Fix Our Parks

 Don’t feel like reading? Spoiler: the point is, let’s keep national parks accessible. Comment against the proposed entry fee increase here by November 23rd. Please. Okay, read on if so inclined.

In 2015, gearing up for the National Park Service (NPS) Centennial, NPS launched the #findyourpark marketing campaign. The concern was that millenials and urbanites weren’t getting out into national and state parks enough; the solution was a storytelling/adventuresharing/hashtagable call for more stories about outdoor adventures on public lands.

Maybe it was because of the marketing campaign, or maybe interest was already piqued thanks to the Centennial, but whatever the reason, national park visitation in 2016 skyrocketed.

This year, it’s that high visitation has been sustained, at least here in Bar Harbor. As the autumn weather has stayed unseasonably warm, the tourist season has stretched longer than it usually does. Usually, the Park and town empty close on the heels of Indigenous People’s Day (the holiday formerly known as Columbus Day– the name change is officially on the ballot for Bar Harbor’s next election). This year, trails were still dotted with hikers and parking was still in short supply in the end of October. The NPS concerns about declining visitation in parks felt misplaced– if anything, it felt like Acadia was overreaching its visitor capacity.

But last Tuesday, the Department of the Interior announced a plan to increase National Park entry fees in the seventeen most-visited parks of the USA, including Acadia. I started worrying less about Acadia overcrowding, and more about the impacts of drastic increases to entry fees.

An uncrowded view of Acadia.

First, the facts: Fees are slated to increase, in certain parks, from $25 per vehicle per week to $70. The increase, according to the DOI, will bump park revenue and provide more funds for important infrastructure work, a backlog of projects that haven’t been accomplished for years due to limited funds.

Sounds reasonable. Acadia definitely suffers from lack of funds and resulting lack of staff, and many projects get put on hold because there’s just not funding. However, as the DOI was justifying fee hikes as a source of income for parks, it was also recommending reductions in federal funding for the NPS, cutting approximately $300 million from last year’s budget, and reducing the number of full-time employees by 1200-plus.

Since this announcement was made, I’ve run across a variety of responses. Some are positive, or grudgingly positive, about the fee hike. They profess their love and appreciation for the park, and seem to approach this increase with a “well we really should have been paying more all along” attitude. Others argue that entry fee is not prohibitive compared to the costs of traveling and finding lodging near the park, so ultimately this hike is a drop in the bucket. Still others point to crowded trails and hope that this change might just alleviate the pressures of ever-growing interest in parks by dissuading people from visiting.

At first pass, that last argument has a certain appeal. Especially as the high season winds slowly to an end and Acadia’s trails remain crowded, the idea of less park visitation, of unpeopled expanses of pink granite and conifers is immensely tempting.

But it flies in the face of the very origins of the National Park Service, as well as any future it could have.

I’ve been working, this autumn, on a faunal history research project at Acadia. My work has me at the Park Headquarters every day, digging through filing cabinets and digitized archives to search for records of Acadia’s fauna. I’ve come across some real gems of historical papers, aged odes to Acadia from the era of its origin– which, incidentally, was 1916, the very same year the National Park Service was established.

And so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the intentions of the original creators of national parks. The National Park Service was born when Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, which stated this:

The Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein 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 same year, when Acadia National Park (ANP) was born (it started out as Sieur de Monts National Monument), it was baptized with these words from ANP founder, George Dorr:

The adaptation of a great coastal landscape to the annual refreshment of a multitude of men and women seeking happiness and health and energy-physical and mental uplift-after the confinements and fatigues of city life is a matter calling for the best intelligence and skill that can be given it. Rightly done, the benefit– not only to those who come but to the work they do elsewhere and the communities they serve– multiplied by the years, will be immeasurable; wrongly done, a great opportunity will have been lost, perhaps forever.

In both of these, the theme is clear: wild lands and wildlife should be protected, but central to this mission is the opportunity for people now and in the future to use these lands for enjoyment– or rather, to gain “happiness and health and…uplift after the confinements and fatigues of city life”.

You could argue that a fee hike will provide funds to improve Park infrastructure, and thereby increase the ability for Parks to absorb more and more people. You could also argue that maybe the fee hikes will limit visitation, and ultimately serve the land and wildlife better than the current levels of visitation currently do.

But neither of these options sound right to me. Instead, the fee hike sounds like a way to make national parks– already in service to predominantly white and middle-class people— even less accessible to the diversity of people that make up this country. To be honest, even for certain white, middle-class United States citizens (…that’d be me), the idea of a sizable fee for a week of park entry makes the idea of visiting more parks a little less appealing.

And that’s dangerous. The crucial work in #findyourpark is “your”. It’s not #findapark or #findalltheparks, it’s #your park– a place that is personally meaningful to you, a place that has offered you beauty or adventure or respite. I think that requires a sense of accessibility. #findyourpark is not just about an experience, it’s about a relationship, a park that’s reliable, a presence in your life. And, yes, it’s a marketing campaign, so maybe is ultimately rooted in ideas of ownership and consumption– but I think it’s possible, too, to look at #findyourpark as a way of emphasizing the gifts parks offer people, and the sense of responsibility people gain for those parks in that exchange.

When you start making parks a luxury, you take away access and the opportunity for a meaningful relationship between person and park. That translates quickly into a loss of public support for park protection. And soon enough, lands are sold for resource extraction, and that heartsweet pink granite is ripped from the land and sent away to become a countertop far from home. And because no one has grown a tender place in their heart for that pink granite– not to mention the jack pine growing from clefts between the boulders, and the red squirrels chattering in the pine’s branches– it’s all removed, and the broader human and natural ecosystems bear the consequences now, and in the future.

One more quote, this time from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass:

To become naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you will drink, that build your body and fill your spirit…Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.

I can’t see this mindset growing and taking root in a place where national parks are seen as a luxury experience, something available only if you’re willing to shell out significant sums of money.

And I don’t see the DOI announcement as a sign of support for sustaining parks, given the concurrent decisions about decreasing federal park funding, not to mention a pattern of removing protections for the sake of increased resource extraction.

So here is my final point: we get a chance to comment on this proposed hike. And I plan to, and encourage you to, also. If nothing else, maybe just quote Kimmerer, or Dorr, or Congress circa 1916, and urge the administration not to increase fees.

You can submit your comment here. I hope you do.





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