On Being a Visitor on a Soapbox

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking, stemming from starting a class about conservation and public land history plus having the chance to be on the other side of the Visitor Center desk–in other words, the one with all the questions.

I don’t like the term ‘visitor,’ as in, “You are a visitor to Yosemite National Park,” or “Yosemite National Park has 4 million visitors a year.”

On the one side, using the word ‘visitor’ conveys the brevity that most people experience inside their national parks. At most, a day, maybe a week are spent inside the boundaries. In Yosemite’s case, ‘visitor’ could imply that entering the valley is traversing on land that someone else occupied, a little paradise occupied by a tribe whose home was converted into parkland through an act of force.

While ‘visitor’ might serve the purpose of reminding us that our natural cathedrals were once places many people before us called home, the conditions of present-day conservation ethics might warrant a different term for those that visit THEIR public lands. That’s right, YOU own Yosemite National Park [as much as a monolithic chunk of granite and a valley carved by glaciers can be “owned”]. YOU, with the rest of the nation’s citizens, are responsible for the upkeep, preservation, and integrity of all 401 units of the National Park Service, whether or not you’ve been to them [if that seems like a lot, just think about all the land that’s designated by the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, etc. That’s all YOUR land, as well]. This ownership we have, you see, isn’t conveyed well in the term ‘visitor’. ‘Visitor’ does not say “I’m responsible for keeping this park free of trash,” or “I am tasked with letting others know that feeding the wildlife is detrimental to their health,” or “It’s my responsibility to preserve everything in this park for the people that arrive tomorrow as well as future generations.” All of these tasks can happen in tangible or intangible ways, but they are the duty of every citizen of the United States.

So with that daunting responsibility staring you in the face, what term would YOU use in place of ‘visitor’?
Half Dome

What to Hike Instead: Redwood National Park/Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Since Redwood National Park is currently closed due to the shutdown, the world-famous trails are technically off-limits. But if you’re still looking for legal, awe-inspiring redwood hikes, there are as many options as there are stars in the sky–it is actually hard to narrow them down!  Ranger Cathy outlines some great areas near San Francisco in place of Muir Woods National Monument.

If you find yourself six hours to the north of San Francisco and driving through Redwood National Park [which has no gates, by the way], there are some great alternatives to get your hike on in the redwoods:

Instead of Lady Bird Johnson Grove, try the comparable Prairie Creek/Foothill loop that starts right behind the Prairie Creek Visitor Center [located on the southern end of the Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway between the towns of Klamath and Orick]. This flat, 2 mile loop skirts along the babbling Prairie Creek, waiting for the winter salmon arrival.  As a special treat, you might even spot an American Dipper in the creek. This grey, amphibious bird has an amusing bobbing tick that adds to the amusement of watching it search for invertebrates under water. At the first ‘Parkway’ sign, cross the Parkway and walk to Big Tree along the old roadbed of old Highway 101. After gazing at the hugeness that is Big Tree, take Foothill Trail back to the Visitor Center, but tread lightly–you might spot a banana slug or Pacific giant salamander under the Bigleaf maples and towering redwoods.


Perhaps a permit to drive down the Tall Trees Access Road and hike Tall Trees Trail was in your itinerary. Never fear! There is the Brown Creek/Rhododendron/South Fork loop just waiting to be discovered! This 3.5 mile loop climbs 700 feet through upland and lowland redwoods without the 45 minute drive down a gravel road. Just take the Newton B Drury Parkway and look for mile post 129.0. The trailhead is on the northbound side of the Parkway. The South Fork segment is the steepest, while Brown Creek offers glimpses of its namesake creek trickling through the understory.


Just like Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is fee-free [unless you go into the day-use areas past the campground gates] and does not allow dogs on trails. Unlike the National Park, Prairie Creek has been around since the 1920s, so to keep it in pristine shape like it has been for all these years, staying on the trail is encouraged to protect the fragile understory and shallow redwood roots.


Sequestering Souls

Monetary Value of the National Park System

In a report released by the National Park Service and Michigan State University this month, the monetary worth of National Park Service units to our national economy highlighted the fact that what happens in national parks does not stay in national parks. The year 2011 saw 278.9 million visits to 398 units under the protection of the Service. Of those choosing to spend their vacations at NPS units, they spent 12.95 billion dollars in gateway communities [defined as areas within 60 miles of park boundaries] sustaining 251,600 jobs outside the units.

That’s a lot of large numbers to digest. For a private industry comparison, Walt Disney resorts in central Florida contributes 6%, or 160,000, of the jobs in that area and generates 1.7 billion dollars in money spent outside the resort for lodging, food and the like.

