Call of the wild: can America’s national parks survive?
America’s national parks are facing multiple threats, despite being central to the frontier nation’s sense of itself
by Lucy Rock
published January 14, 2017
Autumn in the North Cascades National Park and soggy clouds cling to the peaks of the mountains that inspired the musings of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg 60 years ago. Sitting on a carpet of pine needles in the forest below, protected from the rain by a canopy of vine maple leaves, is a group of 10-year-olds listening to a naturalist hoping to spark a similar love of the outdoors in a new generation.
This is one of 59 national parks which range across the United States, from the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the turrets of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. All – plus hundreds of monuments and historic sites – are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centenary last year. The parks were created so that America’s natural wonders would be accessible to everyone, rather than sold off to the highest bidder. Writer Wallace Stegner called them America’s best idea: “Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
It’s easy to agree. Nicknamed America’s Alps, Washington State’s North Cascades is an area of soaring beauty, a wilderness of fire and ice thanks to hundreds of glaciers and dense forest where trees burn in summer blazes. The Pacific Crest Trail – made famous by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, and the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon – runs through the park. Walking along Thunder Creek one midweek morning, the only sound is rushing water and birdsong. The view is a nature-layered cake of teal water, forested mountain slopes and snowy summits. But it is here that you can also observe the threats facing the parks in their next 100 years. They are fighting a war on three fronts: severe underfunding, climate change and a lack of diversity and youth among their visitors.
Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades surrounded by silence and rocky spires, far from the drink, drugs and distractions of his San Francisco life. He drew on his Cascades experiences in Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels, in which he wrote: “Those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snow-covered rock all around…” Those views look different today. Climate change is causing the glaciers to melt: their square footage shrank by 20% between 1959 and 2009.
Saul Weisberg, executive director of the North Cascades Institute, an environmental educational organization, said that the difference between photos from September – when the seasonal snow is gone – in the 1950s and today was, “Incredibly dramatic. Snow is melting back more and more and now you see a lot more rock when you look at the mountains.”
Climate change is killing trees, threatening birds and mammals, and leading to devastating wildfires across the 85m acres run by the NPS.
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While the national parks belong to everyone, not everyone is going. Those who do are mainly white, middle-class and well into middle-age. The challenge is how to attract a younger crowd to ensure support for protection and funding of the parks in the future.
The NPS is trying to “tell a more inclusive story” of America by increasing the number of sites and monuments honoring African- American, Latino, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, LGBTQ and women’s history.
In the North Cascades, rangers work with local Hispanic communities. “We bring school kids out into the parks and give them experience of doing things that are fun,” said Denise Shultz of North Cascades National Park, “but which many of us take for granted, like camping and hiking, and learning how to identify birds and plants.”
Some people fear the outdoors, she said, and it was about finding out how to make them comfortable. She recalled taking a group of urban Latino female bloggers to the Grand Canyon to kayak and hike. She asked what had worried them most. “One said: ‘I am a full- figured Latino woman and the thing that scared me the most was shopping at REI.’ She’d thought it was a store for skinny white people and was afraid nothing would fit and she wouldn’t know what all the equipment was for. It can be a whole different language and culture for people. She said she had a great experience in the store when she actually went.”
The NPS boosts its efforts by providing a ranger to help with Mountain School at the non-profit North Cascades Institute.
At the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on the shores of Lake Diablo, the children who were listening to the naturalist in the forest in the afternoon join 70 classmates in the evening to inspect the skulls of wolves and black bears with ranger Anna Mateljak, before singing around a campfire.
Saul Weisberg is passionate about the power of education to effect change, and gave up being a ranger to co-found the institute 30 years ago. “It was at the height of fights over the spotted owl [environmentalists blamed logging for destroying their habitat] and timber wars. There were demonstrations, court fights, direct action, tree sit-ins. It seemed like no one was using education as a tool of conservation.”
As well as adult and graduate courses, and weekend getaways for families, it runs leadership camps for high school pupils with no experience of the outdoors, and the Mountain School where children stay for three days of hands-on activities.
Weisberg, also a poet, was drawn to the Cascades after reading Kerouac at high school in Ohio. He still indulges his passion by running a “Beats on the Peaks” course, which includes a hike up Desolation Peak to the lookout. He’s not sure the Beat poets have the same pull for today’s teenagers, yet at a time when the national parks’ future is unpredictable, perhaps Kerouac’s advice is still relevant: “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing the lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain!”