John McPhee and Edward Abbey on the accessibility of national parks
September 7, 2021 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Reading McPhee on Alaska, and then Edward Abbey on Arches, Utah. I am curious about the discussion around preserving whole vast areas of country, which may mean few will ever get to them.

I will unlikely ever have the time or physical ability to take a week of my life and hike into the Arches, the bottom of the Grand Canyon or the interior of Alaska.
So instead I drive into Arches, park, observe the beauty of the landscape, sky, color, formations, read Abbey, and then, yes try to capture some of that on my iPhone. This adds to my life experiences. I am a bigger person from the event.

But as I write this, it seems clearer to me that there should be less access.
One view is parks are not just for the intrepid, privileged, or fit, and should be known to many. (including the disabled) Others view the paved roads as foreign, scars on the landscape, intrusive, defacing.

Should we preserve unique areas of land for a present and a future where only a few others will be able to have the joy of being on land largely untouched by any person? Where the land remains in a state of its own. And everyone will know it is there, protected, forever?
posted by ebesan to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Should we preserve unique areas of land for a present and a future where only a few others will be able to have the joy of being on land largely untouched by any person? Where the land remains in a state of its own. And everyone will know it is there, protected, forever?

posted by Thorzdad at 8:56 AM on September 7, 2021 [12 favorites]

So I think it is possible to have both! And in many parks, we already do: I was in Yellowstone this summer, and remember reading that something like 95% of visitors never get more than one mile from the road. The vast majority of Yellowstone is still a (relatively) untouched wilderness, despite its being one of the most popular parks in the country. It's my understanding that a lot of national parks are like this: lots of visitors and traffic (and accessibility) along a few main corridors, and then a much larger amount of land that requires serious wilderness skills to access.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:57 AM on September 7, 2021 [12 favorites]

Seconding yes.
posted by LionIndex at 8:57 AM on September 7, 2021

I'm going to come in with an opposing viewpoint: the idea of 'pristine wilderness' is a relatively recent concept that erases the millions of Indigenous people who used to manage the lands we now 'preserve' and who are prevented from accessing their historic territory. There is no such thing as the lands "in a state of its own."

We shouldn't allow 4x4s to crisscross the landscape willy-nilly but there does need to be a wholesale reimagining of what wilderness is and who has access to it and how it's used- the way things are now it's pretty exclusively for the white and wealthy.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:12 AM on September 7, 2021 [35 favorites]

You might be interested in Rewilding Earth.
posted by box at 9:14 AM on September 7, 2021

Interesting question and I like BuddhaInABucket's answer. I'm a fan of McPhee and Abbey, but have also recently been reading a fair amount about the history of the US National Parks System. The early environmentalist and conservation biology movements (Thoreau, Audubon) and the land preservationist movement (Muir & Sierra club, Gifford Pinchot, etc) led fairly directly to the establishment of the parks system. These intellectual movements were very closely intertwined with the white supremacist ideologies of the time (yes, even in Muir's writings) and the establishment of many, if not most, parks involved the forcible extirpation of native peoples. So in a sense, the National Parks have been preserved primarily for the use and enjoyment of able-bodied white people, at great cost to other humans.

I'm definitely a visitor to, and advocate of, preserved wilderness (and also a white dude). But I think nowadays we owe it to ourselves to ask some deeper questions when we consider wholesale exclusion of people from a landscape. Asking whether the land is better off, or more beautiful, without any people is only one question that should be asked.
posted by Eriogonum at 9:18 AM on September 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: And let's not forget Teddy Roosevelt. Friend AND foe.
posted by ebesan at 9:26 AM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

To my mind, striving to preserve wild areas as untouched as possible should be thought of, in a way, as establishing a baseline. Something by which we can empirically judge any intrusions/alterations we make to nature. The more we alter/spoil those pristine areas, the more the baseline shifts in the direction of said spoilage being the empirical reference.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:38 AM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am quite opposed to drilling for fossil fuels, as it's very damaging and we shouldn't be using fossil fuels. Most mining, as well. Motorized use/access should be well managed, as it has a disproportionate effect on wildlife. Polite visitors, meaning people who don't leave trash, don't create new trails(which may affect wildlife), don't vandalize anything, respect plants and animals, are fine with me. Nature is so good for people, even yobbos, and most people are transformed by it. Very few will get far from roads, and roads can be managed.
posted by theora55 at 9:57 AM on September 7, 2021

Should we preserve unique areas of land for a present and a future where only a few others will be able to have the joy of being on land largely untouched by any person? Where the land remains in a state of its own. And everyone will know it is there, protected, forever?

