Thursday, July 15, 2010

Preservation vs. Enjoyment Of Our National Parks

When the concept of national parks was established it was recognized that human impacts were having a negative effect on the fragile wild and historic resources deemed significant to our national being.  This was the simplified reasoning behind the concept that protection and preservation of these areas was needed.  The threats of unchecked public use, consumption, and individual gain would irreversibly damage these resources were very real. 

The Organic Act of 1916 established the National Park Service and handed the first such agency in the world a conflicting mission of preservation and public enjoyment.  Since that time the National Park Service has been faced with the imperfect balancing act of which charge to favor.  Do you exclude or restrict certain park uses to preserve resources or do you take a chance and allow visitor enjoyment of said resources at the risk of losing irreplaceable sources of human experiences.  Yes experiences.  Are not visitor experiences also a valuable resource of our National Parks?

Two relatively new examples of visitor enjoyment of parks that have made the news are snowmobiles and personal water craft (or as most refer to them “jet skis”).  Although these devices provide enjoyment for those individuals interested in using them, they negatively affect the enjoyment of others who have to experience their noise and trails or wakes.  It has also been shown that both forms of transportation adversely affect wildlife and other resources where used.   As a result the National Park Service has attempted several forms of regulation to control or limit the use of such machines.

Such situations often result in special interest groups focused on local tourism, economic development, or manufacturing (such as businesses that produce jet skis and snowmobiles) lobbying politicians and filing law suits.  On the opposite side when the National Park Service is influenced by political pressures and favors use over preservation environmental organizations and groups whose favored activities would be affected by the new changes will file law suits.

This balancing act can be complex and painful.  When decisions about how to manage our parks affect the economies of local communities, access to areas by physically challenged visitors, and even jobs in manufacturing; emotions fueled personal interests can run high.  Park managers are constantly placed in the middle of these often times no win situations.

The courts involvement becomes inevitable.  One such case occurred recently related to personal water craft use at Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  In this instance the Federal court found that preservation and conservation take precedence over visitor enjoyment.  For more detailed information on the findings of this court you can go to:

Personally, after almost thirty three years working on National Park Service areas as a park ranger I lean toward the preservation for future generations’ side of the agency’s mission.  How do you feel?


  1. It's all relative, really. Today's visitors might be the motorized yahoos, tearing up the place. And they would also be the same tax-paying users that feel this is their entitlement, to use it as they see fit. However, their individual enjoyment could make it impossible for future generations to enjoy the parks. Rarely are we making any new parks, we do need to preserve them, that's what these areas were made to be in the first place, right?

  2. Personally I cannot stand the noise generated by these power toys. However I spend a great deal of time kayaking in Great Falls National Park. Often I look up at groups of park visitors looking down from the top of the gorge and wonder if they find my actions entertaining or annoying. A group of us paddlers have recently been working with the NPS to create a volunteer paddler program similar to the bike patrols but geared to prevent drownings which happen all too frequently.