“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” – Wallace Stegner
It’s no secret that I love our national parks. Dad was a seasonal park ranger at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park in the 1960s. My love and respect for these “absolutely American” innovations – my favorite hiking venues – has never waned.
That’s one reason why I see red over some things I’m noticing in our national parks these days. I’ve seen what careless or over-use does to wilderness areas and the back country. What hikers do to the habitat when they cut switchbacks because they’re too lazy to climb a few extra feet. The effect of thousands or millions of boots on fragile wildflower meadows.
There’s also soaring attendance and traffic. Congestion. Clogged campgrounds, trails, entrance gates. Incredible carelessness and thoughtlessness. Irresponsible social media usage. Funding woes. Together, the price tag for enjoying our national parks system has becoming increasingly high as the tension between access and preservation becomes strained.
Congressional indifference when it comes to federal funding is also an issue. Opines the New York Times:
Money, too, remains a problem. The parks have endured a history marked more by congressional indifference and occasional hostility than by generosity. A $12 billion backlog for maintenance and improvements awaits funding. Fewer permanent employees now work for the park service than in 2002, even as it administers more parks and deals with record numbers of visitors.
Social media can compound the situation. People who’ll do almost anything – no matter how stupid or damaging – so they can post that Perfect Shot encourage others to do likewise every time they post.
What stupid stuff? Things like feeding wildlife. Swimming in protected waters. Hiking off-trail. Camping outside designated campsites. Don’t get me started on lighting campfires in the back country or litter.
With park visitation in full swing this summer, here are some Common Sense Dos and Don’ts on how to enjoy your next visit to one of America’s “best ideas” without loving them to death:
- Stay. On. The. Trail. Don’t make me explain this.
- Respect the land. You’re a guest. Behave accordingly.
- Never take or post a shot on social media that captures or encourages irresponsible behavior. Additionally, don’t like photos that do. You may even want to comment – politely – on such posts to let the author know that’s not okay.
- Visit the visitor centers. That’s what they’re there for.
- If possible, plan your visit for the off-season to reduce traffic and congestion.
- Volunteer. Organizations like the Washington Trails Association organize volunteer work parties to help with trail maintenance and the like. It’s the perfect way to combine an outdoor get-away with some national park love.
- Welch on the campground fee. Many campgrounds operate on the self-serve, honor-system. Don’t be a cheapskate by trying to sneak into the campground under cover of darkness and set up camp without paying the fee. You can get a campsite at most national parks for around $20 a night. Our parks are already struggling financially. Do the right thing and cough it up.
- Pick wildflowers or remove other fauna. “Hey, it’s just one flower/rock/stick/pine cone. What harm will I do if I take it home?” The answer, bub, is to look at the bigger picture. Just imagine the impact on national park lands if millions of annual visitors think the same thing. The old adage is true: “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.”
That brings us to a personal pet peeve in the Don’t Even Think About It Department:
- Meadow stomp.
- Be a “Code W.” That’s park ranger speak for a trail “wimp.” The hiker who sits down on the trail after a few miles and refuses to budge. Moans about their aching feet and hollering hamstrings Fakes a heart attack so s/he can hitch a ride out on a helicopter. There’s nothing medically wrong with a Code W. They’re just tired and sore.
Here’s my advice for a Code W: Be prepared. Know your limitations and hike within your ability. In other words, Suck it up, cupcake.
Also high on the Don’t Even Think About It list:
- Feed the wildlife. I know, I know. Yogi looks so cute and cuddly. But bears and other wildlife – deer, elk, bison, foxes, coyotes and squirrels, to name a few – are not tame just because they reside inside park boundaries. Rodents like squirrels, chipmunks and mice are notorious scavengers and can carry diseases. Feeding these animals just encourages them to be more aggressive around humans and also poses health risks to the animal.
- Litter. Nothing gets my dander up like seeing a Snickers wrapper, orange peels or empty water bottles on the trail. In fact, I’ve been known to pick up the offending item, scurry after the offender, smile sweetly with item in hand and chirp, “Excuse me. I think you forgot this.” So kindly pick up after yourself. Pack it in. Pack it out
Mr. Stegner was right. A little advance planning and some common sense can make your visit to a national park even better, and preserve America’s “best idea” for future generations to love and love.
I call that a “win-win.” How ’bout you? What did I leave out?