by Joe Putzer, ’07
Lots of SCA alumni work in our National Parks – some are even superintendents – but in the entire National Park system, there’s only one park superintendent who is running the very park where she served as an SCA intern. That person is Valerie Naylor, who recently spoke to us about the challenges facing her at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) in North Dakota, and to the park system overall.
Valerie solidified her commitment to the environment back in 1977 by serving as an SCA Naturalist Assistant at TRNP. As she spoke about her role at the park and the bucolic nature of her North Dakotan locale, it was obvious that she cares deeply for the land she serves and has thought a great deal about the challenges the parks currently face
Drawing on my own experience as an SCA crew leader and trail builder at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, I imagined that those challenges include repairing overused areas, promoting Leave No Trace principles, or even encouraging politicians in Washington to preserve the national park treasures that we currently have while growing the ones we could have.
Valerie however took me by surprise by stating that, “problems like over-visitation, litter, and poaching are manageable problems [at our national parks]. [But] we have no control beyond park boundaries.” The more details she gave about this problem, the more sense it made. “[As NPS superintendents] we can’t control what pollutants enter our streams before they enter our parks, animals do not know park boundaries, and urban sprawl is growing around the parks. Parks are not islands; not to visitors; not to animals, and not to the ecosystems.”
As Valerie spoke about the lack of control beyond park boundaries I thought about packs of wolves that weave between the boundaries of Yellowstone and become caught in the political arguments between ranchers and environmentalists. I thought about the Colorado River that begins at Lake Grandby in Rocky Mountain National Park, roars though Canyonlands National Park, flows through Glen Canyon only to be slowed by the Glen Canyon dam in northern Arizona. Prior to the 19th century, the Colorado River made a magnificent entrance into the Grand Canyon. Damming on the northeast side of the canyon altered the behavior of animal species within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. Damming on the southwest side of the canyon, to power the sprawl of Las Vegas, forced the Colorado River to splutter to a trickle near the U.S.-Mexico border.
My experience at Mammoth Cave, exemplifies Valerie’s point. The Green River, which partially flows underground and shapes the world’s largest cave system (attracting two million people to Mammoth Cave National Park every year), is drying up. Damming on either side of the park and record drought reduced the level of the river over the last decade so much that the ferries connecting the north and south ends of the park could not run for a good portion of the 2007 summer season. The pollution from a recently built coal plant near Mammoth Cave reduces views along scenic overlooks and produces mercury that alters the delicate ecosystem for more than 80 species along the Green River.
Valerie is facing the dilemma beyond the borders of TRNP. A second oil boom near the park’s borders threatens the ecosystems in and around the park. This is happening now “because of the desire for more sources of oil. The [new oil boom] is a large threat to Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” Valerie said.
A second challenge Valerie identifies actually increases the lack of control outside park borders. Since the early 1980s, Valerie asserts that the growing disconnection between people and the natural world limits our ability to solve problems the parks face. Valerie states that “our concept of wilderness is changing so that people think that [an area as small as] 200 acres is wilderness. People must be more connected to wilderness for our sanity, wildlife, habitat, and our future.”
The solutions for these challenges cannot be solved by the NPS alone. They can, however, be mitigated with one solution; and SCA plays a large role in assisting the NPS. “By bringing together people of all ages, backgrounds, and parts of the country” Valerie affirms, “SCA can reconnect people to wilderness.” This reconnection then can improve the way in which everyone views our natural world thus reducing the external challenges that face our national parks.
As Valerie stated, “our parks are not islands.” Far too many people, unfortunately, view our parks as just that. This pretense can be removed through the efforts and commitment of the partnership between SCA and NPS. These efforts can remove the artificial barriers that exist between us and our national parks so that we view our natural world as an interconnected whole.
As we wrapped up our lunchtime conversation, Valerie’s description of the challenges that face our national parks left me discontented, the problems appeared overwhelming. Her description reminded me of the often misunderstood Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall.” Surely the walls that separate use from our natural world are in our minds. Animals, ecosystems, and surly pollution do not recognize these walls. These artificial borders do not exist for the natural world. We need to recognize that, to protect what we have designated as preserved areas, we need to hold the same regard for all of nature.
After speaking with Valerie, listening to her knowledge as both an NPS superintendent and SCA alum, I felt proud to be an SCA alumnus. Valerie’s solutions left me with a sense of hope and a desire to roll up my sleeves and get to work.