Contributed by Will Rice
Yesterday, I read something that didn’t sit very well on my mind. It came as an Op-Ed published by Fox News in which their Medical Analyst, Dr. Marc Siegel, detailed a recent trip to Zion National Park amidst the federal government shutdown. In his piece, Dr. Siegel portrays the numerous reports of damage occurring to parks during the shutdown as alarmist, writing, “In Zion, at least, where state and local government and non-profits have chipped in funds, I saw no sign of the vandalism, trash, urine, feces, or trampled ground that the news media is widely reporting…As a physician I would say to bring hand sanitizer, toilet paper, plenty of water and snacks and resourcefulness and willingness to help others. Perhaps most importantly, leave your fear and foreboding behind.”
Though I certainly appreciate the Doctor’s keen medical advice—advice he has previously said should be left out of the national gun control debate—I find his thesis rather radical: “The spectacular orange and red/brown rock formations were unimpeded by man or regulatory oversight. And this was the point; not that our national parks are better off during a period of austerity and government shutdown, but that experiencing them is different, more intimate.”
Make no mistake, our national parks are not more intimate without the careful, expert management of our park rangers fulfilling the vital tasks of making sure headstrong physicians don’t die in flashfloods, teaching people from around the world about our natural and cultural heritage, serving as stewards to the resources the parks were designated to protect, and, yes, keeping toilet paper stocked.
For not all Americans are as in tune with the natural world as our good Dr. Siegel: “I relied on old tricks and reflexes from childhood to follow the trail – I looked for manmade polished stones or steps in the rocks – these are deliberate markers. If you lose the trail, trace your steps backward until you find it again.” In fact, many Americans with less experience in the out of doors very much need maintained trails, rangers to guide their hikes, and a host of other rangers to keep freedom-happy old men from walking off-trail.
Thankfully, Dr. Siegel is not the subject of this story. But his ignorance towards the necessity of management on our federal lands provides a lovely segue. For in the 1920s, unchecked park visitation was jeopardizing some of our most valued natural antiquities. The groves of Giant Sequoias in the Sierra Nevada Mountains were literally on the brink of collapse from visitors’ overuse. And if it wasn’t for a federal employee sounding the alarm, we might well have lost them forever.
Emilio Pepe Michael Meinecke was born in California in 1869, the son to German immigrants. His interest in plants led him to a PhD in botany and a career with the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry and the US Forest Service’s California District. Though his early career was dedicated mostly to pest-control among tree species, in the mid-1920s the US Forest Service and National Park Service began coming to Meinecke with strange reports of big trees being damaged in the Redwood forests of the Northern California coast and the Giant Sequoias of the Sierras. The cause was not hard to diagnose: excessive camping and walking too close to the trees’ trunks.
Unregulated car-camping zones and grove management had created irreversible damage in some areas, leaving other groves at serious risk. Meinecke published reports on both the Redwoods and the Sequoias, providing evidence of the visitors’ impact on the trees:
In every grove the evidence of heavily concentrated travel is immediately discernible. Roads and broad lanes, paths and wide areas are completely bare of vegetation, while in other parts no change in the original condition has taken place. Even in midwinter the camp sites, the social centers around the camp fire, the preferred playgrounds of the children, can as readily be outlined as though they were populated with hundreds of visitors. The exquisite beauty of the Parks which to a large degree rests upon the contrast between the vividly green under growth and the red boles of the huge trees in the play of sunlight and shade is no longer preserved, and it is merely a question of time and increased travel when the still remaining vegetation will be destroyed. The former wealth of wild flowers has already disappeared.
He recommended building designated trails through the groves to concentrate foot traffic and moving campgrounds to more resilient areas. But his agency leaders wanted more specific recommendations and implementable solutions and so Dr. Emilio Meinecke, botanist, soon found himself becoming the world’s foremost expert on campground and trail design. His 1932 work “A Camp Ground Policy” was adopted by both the US Forest Service and National Park Service as their official manual for campground design.
His research showed him a few key insights into the mind of the national park visitor. First, they like to move in loops. The hiker and camper are not satisfied with an out-and-back venture into a forest. Instead they like to walk or drive in circles. Second, they like to hike and camp near pretty things like big trees, bubbling streams, and fields of flowers. Finally, both, left to their own devices, will behave badly. They will drive their big cars over the roots of the big trees, leave their campfire ashes to wash into the bubbling streams, and pitch their tents on the fields of flowers.
Meinecke, a man with no design background whatsoever, attempted to sketch solutions to the problems at hand while keeping these findings in mind. He drew drafts of campsites that embraced a looping design with hardened surfaces for cars to park in “garage spurs” and built-in firepits designed for park rangers to easily empty. His trails through the Sequoias meandered near the big trees, but kept dense, low vegetation between the hiker and the trunks.
Enter any national park today and you will see the implementation of Meinecke’s designs. You will doubtlessly park your car on an asphalt or gravel parking spur and you’ll find a carefully designed nature-loop to hike. Unfortunately, you will also find overflowing pit toilets, a lack of adequate staffing, halted scientific studies, no one to plow the roads, and people defecating behind any bush that has yet to be claimed.
Federal shutdowns happen for a variety of reasons, some more meritorious than others, but all have real consequences. This particular shutdown has allowed visitors to continue recreating in national parks, and that’s a serious problem. Without rangers providing “boots on the ground”, a concept I suspect Dr. Siegel is rather found of, our parks’ resources suffer and, at times, are lost. What the story of Emilio Meinecke reveals, that parks and people need careful regulation and design in order to interact sustainably, can not be lost in the political rhetoric surrounding the government shutdown. His warning is clear:
There can be no doubt that the continuation of the present lack of system and regulation, to which there are but few exceptions, must lead to an intolerable condition. In the not distant future many camp grounds will be practically ruined, and the scarcity of suitable land for the opening of new ones will be the cause of very serious embarrassment to the administration. The rate at which camp grounds are deteriorating and the ever increasing pressure from the travelling public leave little time for action if the huge recreation business on publicly-owned land is to be taken care of.
Thank you to Dr. Terence Young for his scholarship that inspired this entry.