Edgy Stuff: National Parks Centennial Edition
The Edge Effects editorial board brings you a handful of recommendations based on the most interesting stuff that’s come across our desks, screens, and speakers over the last month (or so). This month, our recommendations serve as the final post in our three-part series marking the centennial of the National Parks (following Bailey Albrecht’s interview with Michael Edmonds and Kathleen Conti’s essay on the National Park Service). Edge Effects editors weigh in on what’s edgy about National Parks, from the establishment of the National Park Service to present-day controversies and beyond.
One great way to celebrate the centennial of our national parks is to take a look back at their origins. Environmental historian Donald Worster’s wonderful biography of John Muir, A Passion for Nature, tells the story of how John Muir worked ceaselessly to protect the Yosemite Valley in the nineteenth century. His efforts lead to Yosemite’s designation as national park in 1916, when the National Park Service was established. Worster’s biography covers not only Muir’s time in the Yosemite, but also contextualizes his various conservation efforts and excursions, giving the reader insight not only into his legacy, but the various social, political, and cultural influences that shaped Muir himself.
There’s a lot of money to be made in the National Parks. According to the NPS, more than 307 million people visited the parks in 2015, an all-time high. These tourists not only hike trails or snap photos of waterfalls and geysers, they stay at hotels, go out to dinner, and buy souvenirs. Over the last few decades, the rise in national park tourism has paralleled the subcontracting of services within the parks to private companies. A recent change in concessionaires for California’s Yosemite National Park has sparked a controversy and legal battle between the NPS and the Aramark Corporation over naming rights in the park. Most of the debate has centered on the iconic Ahwahnee Hotel, originally built in 1927 and registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Last March, Aramark replaced the previous concessionaire (the Delaware North Company) that had run the park’s food and hospitality services since the late 1990s. Because federal policy no longer requires that private companies purchase trademarked names in NPS contracts, Aramark has began legal proceedings to change the names of various locations within Yosemite, including renaming the Ahwahnee Hotel the Majestic Hotel. Public opponents have denounced Aramark for effacing tradition within Yosemite. Attempts at mediation in the name dispute have failed thus far, and negotiations remain ongoing.
I encountered Karl Jacoby’s Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of Conservation in an environmental history seminar during my first year of graduate school, and I haven’t thought the same way about parks since. Jacoby’s now classic book rewrites the history of the National Parks from the ground up, calling readers’ attention to the experiences of those most affected by state conservation interventions—local land users—whose livelihoods became criminal. At the National Parks’ Centennial, Jacoby’s text invites us to revisit our ideas about nature set apart from human use, and to consider the historical costs of conservation.
Helen J. Bullard
Last month, Nicky Ouellet reported for NPR on new policies to prevent morel hunting near Glacier National Park, Montana. The forest service, faced with the degradation of the forests, and concerns about foragers armed with firearms trying to protect their favorite sites, felt that a suspension of collecting was necessary. I am more familiar with the national parks of the UK, so I was interested to read Robin McKie’s recent article in The Guardian about similar rules announced this month in The New Forest National Park to prevent mushroom foraging there. The two stories point to developing concerns with the openness of public lands, and growing conflicts between recreational and commercial uses of our national parks and forests.
The Park Service looks to be having an atomic moment. As Kathleen Conti wrote on this site last week, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, with sites in three states, joined the NPS roster last November. Now, just this past Sunday, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site held the grand opening of its long-awaited visitor center. For those of us who cannot hit the road for Los Alamos or Oak Ridge, the Washington Post has compiled a haunting photo essay, “The Remains of Armageddon: Revisiting the Sites of America’s Atomic Arsenal.”
Were it possible to rid one’s mind of global cataclysm when visiting Minuteman, folks my age would still find it an unsettling place. That’s because the curators have decided to preserve the site as it appeared not during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but when decommissioned in 1994. So an unfinished game of Battleship sits on the table next to an issue of TV Guide with the cast of Seinfeld on the cover. It seems historic preservation, like death, comes for us all.
I have been posting regularly about the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS) so this month, I decided to turn to the stories of national parks around the world. Arcadia publishes short histories of nature conservation in places such as Triglav National Park in Slovenia and the Galapagos Islands National Park. For Americans familiar with the NPS goal of balancing preservation and recreation, the idea of parks as outdoor scientific laboratories untouched by humans is both challenging and fascinating. As this collection shows, different countries have come to very different conclusions about how to manage tourism, nature conservation, and local interests.
Glacier National Park is becoming glacierless. When I visited while on a cross-country bike tour in 2011, I quickly fell in love with the park—its innumerable waterfalls, ice-sharpened peaks, grand old railroad robber baron-era hotels—and ended up taking three unplanned days to explore it. But amongst the grizzly bears and idyllic mountain meadows, one thing was impressed upon me most of all: Glacier is changing. Park rangers were asked so frequently if the park’s name would become too ironic to keep once the permanent ice disappears that they had a stock response—no, because the park’s remarkable geologic features will remain a testament to those once-abundant rivers of ice. In 2010, there were only 25 left out of the more than 150 glaciers that graced the park in 1850, and those could all be gone in just over a decade. A 2014 New York Times article details the consequences of climate change and the disappearing glaciers for the ecosystems that surround the park.
The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks is an incredible virtual exploration of five of America’s celebrated National Parks. Created by Google Arts & Culture, this is one of the most comprehensive virtual exploration tools I’ve seen, complete with tours from real park rangers, breathtaking flyover views, underwater scuba dives, stargazing, interactive maps, and self-guided exploring. Whether this makes you fear a world experienced only through screens, or you celebrate a creative way to bring the National Parks to those who couldn’t access them otherwise, this is worth checking out.