A Right-Now Battle for the Future of America’s Public Lands

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.

The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.

But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.

With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.

Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…


Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond


White People Like Hiking? Some Implications of NPS Narratives of Relevance and Diversity

By Laura Schiavo, contributing author featured in The Public Historian 38.4 

This guest post is published in advance of a forthcoming special issue on the National Park Service published by The Public Historian. The full article will appear in TPH 38.4 (November 2016). Sign up here for an email alert when the special issue becomes available.

Photo Courtesy of Ranger Doug's Enterprises
Illustration Courtesy Ranger Doug’s Enterprises

Last summer, an opinion piece in The New York Times asked, “Why Are Our Parks So White?” The lede introduced readers to a 58-year-old African American woman living in Seattle, in view of Mt. Rainier, who steers clear of the associated park for fear of what she knows she will find: “mosquitoes, which she hates, and bears, cougars and wolves, which she fears.” This is, of course, far from the first time the title question has been asked. For decades now, external critics, and the Park Service itself, have expressed repeated, and repetitive, concerns about the lack of diversity among visitors to Park Service units. This statistic, first noted in a 1962 congressional report about Americans’ engagement with outdoor recreation, has experienced a resurgence of attention in the media fueled by Park Service surveys conducted in 2000 and then again in 2009. The more recent survey found that those US residents who could name a unit of the National Park Service they had visited in the two years prior to the survey, “were disproportionately white and non-Hispanic.” As the National Park Service (NPS) approached its 2016 Centennial, articles lamented the failure of the Park Service to engage a diverse public, even given the outreach to communities of color associated with the anniversary. (See here.) This failure to connect with “nonwhite communities” is figured, in a similar article, as a threat to the Park Service’s “own long-term sustainability.”

My article, forthcoming in the November issue of The Public Historian (38.4), explores this prevailing narrative – that people of color do not visit parks “enough”– and argues that it is both reductive in its implications about what it means to visit the parks, and in its construction of race, including whiteness. The desire for a visiting population that better reflects the nation’s racial demographics is surely driven in large part by the admirable value that everyone benefit equally the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” conserved by the directives of the Organic Act of 1916 that established the National Park Service. However, there are consequences to this logic that have not been carefully scrutinized. My paper looks at the argument’s embedded narratives, including the reduction of an appreciation for nature with park visitation and the implication that people of color do not share a concern for the environment. It analyzes the presumed link between park visitation and national belonging, and thus a threatened democracy in the face of unequal attendance. “A democracy can’t flourish without the participation of all of our citizens, yet some people from diverse backgrounds may not feel welcome in the parks,” according to a July 2015 Houston Chronicle article.

Illustration Courtesy Library of Congress
Illustration Courtesy Library of Congress

Such a logic harkens back to Frederick Jackson Turner’s attribution of the “vital forces” that fed the American character to an engagement with the “wilderness.”   Indeed, in 1916, when the Park Service was founded, it had been less than twenty-five years since Turner had delivered his frontier thesis. The Park Service retroactively incorporated national parks and monuments (including Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier) already cherished for their majesty and beauty and already integrated into the national imaginary. Certainly, the conventional understanding of the relationship between landscape and the forging of an American identity was foremost in the minds of the men who created a model for setting aside the most pristine places not only for protection but for communion and rejuvenation. In many ways, then, the cultural logic that defined the National Park Service a century ago was a product of its historical moment, when white men became Americans at civilization’s edge.

One hundred years later, our understanding of the relationship between nature, history, and nation is arguably more complicated. Decades of scholarship have documented the variety of encounters and events significant to the nation’s history. The environmental movement of the twenty first century includes a significant global (expanded from a purely national) orientation. Demographically, we are less homogenous and more urban, and scientists and social scientists are more engaged with the urban landscape and with a widened scope of environmental protection and sustainable practices (that might not include a cross-country car ride to Yosemite!) And yet to hear some who speak for the National Park Service tell it, Turner’s thesis is alive and well: “we” are all inherently products of a “frontier experience,” and the park provides “an opportunity to go home.” My paper suggests that we look more carefully at arguments about race, inclusion, and diversity in the park system, so that rather than relying on the tropes of a century past we might engage with an altered landscape and a new century in ways more attune to all we know about race, identity, access, history, land, and national belonging.


Laura Schiavo teaches museum history and theory and collections management in the Museum Studies Program at The George Washington University. Her two current research projects look at the historic roots of U.S. museums and civic engagement, and the concept of inclusivity and diversity in the National Park Service. Schiavo has years of experience as a curator at the National Building Museum, City Museum of Washington, DC, and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.


A New Vision for National Parks

California coastal redwoods. Photo: US National Park Service.

When the National Park Service (NPS) was founded in 1916, its mission was to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to…leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Nearly 100 years later, William C. Tweed, author of Uncertain Path, finds that it’s time to update this mission so it is relevant to the challenges of the 21st century.

In this National Parks Traveler article, Tweed discusses the crisis facing America’s national parks and weighs possible alternatives for their future. Times have changed since 1916, and human activities are impacting biodiversity everywhere, even deep in the national parks. Some argue that we should preserve as much as possible, while allowing for inevitable change. This position, which Tweed calls “managing for change”, says that “[r]ather than moving forward under the 1916 assumption that everything can and must be saved, managers would act within a mindset that tells them that everything is at risk and that much will likely be lost”, he writes.

William C. Tweed. Photo: Frances Tweed

Tweed notes that this proposal goes against the hands-off approach currently taken by the NPS, and would mean a major departure from the dominant strategy of the past century. It also raises the argument that interference in ecosystems could cause more harm than good. Finding a good solution will be a challenge, but national parks must adapt to survive, writes Tweed. He proposes a possible new vision to protects wildness and biodiversity while accepting change and maintaining public respect and celebration of these precious landscapes.

Read William C. Tweed’s article, An Idea in Trouble: Thoughts about the Future of Traditional National Parks in the United States, at National Parks Traveler.


The National Parks and The Wilderness Legacy

“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

The new documentary series by Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, premieres this Sunday, September 27 on PBS. The 6-episode series chronicles America’s national parks through the stories of people who made them possible, and who continue to do so today. They include artists, multimillionaires, Presidents, writers, environmentalists, park rangers, and more, who all felt the power and beauty of places like Crater Lake, the Everglades and Yosemite Valley and understood the urgent need to preserve them for future generations. Their work made national parks our inheritance, and our responsibility, to enjoy, respect, and protect. For more information about the series, more previews, and to check listings, visit the PBS series website.

Wallace Stegner, whose words inspired the PBS series subtitle, was one of those who helped make national parks a reality. As author Philip Fradkin shows in Wallace Stegner and the American West, Stegner was drawn into the conservation movement because of his lifelong connection with the wilderness, and his deep conviction that these places must be preserved for everyone. With his writing, Stegner did not just help preserve forests and canyons, but put into words the vast and haunting power of the outdoors. He understood that beyond ancient trees and pristine rivers there is something even greater—what he called the “Wilderness Idea”, something mysterious, precious, and profoundly necessary for humankind. In his Wilderness Letter, which was read around the world and was influential in the movement to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, Stegner wrote:

“We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as
many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as
a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still
there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten
years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of
the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest,
into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply
because it is there—important, that is, simply as an idea.”