The President tests the limits of the Antiquities Act to designate a large portion of federal land a national monument. The locals, who are ranchers, miners, and entrepreneurs, are angry at the federal government telling them what they can do on what they see as their land. They protest through their elected officials, demanding control of the land on which they live.
The year is 1908. The president is Theodore Roosevelt. The land is named the Grand Canyon National Monument.
In 1983, Wallace Stegner wrote "National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." The 20th century has proven the parks to be the “reflection of our best.” Few people would argue that we, as a nation, would be better off if Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, and Everglades National Parks were left to the forces of capitalistic markets.
However, land designated as national parks, forests, monuments, and historic sites have all encountered controversy. Political machinations abound; two thirds of the current national parks were opposed when they were announced. Environmental issues such as global warming, reintroducing wolves where they had been exterminated, and invasive species affect the parks in ways they never have before. Finally, in an ironic twist on the very reason the parks were originally created, visitors are putting stresses on our national resources like never before.
These are America’s troubled Edens.
One needs to look no further than Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge when looking for evidence of a troubled political history. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt protected it, saying that it was “a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” At the time, birds were being killed at an alarming rate for their feathers because hats with feather ornamentation were the fashion of the time.
In addition, farmers in the region were diverting waters from the rivers that fed Lake Malheur for their crops. Soon thereafter, several officials had the idea to drain the wetlands, then sell off the land for farming, promising that the profits of the land sales would go to schools.
After Roosevelt protected Malheur, locals took action; and when in 1920 a ballot initiative was put forth to summarily cede the land to the federal government, the opposition created a successful “birds or babies” campaign. The ballot initiative failed and Oregon attempted to retake control over the land. Legal battles proceeded until 1935 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the land was to be controlled by the federal government. Nearly 20 years after the creation of the Malheur Wildlife Preserve, it was officially protected.
Eighty years later, a militia group led by Ammon Bundy took over the reserve and occupied it for 41 days in protest of a court ruling that increased the sentences of a ranching family for arson on the land. Ammon’s brother Ryan Bundy said the ultimate goal of the armed protesters was “to turn the land over to local authorities so people can use it free of federal oversight.”
Political disagreements over the management of public lands usually boil down to a few key issues. First and foremost is the question of who can better control the land — the local populace who lives in the area, or the federal institutions dedicated to preserving the land for all citizens of the country? The local versus federal question is of particular concern in the Western United States where much of this federal land lies and where a mistrust of the federal government reaches far back in history.
Look no further than the arguments surrounding the recent designation of the Bears Ears National Monument. In an Op-Ed in the Deseret News, Utah’s Federal Delegation claim that “government bureaucrats can now direct new land-management plans. Once completed, these plans will be subject to the whims and fancies of a federal land manager.”
The difficult battles of the political discussion are on the fringes of the protected land. The argument against the Bears Ears designation, for example, is about the borders of what should be protected. Most people in Utah feel that there should be protections on some of the land. But according to the people who live there, other parts of the land might be better served for the extraction or ranching industries.
This argument is not unique to Bears Ears; it applies to many of the federally controlled lands. There are over 3,000 claims for uranium mines on the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon. Four are in some form of operation.
While the Grand Canyon is not the deepest or longest canyon in the world, the views it offers are some of the most famous of any natural landscape. But those views are sometimes not as spectacular as expected due to regional haze, an environmental problem that affects many of our national parks. Ninety percent of the time, the view of the Grand Canyon is partially obstructed by pollutants.
Regional haze is when particulate matter in the atmosphere is hit by light, which reduces overall visibility. While some of the particulate matter can be natural, like airborne dust and wildfire smoke and cinders, a lot of it comes from man-made sources, such as motor vehicles and fuel refineries. All parts of the world are affected by haze, but national parks, which are meant for viewing, are particularly affected. From the Great Smoky Mountains to Yosemite, no park is immune from haze.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been creating and enforcing a plan to reduce regional haze near national parks. At its heart, the plan is about reducing overall pollution, and it seems to be working. There are fewer bad visibility days now, and more good days, than there were just a few decades ago.
Regional haze is a problem not unlike all environmental problems; the cause is traceable, the solution is fraught with controversy. Lowering overall pollution levels is hard and expensive; it requires dedication and lifestyle changes. It demands much from individuals and stirs opposition from industries. Even so, because of its obvious nature, regional haze is, comparatively, one of the “easier” of the environmental issues that face national park system.
Since our protected lands are by definition “wild,” animals play a large role in the vibrancy of the parks’ ecosystems. In fact, some lands were designated to be managed by the National Park Service specifically for wildlife preservation. Animals, however, don’t understand the human concept of a park border, and will roam both in and out of the park. This affects the people who live close to the parks.