Seems fairly close, but then again, I’ve never been good with numbers. The jobs generated in park gateway communities could employ a city the size of Saint Petersburg, Florida or Fort Wayne, Indiana. If you look at the employment numbers within, Walt Disney outhires the Park Service 3 to 1.  But the Park Service, operating as a nonprofit, relies heavily on 221,000 volunteers as well. If you can do math better than I can, it wouldn’t take you long to realize that both Disney World [just in central Florida] and the National Park Service are about equal in terms of people they rely on both inside and outside the gates to supply their visitors with services and goods. The real difference, number wise, is land. The Park Service oversees 84,000,000 acres that pertain to our national heritage, both natural and cultural.

Intrinsic Value of the National Park System

Assigning a monetary value to the cultural value of those 84,000,000 acres of NPS land is almost equivalent to pricing the best moment of your life. It just doesn’t translate well into numbers. The thousands of stories told in those lands are a unique part of our national fabric, threads tying nature, culture, history, and those who proved themselves to be shapers of our national identity together into a tapestry that is the foundation of our country. All of this serves as the backdrop of our family vacations and adventurous expeditions, our areas of refuge and solitude, where we unwind and escape from our urban creations, and perhaps where we quite often find what we seek. Hidden in the “Are we there yet?”s and official national park maps is our national identity and perhaps even a new-found aspect of our personal identity. More than just a balanced national budget is at stake in the halls of Congress.



“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” –John Muir


A saguaro, maybe around 150 years old, has seen many a family vacation spent. Saguaro National Park, Arizona.

Whose Park Is It, Anyway?

I start off by saying the usual disclaimer that these following words are my thoughts and represent NOTHING official.

After hearing about an incident between a law enforcement ranger with a taser and a dog walker visiting a newly acquired National Park Service unit in San Francisco, I sighed. There is so much time used up enforcing laws, why not just respectfully enjoy nature? Seriously, when a cop pulls you over, what do you do?? It’s the same with park law enforcement!

But then again, that’s why I’m not in law enforcement. There have been so many times that I have approached people with dogs [or people breaking any number of rules or laws], and they’ve either blown me off, acted like they were going to comply and then sneak away, or, in the times I cringe the most, argued. Not that my job is -that- hard, but a taser would make things so much easier [yea, right…I’d probably just cry instead]. I wouldn’t have to waste so much breathe and time trying to protect resources.

But then a few weeks after hearing about the incident, I stumbled upon an NPR article: Who’s A Park For? Dog Owners Fight Park Service. Of course, my hackles raise, with a traumatic hostage training session [officially called “Active Threat” training] still at the top of my thoughts. Seeing coworkers get shot by soft pellets was a little much for me. It’s no secret that parks and ‘gateway towns’ across the country have their differences–just look at Yellowstone, Cape Hatteras, and now apparently Golden Gate. My park isn’t immune either, hence the graphic training session. The part of training that hit me the hardest, and the part that seems nearly ironic, is that there are people trained and willing to put their lives at risk to act as the thin green line when things get *that* bad–to save those that are caught in the crossfire. Over what would someone be willing to throw themselves on an armed attacker? And for what would someone fatalistically storm a federal property, possibly throwing away innocent bystanders’ and their lives?  An idea. A stupid idea.

It’s nothing new that humans fight and die for ideas daily. It just strikes me as dumbfounding to do it in a park–a recreational setting where happy things are supposed to occur, not the total opposite! If emotions aren’t your cup of tea, then maybe the logical side might make more sense: the National Park Service’s mandate, the whole reason it exists, is to protect resources so that they may exist and be enjoyed now and in future generations. Spelled out by the Organic Act, it goes like this:

The mission of the National Park Service “is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life herein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The whole Park Service system is touted as “America’s Best Idea” [don’t talk to Canadians about that–they did it first!], and yet, we can’t seem to agree to agree on it! I’m sure most people are aware of the conflict involving the wolves at Yellowstone. Arguments between parks and communities range from how to “best” use a piece of land, to what wildlife should be there, to variations between. Where I am dumbfounded is how people get so confused…these parks were created by an act of Congress [you know, for the people, by the people] to preserve [not conserve] some natural thing of beauty and all the other, maybe not so beautiful but just as important, other things within the park’s boundary. And by preserve, it isn’t meant that these things remain pretty just while one visits.

These parks are investments.

When the rest of the country is as built up as the suburbs of Paris, at least wildlife will have a tiny piece of land to huddle in. And while a person may not understand the value of one plant species or one bird species or one pocket gopher species, there is thankfully a professional scientist out there trying to save these endangered species, not to mention the ecosystem as a whole! So to be angry because a certain activity was deemed as detrimental to a resource within the park boundary and banned is absurd! Would it not be a violation of the Organic Act, of the whole reason the park is there in the first place, to allow visitors to walk their dogs, ride their bikes, poach elk, drive all over the beach, pet the bison, feed the prairie dogs and stellar’s jays, run over snakes, pick flowers, and carve on redwoods.

Don’t argue…I’m just trying to do my job. Now, where did I put my taser!?