without having it picked apart, destroyed, and turned into a multi-million dollar lawsuit issue.
Might want to note as well, on the one topic I know the most about (Ystone snowmobiles) the snowmobile groups have compromised a lot, allowing guided only, limited numbers, and limited types of snowmobiles. The enviromnental groups still won't compromise, insisting on banning snowmobiles and going snowcoach only, despite evidence that snowcoach only is no better than the current snowmobile/coach rules.

While I agree completely with both Bogator and Raven, I can't help but think there is a much more simple -- and perhaps sinister -- reason.

Money and power! (Which, in this old world, are often one and the same.)

When you stop to look at any issue the driving force will certainly be someone trying to retain wealth and the power that accompanies it. This was as true back in the 1800's and in 1916, as it is now.

If you will go and read the book: The Birth of the National Park Service : The Founding Years 1913 - 1933
by Horace M. Albright as told to Robert Cahn
1985 Howe Brothers Publishing, Salt Lake City
You will see that not much has changed. Establishing and protecting our parks have always faced the same challenges. That will probably never change.

And one more comment about compromise, it may generally be a good thing, but there are some times when there should be no compromise whatsoever. A great example of that was when Floyd Dominy and the Bureau of Reclamation were pushing to build a dam inside Grand Canyon National Park back in the 1970's. Would a compromise that resulted in a smaller dam have been a good thing? Maybe there is another ingredient that needs to ride alongside compromise. How about plain old wisdom?

Turning the other way on the question (and putting aside the media's need to foment debate), there's a reassuring aspect to all this controversy, as well: It's because a lot of people really care about their national parks, which should be a good thing.

Nearly everyone seems to have a sense of ownership in the parks, and although I am far from the debate over, say, snowmobiles in Yellowstone (confession time: I haven't yet been to Yellowstone), I think I can see that both sides feel they belong there, whether it's on motorized skis or foot-powered snowshoes.

So I think the question is not so much why there is so much controversy -- there is controversy because there is caring and concern -- but why it is so hard to find a solution. And here we do come around to what I learned as a journalist a long time ago: Follow the money. It is good business (for your blog, for your foundation, for your party, for your channel) to keep controversies up and solutions down. And let's face it, it's more fun to feel righteously indignant than to feel like you've had to give anything -- anything -- up.

I also think Raven Watcher is right in that there was a time when the powers that be could whisper and get about anything they wanted. But today everyone has a megaphone -- and this site is just one of the millions.

The National Park Service organic act set rather strict standards for protection of the parks. There will always be some who want to introduce activities that are not consistent with those standards, and they will pick a fight if they don't get their way. However, if all their demands were met, the parks would become more like national forests or BLM public lands.

A good question, and already some good answers.

The National Park Service organic act set rather strict standards for protection of the parks. There will always be some who want to introduce activities that are not consistent with those standards, and they will pick a fight if they don't get their way. However, if all their demands were met, the parks would become more like national forests or BLM public lands.
I don't know about introducing new amenities/conveniences.

However, there's certainly controversy over certain features, etc that predate the individual NPS units. There's mule rides in the Grand Canyon and apple orchards or the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. The oyster farm at Point Reyes predates the park by at least 30 years. Those are going to be the tough cases.

Personally I think some people are just offended when they see something on NPS land that they feel doesn't jibe with what they think the National Park Service represents. I personally don't feel that the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir belongs, and that was created after it became a national park.

As has already been mentioned, "follow the money".
The cynic in me tends to believe that $$$$ either rules the world (or is trying damn hard to do so) - which tends to explain why compromise (in anything involving government) is non-existant.

Because perceptions of what should be acceptable in a National Parks diverge, and there is a faction that will never be satisfied until the parks have reached a holy level of environmental purity. It's hard to compromise with such people.

And, Zeb, because there is a faction who will never be satisfied until every park has been squeezed dry of every bit of marketable resource. It is hard to compromise with such people, although as we saw a couple of years ago, we CAN vote them out of office.

