ational Park Service Director Roger Kennedy spoke this spring in Flagstaff at the National Park Service RIM Conference (RIM being the acronym for resources, interpretation, and management). The purpose of the conference was to foster more effective integration of resource sciences, interpretation (education) and the management of national parks on the Colorado Plateau. There were many messages in his speech. He talked about patriotism, dedication to duty, values, and most forcibly, about the value of our national park system to our nation and the world.
As all expected, or at least hoped, he talked about last winter’s closures of National Parks across the country and specifically about the closure of the Grand Canyon. He was obviously angered by the shortsighted response that this Congressional action elicited from state and local politicians, the tourism industry, and some of the more radical factions of Congress. He agreed that Congress should do its job and provide budgets that allow the NPS to keep the parks operating, but he did not at all favor the notion of states taking over the operation of national parks. He stressed that all park units are a part of a system of national parks and must be managed as such, recognizing their unique values and the contribution that each makes to the integrity of the whole—values which are described, at least in general terms, in the body of legislation that directed the establishment of this park system, and continue to guide its stewardship.
One of his most memorable statements was that even in the early days of the national park system there were powerful economic interests seeking opportunities to pick off a national park for the sake of economic gain. He emphasized that the American people didn’t allow it to happen then and it isn’t going to happen now. Each park within the system will continue to be managed for it’s unique contribution to preserving our cultural and natural heritage.
Regarding the most recent park closures, we noticed that much of the hue and cry regarding these events was over the loss of revenue to local tourist industries. Little concern was expressed about the loss of value to park visitors or the disruption that the closure caused to important park resource management activities.
What this told the NPS and local conservationists is that we need to do a better job of educating and reminding the public about what our national parks are all about. What they are not about is creating the largest tourism industry possible. They are not cash cows. What they are about is preserving the natural and cultural heritage of this country, our quality of life, and perhaps even someday, about our survival as a species. Obviously, tourism to national parks does create service industries in nearby communities. When nearby development is planned carefully, public profit from tourism can be compatible with preserving parks. However, when maximizing the financial return from tourism by creating demand for non-essential services becomes the goal, the sacred cow can be seriously gored.
Attempts to turn national parks into cash cows is a part of a larger social issue. For decades, the economies of many western communities have been based on the extraction of non-renewable resources and the harvest of renewable resources at non-sustainable rates. These short lived economic bases are now failing and the search for new economies is on. Many western states, most notably Utah and Arizona, are rich in national park units and contain millions of acres of other scenic public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Many people now see tourism as at least a partial answer to the future economic security of many western communities.
The burning question is this: As populations continue to boom and more focus is placed on increasing tourism to national parks, how will we be able to protect the last precious wild lands and cultural places from being ruined by economic exploitation, much like many forests and rangelands have been ecologically destroyed by non-sustainable management practices? Will we learn from the mistakes made on other public lands or will we only trade in the chainsaw and range cow for the national park cash cow?
So what does this mean for the lovers of wild rivers? What does this mean for boatman, owners of river outfitting companies and NPS managers? For starters it means that we are all in this together. We all know that this piece of river is the best of what is left. It is the best for whitewater challenge and fun, it is the best for access to perhaps the wildest of all Wildernesses, it is the best for mental and spiritual renewal, and yes, it also the best river for making money. Since it is the best of the best for all of these things, it is in high demand, and the demand is growing by the day. We have a big job buckaroos! We are the chosen few that must protect this river and the exceptional range of values it provides for our society. We must make sure that while we are allowing the economy (read boatmen and outfitters) to benefit from the river, that we do not allow this pursuit to wreck it and its values! We all know that the pursuit of electricity, and water for lettuce and lawns has done enough damage to the old gal already.
As we approach the revision of the Colorado River Management Plan we need to be thinking first of how we can all work together to assure that we do not squander the exceptional, but very limited, value to our society that this river so graciously provides. The NPS not only needs and is committed to public involvement and dialogue regarding the management of Grand Canyon National Park; this activity is critical to developing public understanding and support for park values and management needs.
River running is not the only tourist enterprise that relies on the splendor of the Grand Canyon. You know what the others are. As members of the Grand Canyon Preservation Team we are all responsible for assuring that all businesses that profit from the Canyon and The River give at least as much as they take, and that business activities do not squander the highest public values or wind up ruining the Grand Canyon experience for others.
Science Center Director
Grand Canyon National Park