To help me understand - when you say "only a few others" are you referring to people who have the ability, resources, and privileges to visit the more remote areas of the park? (By implication, not yourself as described in Arches). As in, is it worth it to spend our resources safeguarding the landscape when only a few people get to, like, go walk around in the depths of it?
posted by snerson at 10:03 AM on September 7, 2021

Did you know that there is a wastewater treatment plant at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? It’s not for the lizards… National Park infrastructure goes far beyon the roads and restaurants that 95% of visitors see.

For another perspective, Brave New West, a book that offers the resident’s perspective on recreation in the Arches / Moab area vs. the older ranching and mining industries. The question of what is actually “extractive” is an interesting one.

As a lifelong traveler and resident across the west, my observation is that until we are willing to say no to some types of recreation, we will continue to lose the quiet and undisturbed parts of the United States that we claim to value. If we aren’t willing to acknowledge the differences between OHV and foot traffic, if we can’t set some rules for how a place is recreated in, it will be lost to the bigger, louder activity. This applies not just to public lands but also to the gateway communities, where a similar loss of quality of experience is occurring.

Our national inability to say that some things (being careful with limited resources) are better than others (personal right to go anywhere, do anything) makes conservation harder.

Also, yes - outdoor industry is very white and very wealthy and has an ugly history. Engaging a diverse coalition is important for long term public land planning.
posted by chuke at 10:52 AM on September 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

All of these lands were used by indigenous peoples. My vote is to turn management of them back to the people to whom they belonged, the people who were stewards before colonizers came along. Work with those folks on heritage designations, and limiting modern exploitation, but allow them to determine the sanctity of the wilderness aspects vs the wisdom of giving access to tourism.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:19 AM on September 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Edward Abbey directly deals with your question in his book Desert Solitaire. He is all about little roads for accessible tour buses and affordable hotels nearby but off-site. He was sensitive to issues of economic and ability privilege and park access back in 1968, and would probably be more so now. He was also sensitive to issues of present-generation privilege, and whether future generations get a chance to experience these places as well. Above all, he cherished letting these places endure for their own sake, regardless of human agency or indifference, enlightened or otherwise.
posted by Scarf Joint at 12:04 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I love learning as much scientific information about these ecologies and I am grateful for people who devote their lives to understanding the preservation of these systems. I am content to see pictures of their work and would definitely not, say, make a special trip to see a Beluga with my own eyes for the sake of a "bucket list". People nowadays make these sort of treks and post them on social media, and it causes a lot of others to copy them. As an example, there were tremendous wildflower blooms in the Anza-Borrego desert here in Southern California. After pictures of the blooms were posted on Twitter, hordes of people went out there and had to make selfies in the fields and completely trampled the flowers. It was awful. Also, people wanting selfies with wild animals as pets. Another awful. Keep to the urbs and let the wild ones have the space.
posted by effluvia at 12:11 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

For those fixed on the notion that nothing is pristine and everything is touched by humankind (and therefore x, y, or z), I recommend a look at environmental historian William Cronon's work on "second nature" -- what wilderness means when human beings are in it and affect it (which encompasses, obviously, every square cubic inch in the age of human-caused climate change). Interesting interview here.
posted by Scarf Joint at 12:19 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I asked my wife, who's an avid hiker and loves the mountains. she said, "Yes," but in an incredulous tone.
I don't really hike much. I'm still amazed by this question. I'm extremely happy that there are massive national parks. I'd be very happy if there were more. I don't want to go and hike for fifteen miles and climb a mountain, but I'm happy they're there, and they're protected. I've been out on the Pacific Ocean maybe fifty yards, but I'm always happy just to think it's there. I don't just value things I can walk on.
The parks aren't just to look at, and visit. They're a reservoir of life, a buffer against stupid decisions, and something it's wonderful to know is there.
Lots of countries have enormous problems with people clearcutting their parks and killing the wildlife. We're pretty good at not letting that happen. I find it reassuring that, though we're not perfect, we can still afford them, and we have the political will to keep them.
I've never been in a fraction of the parks we have. That's not an argument against having more.
I proposed to a group of hikers and various environmentally aware people that there should be a quarter of all parks which one can only go into completely naked. I expected to be laughed at, but everyone thought it was a great idea. If you're going to limit your footprint in the parks and experience nature, there's no better way.
Having more parks than people can get to is also a very good approach.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 12:38 PM on September 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Now and forever we should protect wild lands.