Rick B:
If you had the position and responsibility for park, non-park land and the citizens of our country without the element of those you characterize would "squeeze dry" the parks, what and how would you attempt to implement given you would have non of the perks and exceptions to rules and laws you would implement? Given the extreme element(s) of todays discussions with, apparently, little willingness (yet) to view the issues from a larger picture to solve critical and increasingly dire results, I'm wondering how you and others would respond to the question.

There is controversy because people love the parks and everyone has his/her own vision for what the parks should be. I, for one, don't want anything ugly or industrial encroaching on park land, no matter how politically correct the landscape scar. I see the possibility of industrial solar farms and wind farms as a new threat to what is now open, pristine desert landscape. So there are even competing interests among those who claim to be environmentalists.
Re: The High Sierra Camps, they did not predate the establishment of Yosemite. They were put up in the early part of the last century after Yosemite was a national park. And yes, they should stay. They are wonderful.

Anonymous at 5:49am. I have no idea what you're talking about. Try asking me your hypothetical again with correct spelling and sentence structure so I can understand what you're asking. I don't really care much for ridiculous hypotheticals, but we'll see.

Sorry Rick, if you can't get the idea the English Major critic in you is overwhelming other qualities that could be productive. I have the same issue with some that get great mileage out of a Harvard degree so don't feel bad :). Rock on Parks (with reason).

Rick B., on one hand you have enviro fanatics who basically want to kick all humans out of the park, and the other, you have industries that would love to extract every single resource out the land. I'm somewhere in the middle, and I simply would like to ride my bike offroad.

I was recently in Canyonlands National Park. I was standing at one of the overlooks in the Islands in the Sky district enjoying the silence. Suddenly, I heard the roar of motorcycles and saw a pack of them riding the White Rim Road. Noise carries in the clear desert air. While they were no doubt having a fine time on their motorcycles, they were ruining my park experience. So there's 'controversy' because of the park service trying to compromise with different types of park goers.
The parks cannot be all things to all people, but I do think that like the noise of the snowmobiles in Yellowstone, the NPS needs to protect the noise disruption in other parks as well.

Anon: I'm not taking a stance here, but it's interesting that your observation is how it ruined "your" experience. National parks are public goods, not private preserves, and do require some compromise on all users.

Anon and Zeb, you are both correct. And therein lies the dilemma.

Unfortunately, "compromise" has become a dirty word lately.

Even when "compromise" isn't a dirty word, it's very often hard to recognize something as a compromise.

I also said that it was likely the motorcyclists were having a fine time with their National Park experience. I suppose if an environmental impact statement said that the noise was bothering the bighorn sheep or the ground squirrels, then something would be done. People who like quiet well....
Couldn't a compromise be motorized vehicles on the paved roads only and then no 'packs' of motorcyclists. The noise gets bad on the Tioga Road in Yosemite also.

And I'm told the motorcycle noise is pretty bad in Yellowstone around the end of July, when bikers are heading to Sturgis and make a pass through the park, or head through the park on their way home from Sturgis.

Anon. Your compromise is no compromise (if I were an offroad motorcyclist) at all. On the other hand, allowing them on say even day only would be a real compromise. They still get to enjoy themselves, and you get peace and quiet half of the time. That's compromise. Kicking them off to the paved road where they would probably be bored to death would completely ruin their experience just to enhance yours: not a compromise. :)

Kurt Repanshek:
And I'm told the motorcycle noise is pretty bad in Yellowstone around the end of July, when bikers are heading to Sturgis and make a pass through the park, or head through the park on their way home from Sturgis.
I thought Badlands NP was where they really go through in numbers. The NPS supposedly brings in extra LE rangers that time of year just in case it gets out of hand.

