National parks need to be killed.
It’s a shocking idea I came across recently. Ken Burns’s newest PBS series aside, they’re doing more harm than good to our places of natural grandeur and dwindling native eco-systems.
I heard this idea for the first time last year, while reading an article by Jason Daley in an issue of Outside magazine. Daley posited that “killing ’em all” was the only way to save “the crown jewels of American public land.” But it wasn’t so much “America’s best idea” — according to Ken Burns’s subtitle of
The National Parks series — that needed to be done away with but the term itself. According to Daley, declaring an area a “national park” is just asking for it to be exploited. For example, says Daley, take a place on a map, color it a bright green, label it “national park,” and as if by magic, the number of visitors will double, triple, and then quadruple in a matter of years. Shade the same spot on a road atlas brown, give it a name like “monument” or “wildlife refuge,” and the count of the people who frequent it is frequently cut in half.
What’s in a Name?
Daley has a point. Once a place has reached the status of “national park,” you’ll find that the wildlife has been radio-collared and categorized, the mountains have big holes bored in them so highways can snake through, and towering cliffs are topped with grand hotels. How many snowmobiles are now allowed to pollute the air of Yellowstone each year? I lose count. And how many helicopter tour flights annually spew noise all over the hoodoos of Bryce and the gulches of the Grand Canyon? It’s in the double-digit thousands. If there’s a “national park,” I guarantee you’ll find a gift shop somewhere in it. Soon a highly sensitive area of great natural beauty is on the list of “must-sees” for almost everyone on the planet.
However, if we don’t set aside some natural lands as “national parks,” we risk losing them to strip malls and parking lots. If a singular phrase such as “national park” is a siren call attracting the masses, at least the categorization does make enacting a set of rules to manage all such lands easier. Much like creating an “Endangered Species List,” a list of “national parks” lets us know at a glance which lands are protected for all of us.
My Name is Legion.
Perhaps we should jettison the term “national park” from here on out. Resolve not to name any new ones. Instead, we’ll get creative and diverse in titling our places of natural beauty, as Daley alluded to: “monument,” “refuge,” “nature center,” “way spot,” “haven,” “preserve,” “grassland,” “woodland,” “wilderness,” “sanctuary,” “green,” “barrens,” “commons,” “respite,” or “arboretum.” And we’ll try not to use a word or phrase too many times. Visits to any one place may drop, but your nature experience where you do go may truly become an encounter with the raw, untrammeled world.
Do you think we should do away with the term “national park”? Has your experience in one ever been less than what you hoped for because of crowding and the attendant tourist businesses?
How would you reorder the naming of your favorite natural places?
Feature photo: Thousands are drawn to Yellowstone “National Park” for winter wolf watching. ©John T. Andrews.