I'm all for roads and accessible access into the national parks.

A wildlife photographer told me 95% of visitors to American National Parks never get more than 50 feet from a road. So if you want a serene experience, figure out the less glamorous, but more empty trail, and walk it.
posted by nickggully at 12:54 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

One reason for the establishment and continuation of wild lands with few or no roads/limited access is to provide areas where wild animals can live with minimal human interference. The re-establishment of wolves and the expansion of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states would not have been possible without areas (Yellowstone and Glacier National Park) where these animals cannot be hunted.

Also, elk and deer and wolverines and lynx use those areas and other protected lands. They can be greatly affected in their migrations and movement by even a few roads. Look up the, "Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem" for more about that.

We really aren't making more wilderness. And when it's gone, it's gone forever.
posted by ITravelMontana at 1:17 PM on September 7, 2021 [6 favorites]

Glad someone mentioned Bill Cronon. His work "The Trouble with Wilderness" (itself a response to Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind) has deeply shaped my perspective on environmental preservation and the concept of "the wild."
posted by mostly vowels at 2:46 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

We may have more than you think? Are you aware of America's 107,500,000 acres of Wilderness, 13,000,000 acres of Wilderness Study Area, and numerous state parks? In addition, private ranches and military training areas are very restricted and often have large areas lightly touched by humanity.
posted by sdrawkcaSSAb at 3:42 PM on September 7, 2021

I'm the other kind of Indian, and a big fan of national parks. (The very first "fun" thing I bought with my first paycheck was a National Park Pass.) Totally agree that hiking culture is very white and very wealthy; I rarely see another person of color on trail.

brent, I'm not sure why you assume that Indigenous people would put casinos on their ancestral land? Casinos are a relatively recent (1970s? But only took off in the 90s) attempt to fund tribal needs that the US Government does not. But the National Parks made more than $40 billion, pre-pandemic; if my experiences this year are any judge, it'll be substantially higher now. If even 25% of that went to the people whose land was taken from them, it'd be worth a lot more than any casino.
posted by basalganglia at 6:32 PM on September 7, 2021

the National Parks made more than $40 billion
National Park Service Visitor Spending Generates Economic Impact of More Than $41 Billion
Those are not equivalent statements. posted by zamboni at 7:18 AM on September 9, 2021

The early environmentalist and conservation biology movements (Thoreau, Audubon) and the land preservationist movement (Muir & Sierra club, Gifford Pinchot, etc) led fairly directly to the establishment of the parks system.

Among that list of problematic heroes of the conservation movement, Pinchot was (to put it politely) a motherfucker whose idea of public lands was less "access for all" and more "access to exploit for profit." Pinchot didn't support anything that would constrain the uses of public lands. He was in favor of subsidized logging rights and selling off public lands if the government would profit more by doing so than it would by maintaining the land and leasing it or issuing usage rights (often at a discount). Pinchot didn't see a problem letting people use public lands destructively, seeing them more or less as an endless resource.

The people who advocate for deaccessioning of federal lands (primarily in the western states, where the US is the biggest landholder) are Pinchot's spiritual heirs.
posted by fedward at 7:31 AM on September 9, 2021

Pinchot was (to put it politely) a motherfucker whose idea of public lands was less "access for all" and more "access to exploit for profit."

That is utter ahistorical nonsense. You've got it exactly ass-backward.

