SciSun: Naturally Speaking   Leave a comment

America’s National Parks are known for their natural landscapes, untamed wilderness, and scenic vistas. Visiting a National Park can take you away from the hassles, noise and pressures of the city, and back in time to a world where the environment is untouched and man simply observes and enjoys nature. But how natural, are these natural environments? Aside from the visitor museums and ranger headquarters and roads and snackbars, is the ‘wilderness’ we all go to see really as wild as we think?

The mission of the National Park Service is to “preserve and protect natural and cultural resources and values” of the National Parks. That all sounds clear enough; preserve the natural environments; protect wilderness and historic areas for the future; keep the Parks for all to appreciate. But then there’s that ‘values’ statement – what are these ‘values’ the Park Service needs to preserve and protect? In their efforts to make the Parks open and enjoyable to all, sometimes Park officials have to make tough decisions (and we’re not talking about what design t-shirts to sell in the gift store) – decisions like where to build trails; and how to keep wildlife away from clueless vacationers – and clueless vacationers away from wildlife! – and even what parts of the parks are actually ‘natural’, and what is cut and moved and maintained to look natural.

So over time, Park officials have ‘improved’ areas of the Parks, particularly areas that most visitors want to experience: Guardrails have been installed on dangerous, but popular mountain trails to allow safer and easier hiking; trees have been trimmed and cut down to improve sightseeing; wildlife that have been hanging around campsites (we’re talking about you, bears!) have been captured and moved; and camping areas identified, cleared of trees to make room for tents and cabins, and carefully positioned for the best scenic view. One of America’s largest and most-visited Parks even has a long-term program to preserve and protect the park, yet provide the services and conditions visitors expect; the Yosemite Scenic Vista Management Plan outlines plans to remove and cut back naturally growing trees, to preserve the iconic sights visitors expect; and because climbing a mountain is, well, just something you do when you visit Yosemite, a series of metal cables have been installed on one of the most popular climbing trails so almost anyone can say they climbed that mountain just because it was there.

YosemiteNP Capitan Meadows  pano Wiki

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” – Theodore Roosevelt

So is this work actually destroying the natural wilderness, in order to preserve it? Some people believe all nature changes over time, and if the Parks are to represent our natural wilderness, they should be allowed to live, naturally. Others say the reason for the Parks is for people to enjoy, and if that means making it easier, safer, and less of a hassle, then a few small changes should be made. There are a lot of people who visit the National Parks, and other places in the wilderness, but don’t want the challenge of hiking uneven trails or sleeping on the ground or filtering water dipped from a stream. Who knows what’s been swimming in there? So, that as many people as possible can visit and enjoy the extraordinary and unexpected sights and sounds of the National Parks, trails have to be built and maintained; campsites with cooking grills and shelters need to be built; and convenient fresh-water drinking fountains installed, even if that means some of the true ‘wilderness’ is taken away. Thankfully, most of our National Parks are big enough, and have enough variety, there’s room for everyone to enjoy and experience wilderness at their own comfort level – or even moving a little outside your comfort level. Just, really, don’t drink any stream water before it’s been filtered. You don’t want to know what’s been in there. Again, we’re talking about you, bears.


Michonne Says: The men say I live in a national forest. I don’t know what that is, but it can’t be much different than a national park. I know there are men-things here just like the men-things in those national parks in the story. The men should enjoy the forest too, as long as they remember the marmots and bears and birds and all the others that live here.

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