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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

NPS 100: National Park Service evolves for 100 years

By Rob Chaney Missoulian

What did we want when we set up the National Park Service 100 years ago?

A museum? A playground? A business incentive? A zoo?

When Glacier National Park was wrapped into the new federal system, visitors rolled in by passenger train to begin month-long tours “seeing America first.” They rode horses to dormitories at Gunsight Lake. They lured bears to pose for pictures. They meandered around the nine chalets at Rising Sun Point on their way to the club room.

Today the Gunsight and Sun Point structures have vanished, but helicopter tours provide glimpses of Pumpelly Glacier that no pack trail ever reached. Lake McDonald Lodge’s “front door” faces the water because all the original visitors arrived by boat. Motorists coming in from the Going-to-the-Sun Road come in through the back door.

“You’re not allowed to hunt in the national parks, but you’re still allowed to fish, because that’s one of those guaranteed activities in the organic act of the National Park Service,” said Laura Loomis of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “It’s been allowed to continue, yet it’s a removal of the resource in a place where they won’t allow you to pick the flowers.”

The National Park Service’s primary missions are to preserve, protect and provide a quality visitor experience. Those goals were crafted at a time when the United States was growing explosively.

Hetch Hetchy Valley was carved out of Yosemite National Park and drowned to supply drinking water for San Francisco. Tourists in Yellowstone National Park used the geyser cones to boil the fish they caught, and occasionally to wash laundry.

Today, we’re debating whether to unplug the Glen Canyon Dam and let the Colorado River run free through Grand Canyon National Park again. A group of clothing designers videoing themselves strolling through Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring this year became an international outrage.

“The founders of the National Park Service did anticipate significant increase in visitation over the life of the national park system,” former Glacier Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright said. “But I don’t know how they could have anticipated things would change like they have.

“People are coming for a million different things. They want to do their weddings and dispose of loved ones’ ashes. There was a movement awhile ago to allow base jumping. What about those super-fat tires for over-the-snow bikes? What’s acceptable and what’s not? Would a zipline in the park be an exciting, modern-day experience? Should we be constructing cell towers to get better connectivity on mountain peaks?”

The National Park Service was authorized on Aug. 25, 1916. But the United States was creating national parks long before then. The first, Yellowstone, was dedicated in 1872. Its enacting legislation declared it was to be “set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Its tiny staff of (often unpaid) superintendents and rangers had no way of protecting Yellowstone’s thermal features and wildlife from developers and poachers until the U.S. Army arrived in 1886. The Army didn’t cede management of the park to the National Park Service until 1918.

Today, about 293 million people visit all the nation’s 441 national park sites every year. That’s just slightly fewer than there are residents of the United States. Glacier Park’s Cartwright said that poses a conundrum.

“Most people locally are of the mind that it’s congested with a lot more people on the trails,” Cartwright said. “But generally on national level, when you get out there and ask the question: Is the park too crowded? The answer is no – it’s a lot busier where I live.”

That leaves the National Park Service in a quandary over what constitutes a problem and what deserves a response.

“We’re gauged toward helping people having a good time, so we’re reluctant to engage them on tough issues,” Cartwright said.

For example, about 85 percent of Glacier’s visitors come for the “windshield experience,” of driving through the park, never leaving a paved surface. Increasing traffic on Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road and congestion at the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot inspired the creation of a shuttle bus service over the Continental Divide.

That relieved some of the parking congestion, but it greatly increased the number of people who could through-hike park trails and return to their own vehicles by using the shuttle. It also stymied Glacier’s interpretative ranger staff.

Should the long tradition of leading hikes, like the six-mile trek to Grinnell Glacier, be replaced by posting rangers by parking lot restrooms, where they share stories with far more people?

As it celebrates its centennial this year, the National Park Service also is dealing with a 50-year anniversary. That’s the legacy of the Mission ’66 program then-NPS Director Conrad Wirth launched to add roads, lodges and visitor centers throughout the park system, inviting World War II veterans to “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”

“They spent the equivalent of $10 billion fixing and making park roads,” NPCA’s Loomis said. “But they didn’t have any appreciation of the impact of infrastructure. They put roads where it would allow the greatest view of glaciers. Would they do that today? Probably not.”

They’re not getting the money either. NPCA estimates the National Park Service needs $970 million a year to maintain its roads, but has been allocated just a quarter of that amount.

Washington, D.C.’s Memorial Bridge between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery belongs to the Park Service, and was expected to last 60 years when it was built in 1932. Replacing it alone would cost about $250 million.

Then there’s climate change driving wildfires, invasive fish species eating native trout and drone-mounted cameras electronically tethered to bike riders.

Tourists let buffalo calves into their cars and looters pillage Civil War battlegrounds. Park visitation doesn’t reflect the diversity of the national population – people of color are noticeably absent from the trails and campgrounds.

Current NPS Director Jon Jarvis has served the agency for 40 of its 100 years. At the World Ranger Congress gathering in Estes Park, Colorado, this summer, he noted that Congress has given the agency its largest budget ever for 2016. But he also criticized the agency’s ability to explain its mission.

“We’ve never been good at making the case for our needs,” Jarvis told the international audience. “We’ve been inarticulate, to be blunt about it. But outdoor recreation, in terms of contribution to the nation, is at least double to what the oil and gas industry provides to the nation in terms of jobs.

“Investment in the work we do generates far more jobs than all the subsidies and things they do for the oil and gas industry.”

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