Teddy Roosevelt made Gifford Pinchot chief of the Forest Service in 1898, only seven years after Congress granted executive authority to create forest reserves. The only federal forest policy before that was to get forest land sorted into private hands as expeditiously as possible.

During the next ten years, the two of them created almost all of today's national forests, including within them vast areas of "unproductive" wild land they knew would never be logged, and established that these lands were to be managed "for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time."

Without Roosevelt and Pinchot, it is realistic to guess that much or most of our "productive" federal forest land would be owned by the likes of Weyerhauser and Georgia Pacific today.

It wasn't until the Wilderness Act of 1964 that permanent protection of federal lands as wilderness, in the sense you and I appreciate today, was authorized. Do you want to know why there was any wild land left to protect? Teddy Roosevelt and your motherfucker, Gifford Pinchot.
posted by Scarf Joint at 3:12 PM on September 15, 2021

He was integral to the creation of the Forest Service, yes. That's why the Forest Service honors him and why there's a Gifford Pinchot National Forest. I am aware of this. The USFS quotes a letter attributed to Pinchot, "Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run." But he was also, as the National Park Service's own history pages describe him, a utilitarian conservationist "who sought sustained consumptive use of natural resources." The USDA has a page about Conservation versus Preservation that compares the philosophies.

The USFS page I linked above admits that utilitarian conservationists, led by Pinchot, supported damming the Hetch Hetchy. Pinchot fought preservationists whenever he thought there was greater value (interpreted almost exclusively as financial value) to be gained from "conserved" but exploited resources. “Their eyes were closed to the economic motive behind true Forestry. They hated to see a tree cut down. So do I, and the chances are that you do too. But you cannot practice Forestry without it.” That paper further describes how Pinchot reacted to the creation of the first National Parks:
Pinchot, for instance, blamed preservation for banning commodity exploitation in areas where, he believed, it could have been carried out in a rational way. That is why he campaigned against the amalgamation of land in Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park (Hays 40). Pinchot could see no reason why the natural resources that could be exploited in an enlightened fashion would not be. This also explains why he dismissed the distinction between National Parks and Forest Reserves as misguided. As early as 1904, he tried to have the management of the parks transferred to the Department of Agriculture. Although he never gave up on this plan, his efforts remained in vain until he was dismissed from his position in 1911 (Steen 114). The reason why Pinchot tried so hard to obtain the management of the parks was because he disapproved of the way the Department of the Interior went about doing it. Ultimately, his goal was to ensure that parks would be managed according to the principle of maximum efficiency that already held sway in the Forest Reserves (renamed National Forests in 1907) (Pinchot 242).
Pinchot's legacy is at best complex. Yes, he protected a lot of land, but his idea was to conserve it for consumption if the profits to be gained were "the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run" and he opposed preservation for its own sake. I stand by my assertion he was a motherfucker.
posted by fedward at 5:18 PM on September 15, 2021

Pinchot's legacy is at best complex. I agree. People who accomplish complex things in complex scenarios like taking complex continental forests under public management when the prevailing policy was to privatize them are almost always complex, especially if the complexity is multiplied because that was a hundred years or more from now.

I will accept your phrase "utilitarian conservationist" to label Pinchot, that's close enough. It is certainly true that he thought that enlightened human beings could most likely better manage forests (to achieve underexamined goals, from our also-limited perspective today) than Mother Nature. That's a little or a lot different from where you and I are now. I will not try to erase that part of him. I'll bet that you and I both know that I don't agree about that.

But can't you understand that the alternative in 1880 or 1890 wasn't an 1980 or 1990 or let alone a 2021 environmentalism? Our 2021 perspectives and demands were unimaginable and nonexistent then and there were no advocates for what we would have wanted or even anyone who could understand it then. No chance of taking up our 21st century issues, let alone passing them.

The then-nonexistent environmentalist movement you fantastically impose upon Pinchot 110 years ago only emerged 50 or 60 years ago and only gained any power in the 1960s, and only gained great legislative victories in the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet you are painting a hero in this movement as a motherfucker.

You know what Pinchot did after he got fired by Taft in 1910 (for condemning public land resource extraction corruption)? He plunged into making sure that the Weeks Act of 1911, which authorized federal purchases of private conservation lands, passed. That's why there are national forests on the East Coast and they're not all out west.

