I felt like a four year old dragging my feet through the sand and pouting despite the fact that I was in one of the most beautiful places in the country and had just witnessed a breathtaking sunrise at Delicate Arch. One of my friends was visiting from the east coast, so on my much-needed day off I agreed to spend the morning in the park and found myself regretting it immediately. I have been on enough search and rescue missions on the Delicate Arch trail to develop a very strong love-hate relationship with the Utah State icon, and it has since become a symbol to me of a highly commodified form of nature as well as a reflection of serious accidents that often happen as the result of poor decision making. My always-present frustrations were exacerbated when we were walking on a trail and had to fight through a crowd of over twenty people who were all gathered to photograph a small rabbit who looked very confused by the loud noises and camera flashes headed his way on what would otherwise be a peaceful morning. My friend noticed my aggravation at this and made a comment about how I didn’t seem to be having any fun, to which I quickly replied “well I work here and I have to deal with this nonsense everyday, I’m sick of it!”
I can already see the eyes rolling: How dare I take this for granted, or complain about working in a place as stunning as Arches National Park, or criticize the people who are so excited to be in this place, everyone has a right to be here and experience it how they want to… Well, in a lot of ways, you are absolutely correct. What we are confronting here is in fact a dilemma that the Park Service has been dealing with since the very beginning: this complicated dichotomy of preserving, “unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources of the park system,” but “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” So… are we preserving it, or are we allowing everyone to enjoy it? I continuously reinforce these conflicting values myself, for at the end of all my guided walks, I ask people if they see a problem with suddenly flooding a place that historically has been void of human impact with 1.2 million people each year. But then I go on to say that the best way to protect our parks is to get out and see them and form a relationship with them, and then I sincerely thank everyone for getting out to do just that. Huh?
In working with the National Park Service, I have had the true privilege of sharing many once in a lifetime moments with Americans who are getting to experience their parks, from the teary-eyed church groups I’ve photographed at the entrance sign, the awe-filled junior rangers who tell me that this trip has inspired them to do what I do when they grow up, and the adults a few generations beyond me who recount stories of being in this place long before I was born and planning their return trip ever since. But I have a hard time only seeing this picture-perfect, idealistic side of these experiences. How so?
For starters, why do we have a culture that creates jobs and lifestyle that make it such a challenge for people to get out of their vehicles and actually hike to see something? And if this really is the public land of every U.S. citizen, why isn’t the socio-economic diversity of our visitors proportionate to that of the general population? Why are so few of our visitors people that work hard for minimum wage so that the rest of us have the resources to cruise out here and see the parks that we all theoretically own a stake in? And finally, by making these places so accessible, are we changing the meaning of wilderness itself, creating an entire generation that will grow up thinking that wilderness is something they can drive to and walk through on a paved path? That, right there, is the source of my deepest frustration and most sincere concern.
Like it or not, our culture is extremely individualistic. We are consumers, we expect near instant gratification, and we allow ourselves to forget that nature is the essence of everything we are. Instead, we continuously reinforce the illusion that it is something we can dominate, or something that we as Americans have a right to experience as something separate from ourselves. I understand how our diverse backgrounds and upbringings result in diverse expectations of what a national park should be, but there is a saying about how if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything, so I’ll end with this:
We need these places, and we need them in their wild form. Our national parks go far beyond our personal wants, our individualized experiences, our new Facebook profile pictures, or our right to see something beautiful. They are also more than just a sense of pride in being an American (we are not the only country that still has pristine natural places). Instead, these parks are a narrow strand of hope and an investment in our futures, a promise that our children’s grandchildren will still know the meaning of wilderness when they grow up in a world of technology. We need places where we can lose ourselves in a world so pristine and breathtaking and perfect that we are forced to realize how slight our significance really is on a grand geological scale, for those single moments of awe last a lifetime, and a lifetime of good intentions has the potential for an impact that is infinite. I feel very lucky for the experiences I’ve had as an interpreter at Arches National Park, and would be honored to work for the Park Service one day. I am also continuously impressed by the efforts of SCA, so much so that I will be moving to Alaska in October to serve a second term with this organization through the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge! Thank you to everyone who supports these causes, and thank you for reading these blogs. Happy hiking!