Personally I don't like the noise either. I remember going to Point Reyes for a wildflower walk at Chimney Rock. That was during the whale watching season, and the only way in was via the shuttle from the Patrick Visitor Center. There was a whole group of almost 20 Harley riders going into the parking lot. They weren't really an outlaw group, with most of them seeming like average middle-class folks who were just weekend riders. But the noise those hogs were making pretty much carried for miles. It wasn't the faint whine of a crotch rocket, but a rumble of a Harley with modifications to make it even louder. You can argue about the boat or hikers making noise, but even from a mile away, I doubt there's anything that affects harbor seals more than the rumble of a Harley engine.

Cape Hatteras park, much of that land was "given" to the NPS ... with an agreement signed by the head of the NPS. They have violated that written agreement totally! While protecting the piping plover they activly shoot, trap and poison other animals in the park, yes some of it is on youtube! Everyone here is sick and damn tired of thier crap! The put people on trial for trumped up charges that have been thrown out of Federal Court in Elizabeth City NC. They do that to intimidate people here. We need a govenor in NC ... will fight the Federal Govt, like the Gov of AZ!

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous language. Ed.

The reason our National Parks have become so controversal in the last few years is due to the change in the type of people that are in charge of them. As a resident of Buxton, NC my primary contact with the NPS has been on Cape Hatteras Island. Over the years I have sensed a change in the attitude of the NPS Personnel. When the park first started the locals and the park service were firends. Each side respected each other and assisted each other. As the years went by this began to change and the attitude on the part of the NPS personnel was that the locals were a bunch of in-bred uneducated people who did not know what was best for them or the Island. This attitude combined with the fact that the promises made by the National Park at the inception of the Cape Hatteras National Recreational Park to maintain the sand dunes and free and open beaches were broken has led to a complete distrust of the NPS. My Island grandmothe said that if the NPS was standing on a stack of Bibles a mile high and made you a promise you could guarante it would be a lie. I feel it is a shame the NPS doesn't take the time to try to correct this feeling others have about them but year after year just keep on giving the people more and more reasons to distrust them. What has really complicated our realationships with the NPS on Hatteras Island is their recent actions are not just a matter of disagreeing with their ideas but the fact they are now destroying
livehoods by their insistence of closing down our beaches.

Follow the Money??? Almost all the money involved here is going to Huge Law Firms and (alleged) Enviornmental Groups. The US Gov't reviews law suits, decides that they appear to be too costly to defend and thought in the towel. Problem? The winner, in this case the law firms and enviornmental groups are the winner and the winner gets there expenses paid by the US Treasury. Then they submit for reimbursment of their costs. The government doesn't even dispute the overcharge, hourly rates way higher than what the law allows and more. Then the lawyer find another small issue in same or another park and institue another suit.... THATS WHERE THE MONEY IS !!!
It about time that the Government stands up to a few of these suits no matter what the final cost is, and they may very well win. and then start requesting from these enviornmental money machines the governments cost for reimbursment... soon maybe they'll realize that the lawyer aren't in this to lose money...
You'll notice that there are very few if any enviornmental suits at the state level or on private property.... there's no money to be made... see? Follow the money and the reasoning.

Kurt, if you're wondering from whence the grave robbers (digging up dead threads) came, see:
As far as suing the government being a lucrative business; SELC had two attorneys, plus support staff on the case and were reimbursed about $100,000 for what's going on now as 6 years of work. That's less than minimum wage. Neither Audubon, DOW nor any other environmental group recieved any payment for time invested.
While there are a plethora of environmental suits against corporations, municipalities and states (even states vs other states), only the Feds, as far as I can tell, have standing to "sue" private property owners.
The solution is of course for those entities being sued to comply with laws passed by the people - Congress, and they won't get sued.
Perhaps if the "locals" didn't subcribe to a plethora of conspiracy theories and accuse local staff of lying about the data and species info (making up nests, ignoring one area just to focau on closing another) they wouldn't be looked upon as inbred ignorant folk (if that's even true).
Bottom line: The only "promise" that was made, is that the people would have regulated access to the beach. They do.
The NPS never promised to maintain the dunes for a highway they opposed.