Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 12, 2018

On the Trail to Nowhere in the National Park System

A subject that is of interest to most of you regular readers is the outdoors, wild lands and the protection of the environment. There are some issues I’ll consider at Under Western Skies in 2018.

Most of you are travelers, many of you are hikers and explorers. You know the difference between traveling to get from point A to point B and more mindful travel. If we’re fortunate, the route to our destination itself is worthwhile.

NM 550 Brad Nixon 3946 (640x480)

Our destinations vary enormously. Sometimes, they’re pure wilderness.

De-Na-Zin boundary Brad Nixon 4347 (640x480)

What is more appealing than trekking a bizarre landscape with no trails, access roads, facilities or signs?

Bisti Wilderness WS Brad Nixon 004-2 (800x558)

Rewards are great, but so are risks. You have only what you carry with you. If you get lost, injured or overtaken by night without proper gear, no one will help you, because there’s no one there.

More often, we follow a trail, however smooth or rough, clearly marked or faintly visible.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4042 (640x433)

Some of you, I know, are dedicated back country hikers, and may follow trails, but often well beyond the reach of a ranger station or any fellow trekkers. Here in the U.S., one of the foremost blazers and maintainers of trails is the National Park Service (NPS). Yes, there are strictly wilderness parks like Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, and many others, like Joshua Tree and, pictured below, Denali, contain vast wilderness areas.

Denali fall Brad Nixon 1901 300 680

Of the 308 million visitors to NPS units in 2015, 62% of them went to 10% of the parks. Other sites, especially remote or wilderness areas, receive relatively few visitors. Park attendance has grown rapidly, increasing 64% from 1979 to 2015. Going out to see the wild is enormously popular, and attracts more people every year.

An Invasive Species

Most of you are aware of some problems this popularity breeds. With a visit to iconic places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon on the bucket list for millions of people, popular parks are crowded; campgrounds, motels and lodges are full; restaurants, restrooms and even trails and scenic overlooks can be jam-packed. There’s sometimes a long wait in lines of traffic simply to get into some parks.

Here’s the staggeringly beautiful Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Brad Nixon 008 (800x531)

During a Yosemite trip (in midsummer), we never traveled far enough along any trail to have anything like a solitary experience. Crowds.

All those people, their vehicles and associated duffle disrupt wildlife; noise, pollution and litter stress not only the natural environment but visitors themselves, diminishing enjoyment of the outdoors.

A ranger at Yosemite told me that the most dangerous animal in the entire park was inevitably a human being driving a rented RV on a weekend jaunt.

What’s to be done? Do we begrudge our fellow travelers their share of what we value so highly? Do we become churlish and suggest that only real hikers, true aficionados of the wild be admitted, however that’s to be determined? Will there be a hierarchy, with back country wilderness trekkers at the top, descending to the car-bound visitors who pull off at the scenic overlooks long enough to gawk, snap a picture and drive to the next?

One can, of course, stick to less-visited sites. Grand Canyon gets 5.5 million visitors each year, Yellowstone 4.25 million, and a park relatively near me, Joshua Tree, sees 2.5 million. A place The Counselor and I have visited numerous times, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, gets only about 40,000. Most of those confine themselves to enjoying the scenery from the 9 mile paved road and stopping to see the most accessible of the ancestral Puebloan ruins.

Chaco Road Brad Nixon 4174 (640x480)

There are NPS trails through Chaco, though. Climbing the mesas north and south of the canyon is only moderately strenuous, the toughest spot being this one, just above Pueblo Bonito.

Chaco N Mesa cleft Brad Nixon 007-2 (446x640)

That’s doable, and the view from the mesa top is worth every ounce of exertion.

Chaco Mesa MV Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 006-3-2 (640x442)

Keep Wild Lands Truly Wild?

An outspoken proponent of excluding casual visitors from all natural lands was Edward Abbey. You may be familiar with his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey worked as a ranger and fire watcher for the NPS, but was also a bitter critic of national parks. He believed that wild lands should be utterly, strictly wild: no roads, trails, restrooms, accommodations or visitor amenities whatsoever. In his view, if one wanted to see the wilderness, one packed a tent and some gear and headed out there.

Abbey is highly regarded by many supporters of the outdoors, and helped galvanize a number of aggressive preservation efforts. Yet, he was perfectly capable of making camp and enjoying the evening, cheerfully tossing his beer cans into a gorge as he finished them. He did the same thing when climbing Australia’s Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock. Great, Ed. Enjoy your private wilderness.

The Question

As outdoor enthusiasts, where do we stand on this matter? Is there a point at which we start to restrict access to any, some or even all natural areas? Do we abandon public access and leave the wild to the mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and plants whose habitat it is?