This was not motherfucking Pinchot enriching motherfucking East Coast forest investors. It was motherfucking Pinchot figuring out how to convince Congress that permanent conservation good for the West was good for permanent conservation in the East, too.

Fedward, I'm not trying to beat you up in this argument, I'm just trying to convince you that we share the same environmentalist principles and to plead with you to do the work to recognize that some shitty article you read poisoned you against the amazing things that Pinchot did that currently allow you to walk through wilderness rather than encounter Weyerhouser barbed wire and a clear cut, flooded vista.

History is not 2021 environmentalists' enemy. It's one of our tightest friends.

I don't know if anyone else is paying attention to this late conversation, but I wish you peace.
posted by Scarf Joint at 8:44 PM on September 15, 2021

The then-nonexistent environmentalist movement you fantastically impose upon Pinchot 110 years ago only emerged 50 or 60 years ago and only gained any power in the 1960s, and only gained great legislative victories in the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet you are painting a hero in this movement as a motherfucker.

Well, the point that was clear in my head but not in my comments was that sometimes you want a motherfucker on your side. Maybe you prefer "badass" for somebody with that sort of dominating personality who shares your goals, and "motherfucker" for someone with the same sort of personality who does not share your goals. Anyway.

While the late 19th century preservationist movement (epitomized by Muir) was nascent at the time and also problematic (racist, that is) in hindsight, it's inaccurate to claim that there was no environmental preservation movement at all. And in hindsight it's interesting to look at somebody like Pinchot, not just as a symbol but as an actual, problematic guy. Through a modern lens Pinchot seems like a hero to the environmental movement only until one realizes that the conservationists and the preservationists were only briefly united against common enemies (the people who thought that there was so much land that land use policies were unnecessary, full stop). When the infighting between the two movements started, it was arguably Pinchot who started it.

Now. I suspect (but haven't done enough reading to prove) that Pinchot was so strongly against the way the National Parks were created and managed because he predicted what the preservationists would become. We know from his own writings that he feared that once land was preserved in such a way that resource consumption was prohibited, there wouldn't be any taking it back for economic gain. Where Pinchot is most interesting as a historical figure, I think, is literally a forest-for-the-trees issue: in his time there was no significant economic benefit to environmental tourism, but he could attach a dollar value to forestry, so he set about maximizing that and fought limits on it.

But my original point in my first comment was that all of the heroes of the environmental movement are problematic in some way. Everybody knows Thoreau's mom fed him and did his laundry; Audubon was racist and an enslaver; Muir was super racist and blind to how much native tribes actually managed the land he thought was so pristine; and Pinchot, for his part, was all about the profits, to the extent that he fought the management of National Parks because he thought there was more value in resource extraction than preservation. It took a long time for him to be proven wrong on that, and it's a battle we're still fighting (see: Alaska).

And personally: for me Pinchot is like the guy you root for most of the movie, and then ¾ of the way through you realize he's not actually on your side. I still respect everything he did in the first ¾ (badass, motherfucker, whatever) but once he dug in his heels against preservation I couldn't really root for him anymore.
posted by fedward at 9:07 AM on September 16, 2021

To connect this discussion to the actual Ask: while we now have a better understanding of the impact of human activity on the land and its natural resources than we had as a society a century ago, these are questions we've been asking at least since the late 19th century. If you look at the conservation and preservation movements you can see early versions of the same fights we continue to have. How do we decide what we should protect at all? What sort of protection should it have? What should we do when land use priorities change? How should we compensate people whose land we're taking (or whose land we took, perhaps by force), and do we have the right to take it at all? How do we rectify the wrongs of earlier generations? What do we do when we can't even agree as a culture if something was wrong in the first place, or if making an earlier mistake right would cause new harms?

I mean, I mostly have more questions than answers, which goes back to the "yes" above. We should protect more lands. We should make them accessible, but we should also preserve them in a way that maybe limits access. I'm not sure it's really possible to resolve every issue around preservation, access, and resource extraction.
posted by fedward at 11:45 AM on September 16, 2021

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