Loving the Parks to Death

WASHINGTON — Washington--During the next few weeks, I plan to set foot on some of the most valuable land in America. It is valuable because it is undeveloped, and if there is a heaven it will stay that way.

The very names of these places suggest remoteness and beauty -- the Desolation Wilderness, Tahoe National Forest, Acadia National Park. But they are remote no more, and their beauty is fragile. Just because they are undeveloped does not mean they are uncrowded, unpolluted or unthreatened.


Since 1950, the number of annual users of U.S. national parks has multiplied by ten. This year alone, individual visits may total 275 million. Seventy-five years ago, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating the park system, some visitors already recognized the likelihood that it would be loved to death.

British Ambassador James Bryce said in 1912, "What Europe is now is that toward which you in America are tending. Presently, the steam cars stop some 12 miles away from the entrance of the Yosemite. . . . Surely development should come no closer. . . . If you were to realize what the result of the automobile will be to that wonderful, that incomparable valley, you will keep it out."


The ambassador was right. We did not keep the automobile out of Yosemite, or Yellowstone, or Acadia, or Smoky Mountains, or Shenandoah, and today their roads are jammed in season. In 1913, the first cars started driving into Yosemite. Last year, there were 1.1 million. There where John Muir found inspiration in the silence, there are now holiday gridlocks like those on urban freeways.

Air pollution, from local traffic and from industry far away, cuts visibility and kills trees. Clear-cut logging, mining and oil drilling encroach on park borders. Concession operators turn visitor areas into rag-tag strip developments. Park rangers spend more time as traffic cops than interpreting the parks to the public.

The Wilderness Society, which compiled these statistics, is only one of the environmental groups that hope to make the parks peaceful again before the 100th anniversary of the system in 2016. That cannot mean reverting completely to the wild. It must mean controlling park use so the very qualities that people come to enjoy are not submerged and lost forever.

Environmentalists are not the only park lovers who see traffic as probably the most serious single problem. Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, with whom they are often at odds, suggested this week that the National Park Service consider "futuristic" mass transport, such as monorails, to ease road crowding.

His idea was immediately derided as a way to convert national parks into theme parks like Disneyland. But if even Mr. Wallop is willing to impose a slight inconvenience on the all-American motorist who wants to drive every foot of the way, there may be hope for change.

Building monorail systems in Yellowstone, Yosemite and Denali (Mt. McKinley) parks seems at first glance too much of a project, sure to destroy terrain and mar views. But shuttle buses already are required at Denali, and available at other parks such as Yellowstone. At Yosemite, the park service is limiting the number of cars in the valley to 5,000 at a time.

Despite the entrance fees charged in recent years, the number of visitors to the whole park system still grows at 2 percent a year. The ratio of foreign tourists among them is leaping annually. As Wilderness Society president George Frampton says, "Other cultures are famous for their art, their architecture, or their music. Our country is famous for its landscapes."

But spacious as our country seems from a jet flying over the desert West, the viewing points for the famous landscapes have no space left at all. They have become traffic jams of cars, trailers, campers, 40-foot mobile homes, of rugged individualists who refuse to step out of their air-conditioned cruisers. Unless this attitude changes, going to a national park is going to be about as much fun as Saturday afternoon on the parking lot of a suburban shopping mall.


On my return I will report on how the great outdoors looks from places where cars still cannot go. I fear the rest of my findings will sound like the man in the helicopter over the beltway at rush hour.