Why This Matters

Why I think this issue is critically important right now is that the U.S. federal administration is now an enemy of national parks and environmental protection. The heads of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior (which includes the NPS) are dedicated to reducing or, if possible, eliminating all constraints, regulations and restrictions that protect land, air, water and habitat. In their view, natural lands possess no inherent value for recreation, conservation or scientific study: They are self-avowed disbelievers in science, if such a thing is truly possible. For them, natural lands represent only untapped resources to be mined, logged or farmed. Real estate development is another option, and they have a good friend in the White House who’s the self-proclaimed universal guru of real estate, and he’s gone bankrupt a few times proving it. He’d be happy to help them.

Their solutions to overuse and overcrowding in the parks might consist of a) shutting down some or all park operations b) charging for admission based on “surge pricing,” as Disneyland does, which might make a day at Yellowstone cost $150 (I’m guessing) or c) ending the national park system entirely and putting them in the Bureau of Land Management. BLM could then issue mining, logging and ranching permits, or perhaps build dams in likely spots like Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Hunting elk, bison, pronghorn and wolves could be a lucrative business, too.

Abbey was, at heart, an anarchist, who thought federal governments and organized religion should be eliminated, along with national parks. I doubt that adopting his point of view will help us deal effectively with the current situation.

There’s more to say on this topic in later posts. What do you suggest we the people ask our legislators to do, before someone else does it for us, without a vote? Please leave a comment. And call your legislator.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. Thanks for this. I am also an outdoors enthusiast, interested in preservation of what wild lands we still have. I look forward to your series of posts on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What about giving the limit number of visitors every day/week/month?


    • That is a likely, and probably reasonable result. It’s no different than going to many of the world’s museums or other sites, which is an increasing part of planning any trip. Managing a reservation system to accommodate 300 million visitors a year across the system is not a trivial task, although it’s likely it would be piloted only for the busiest parks, at least initially. Informing the public will be another significant task. There, the NPS would be asking Americans, at least, to do something that’s never been part of their expectations for the 100 years of the park system’s existence, and would be met with some resistance. American ARE accustomed to “lottery” systems for some public programs, including the issuance of hunting licenses for some wild animals like bear or deer, in some areas, but not not on a national basis. Thank you for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bar all private vehicles from park grounds. Entry to parks must be by foot, bicycle or park shuttle. This method reduces pollution and the damage caused by vehicles. It also reduces and controls tourists, who must plan better and find lodging on the perimeter of the park areas.

    This is the model followed by Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California. It works.


    • I agree that it’s an approach worth considering. I haven’t kept tabs on what’s happening with Grand Canyon, but some steps have been made in that direction, and they may have progressed much further. There, an enormous volume of traffic passes through the narrow corridor along the South Canyon rim, where all the overlooks, lodges, services and attractions are. There are direct costs related to buying and operating shuttle systems, developing parking for 10s of 1000s of vehicles (including finding previous land without chewing up more wilderness!), rejiggering traffic flows, etc. The ramp-up costs would be significant. Whether anyone with senior approval jurisdiction in the administration is capable of thinking past the next paycheck is doubtful. This bears examination and discussion with the readers, and I’ll slate it for inclusion as the series continues. Thanks.


  4. Amazing pictures. I’m always stunned when I see the landscapes in California. Here in Ontario The landscape is a lot flatter, but we have thousands of lakes and endless rivers, and of course the Canadian Shield.


    • One of the most beautiful drives I ever took was across southern Ontario from Windsor to Buffalo, cruising in summer with the top down. I’m sorry I’ve not been farther north.


  5. The shortsightedness and mendacity of those in D.C. is breath-taking. I’ll leave that here, and go on.

    We have one spot here in Texas where these issues have had to be dealt with. Lost Maples Natural Area is home to big-tooth maples, which provide our only bit of New England-style color in the fall. It’s immensely popular, and probably the primary tourist destination in autumn.

    Everyone who heads there knows to go during the week, if possible, but even so, the crowds can be considerable. The solution has been to allow only so many people in at a time. When the limit of those who can safely and enjoyably use the trails and other areas is reached, that’s it: everyone else has to park and wait until someone leaves before the next people are allowed in. Texas Parks and Wildlife and state troopers team up to make sure everyone plays nice.

    It’s interesting that no one seems to mind. Those who go know they will have to wait; they bring picnic lunches, books, or other entertainment, and amuse themselves until their turn comes. Those who don’t want to wait simply leave and try again, or not.

    I’ve not been to any of the big attractions, but I follow photographers who have been, and their stories about the crowds are worrisome. What the miners, loggers, and developers don’t destroy, the hordes of tourists may simply wear down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s why it’s going to take me multiple articles to explore this topic. It is not a simple one, nor are there clear-cut and obvious solutions. All of us have a part to play in determining where (if anywhere) we fit in “nature.” Thanks for the thoughtful comment.


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