Teaching Stewardship

Within three days of becoming a ‘blogger’ I found myself involved in a controversial discussion over the use of our National Parks and I’ve been feeling rather contentious ever since.  However, today I went to a very restorative yoga session where all we did was lay on our backs and hug pillows, so I’m  currently lounging in a state of gratitude and graciousness; much better for writing sensibly.  I think.

It all stemmed from the publication of this article by John Lemons in the online magazine Aeon.  The article essentially calls into question the idea of whether the NPS has actually “preserved unimpaired” the wildernesses it was designed to protect.  Their mission states:

“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Are the footprints of humanity changing, and perhaps damaging, the land “preserved” by the National Park System?  Without question, yes.

If you sell ice cream, they will come.  The first time I recognized this phenomenon was while exploring the Columbia River Gorge during our 2010 Northwest trip.  This incredibly beautiful area of Oregon is packed with lush foliage, dozens of cascading waterfalls, and breathtaking views of the Columbia River.  We saw four different waterfalls that day, including the infamous Multnomah Falls.  Multnomah is a truly spectacular view, and deserving of the hype and attention it gets, but Multnomah sells ice cream.  And coffee.  And beer.  Multnomah had hundreds of visitors the day we were there, but just a short hike into the same forest brought us to beautiful Wahkeena Falls, and the utter joy of observing a waterfall in relative solitude.

Wahkeena Falls, 2010 – Jack experiencing an Oregon waterfall.

Though I respect the credentials of Mr. Lemons, and agree with a lot of what he has to say, I don’t believe the crowds in some of our parks are necessarily a bad thing.  This is why.

The National Parks protect America’s Greatest Treasures, and by greatest, I mean the places in our country that inspire great thoughts and deeds, that hold the secrets of our history, that will be our last true wildernesses, and that provide a safe, natural habitat for animals that would otherwise be lost to land development. As our population grows, the parks are never going to look like they once did.  We can accept that, and then focus on ensuring the least destructive ways to accommodate the visitors, or we cannot accept it and continue to fight a battle of ideals while the hotel and dining concessioners plan their next move.  I want the parks to be visited, because it is the parks themselves that inspire stewardship, and that is what we so desperately need in the next generation.

Stewardship is an internal awareness of ownership and obligation.  Merriam-Webster defines it as the “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”    Our children today are much more well-versed in conservation than we ever were.  They are exposed to regular news stories on global warming, deforestation, and polluted resources.  They complete endangered species projects at school.   They recycle everything.  They go to high school and participate in mock panel discussions and lab simulations over the problems associated with an exponentially growing world population and finite resources.

Yet, despite being knowledgeable, how many of them will grow up to really care enough to put that knowledge to good use?  How many of them will grow up to feel ownership and responsibility for our wildernesses?   As our population grows, the decisions required to maintain our parks and other wild places are going to become more and more unpleasant.  How can we ask them to fight these battles, make the tough decisions, and to forge new pathways in conservation if they are not passionate about saving them?  Our country will need both leaders and voters that are truly inspired by nature, that consider themselves stewards of nature.  The only way to teach this is to get our children outside.  Stewardship has to come from experience, because only then will you know what you are missing if it is gone.

So yes, the crowds at Multnomah can be frustrating, but they don’t take away from the absolutely awe-inspiring spectacle of the plummeting waterfall.  If people want to meet their friends and family there, get married there, photograph or picnic there, I think it’s fabulous.   The same goes for Yosemite Valley, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Old Faithful of Yellowstone.  In fact, with so many man-made attractions vying for their attention,  a few well-known spots in nature that will turn our children’s heads the other way are a good thing.  There are still thousands more where those that desire it can walk alone for days and contemplate the connections between life.  Like here.

I would love to see the dining and hotel concessioners ousted from our National Parks altogether, or at least prevented from any further development within park boundaries.  Also, I would be completely in favor of an annual visitor cap at our most congested parks, perhaps raffled off in lottery fashion each year like our hunting tag system.  But, I do believe we have to protect our parks for the people, not in spite of them, and I think that all too often the importance of the parks to humans gets overshadowed by the more passionate environmental perspective.  It’s not just important to us, it’s vital.   Our children are growing up in a world with a constant barrage of unrealistic Hollywood movies, video games, and plastic toys, and there could be nothing more vital to their emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being than getting the kids inspired by something truly unique and remarkable in nature, something that will light that fire of ownership within them.  We must give them the opportunity to realize that the nations greatest treasures are also their greatest treasures.

Happy Memorial Day weekend to everyone!  I hope you all have a chance to step away from your obligations for a bit and find your own little piece of nature.

Happy Trails.