Ranchers have a long and bitter history with wolves around Yellowstone National Park. Wolves were all but eradicated from the western United States in the 1930s by ranchers and developers. As talk of reintroducing them to Yellowstone gained steam in the late 1980s, ranchers were opposed, saying wolves were eliminated for safety of their livestock and their families. They viewed the issue as the federal government again telling them how to live their lives, and felt that their opinion didn’t matter to the leaders in Washington. Now, as wolf populations are increasing, the same opposition groups are asking to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list. Through it all Yellowstone’s ecosystem is changing.
Ranchers have another issue with the animals of Yellowstone: the infectious wasting disease Brucellocis. While Brucellocis has been eradicated from most of the country, nearly 50% of the bison tested in the park have the disease, and there is a constant fear that the bacteria will jump to livestock or humans. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working for a solution, but the issue lingers as another example of people living and working in wild spaces.
The largest looming environmental issue that threatens the national park system is global warming. There are obvious, visible, and documentable changes that are a result of global warming. There are also ancillary issues. A higher preponderance of forest fires and damaging invasive species like the pine bark beetle and tamarisk are linked to global warming. The parks can do little to combat issues related to global warming, other than to appeal to the sensibilities of the people who patronize them.
And further still, the people who patronize the parks can sometimes be problem creators themselves.
The National Park Service employs more than 20,000 people, from administrators in Washington DC to the park rangers, and encompasses duties from fire management to fundraising. One department is law enforcement. Federal agents in the NPS in the parks deal with activities similar to other officers — illegal immigration, assault, and theft.
There is, however, one act that is specific to the parks that causes a lot of outrage: vandalism.
In 2014, Casey Nocket went to seven national parks and painted images on the scenic rock. In a modern twist, she photographed her work and shared it on Instagram. She was especially brazen about the permanence of the work, calling herself a “bad person” for using acrylic paint on the rock, which is especially hard to clean.
While graffiti has been left on the land by settlers since the turn of the century, and while there were other instances of modern graffiti left behind in national parks, this case grabbed the attention of the nation. Nocket’s Instagram feed was filled with hateful messages, and online communities searched for other photos and tried to track her down. Ultimately she turned herself in, and in June of 2016 she was sentenced to seven misdemeanor counts of damaging public property. She is now banned for life from all national parks in the United States. She is one person who was ultimately punished; but the threat of vandalism will forever hang over the parks.
Native Americans also have a special relationship with the NPS, and sometimes it is strained. Many properties in the National Park Service protect ancient peoples’ structures and artwork, or are sacred places in their histories. Native American Tribes take pride in their ancestry, and the NPS tries its best to honor and respect their wishes. Some spots, like Arizona’s Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area (which is funded but not managed by the NPS), work in partnership with local tribes to restore land significant to their history to its original state. In other places, like Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, different tribes still perform ceremonies and leave offerings.
Native Americans have a well documented and troubled history with the US Government. The protection of these lands is but one chapter in the history of how the natives and settlers interacted. There are examples of disregarding tribal wishes when protecting these lands in the national park system. The early parks were not created with Native Americans in mind, and the NPS had to cooperate with the tribes to respect their wishes, as they did with Devil’s Tower.
More recently, Native Americans have been only one voice in the political arguments of land determination. And sometimes, there is disagreement among the different tribes. Since a sense of place is key to the identity of American Indians’ spirituality, their voices are considered very important in the decision-making. To them, these lands are truly sacred, and the NPS is well served to listen.
But the biggest threat posed by humans is not traced to single vandals, nor one group of indigenous people. It comes from all of us loving the parks too much.
In 2014, Grand Canyon National Park hosted over 4.7 million people; in 2016 that number was over 5.9 million people. That is a 20% increase over two years — 1.2 million more people came to look, hike, camp, drive, drink water, and leave trash in the park than had been there two years previously. And the number of visitors is expected to climb again.
The increase in visitors to our national parks has forced them to try to balance access with preservation. Zion National Park was one of the first to start a shuttle system into the park to combat the problems caused by the number of vehicles entering the park. Once overcrowded trailhead parking lots were eliminated, propane powered busses helped with air quality. In addition. Springdale at the entrance to Zion, could better accommodate the volume of visitors.
The Grand Canyon, while not completely car free, also employs a bus shuttle system, one that has been operating for over 40 years. In 2016, approximately 7.4 million people used the shuttles, which represents a reduction of 2 million car trips into the park. The shuttle system isn’t in operation year round, nor is it the only way to get into the park as is the case with the shuttle system in Zion National Park.
The goal of the National Park Service is to for the land to be conserved unimpaired. This was the guiding principle back in 1916, when the system was created, and it is the core belief for the coming century. That mission is proving more difficult with each passing year, but as long as the country values the grandness of the landscape and the need to protect the places for generations to come, the land will survive. Our Troubled Edens will persevere.