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Whither the National Parks?

In light of the interest in the national parks of the United States generated by Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary, I thought that readers might be interested in what I wrote about the parks in my book, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue. I will have some additional thoughts after I view the entire series. I welcome reader comments. I have placed some new explanatory remarks in brackets.  The Addendum provides a sketch of one of the main National Park concessionaires.

Whither Our National Parks

Between early May and late August [of 2004. Since then, we have been to many more parks and monuments], we visited Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest/Painted Desert, Rocky Mountain, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, and Olympic National Parks, and Walnut Creek, Tuzigoot, Sunset Crater Volcano, Wupatki, Bandelier, and Colorado National Monuments. All are national treasures; each one has scenery as dramatic as most persons will ever see: natural bridges and arches, waterfalls, fantastic canyons, buttes, monoliths, and hoodoos, and astonishing rapids. We were in these parks dozens of times. Seldom were we disappointed; almost always we were exhilarated. It is impossible to see the Balanced Rock and Delicate Arch in Arches, Grand View in Canyonlands, the sand beaches and lush foliage in the Narrows in Zion, the thousand-year-old trees in Rainier’s Grove of the Patriarchs, or the eight-hundred-year-old petrified lava flows at Sunset Crater and not be mindful of the vast indifference of nature and our insignificant part in it. The human world, with its relentless injustices and inequalities, is put in sharp relief and made all the more intolerable. In the face of such beauty, it is surely an unforgivable crime for any society to let its people live in misery.

But if the parks are beautiful, they are also the products of the social structures that created them. Yellowstone was our first national park, established in 1872. Already when George Catlin [painter, author, and traveler, 1796-1872] was waxing eloquent about establishing “a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes,” white settlers and the government had begun brutal campaigns to remove the natives from their land. The history of the national parks is marked by systematic and, for the most part, successful efforts to remove indigenous people from them. In Yellowstone, for example, many Indians traversed what is today the park to hunt, but a cornerstone rule in the national parks is that there cannot be any hunting. In some cases the “treaties” entered into by the U.S. government guaranteed the Indian nations traditional hunting rights, but these agreements were routinely broken. (I put treaties in quotes because these treaties were ordinarily faits accomplis made after white settlers had entered and taken possession of land and the government stood ready to ratify this theft by force if necessary.)

Only one group of Indians lived in Yellowstone Park, the Sheepeater Shoshone, who managed to survive in this harsh wilderness, with its killing winters, by hunting and eating the mountain sheep native to the region. The tribe was physically removed from the park in 1879 (in that year fifty-two members of the tribe, mainly women and children, were hunted down and subdued by the U.S. Army after a three-month search). This process of removal from areas designated national parks was repeated again and again. Indians might be tolerated for awhile in the parks, either because they were too numerous to remove at once or because they could be utilized commercially, as hunting guides or performers for the rising number of tourists, but not because the parks had been their land.

Interestingly, the first rationalization for national parks was that they would serve as “monuments,” signifying the grandness of the new nation, just as the human-made monuments of European countries denoted their majesty. They would mark the United States as a great nation, one whose very terrain was more magnificent than that of any other country in the world. That they were not human-made meant that God himself must have singled out this new nation as something special, one which, by its very nature (literally speaking), was Olympian. However, in a country founded upon the transcendence of commerce, it was not long before monetary interests came to the forefront. (Ironically, later rationalizations for the parks were rooted in the notion of communal property, that is, the national parks would belong to all of the people. But at the same time, the communal holding of land and the absence of any concept of private property in many Indian groups were condemned as unnatural, as communistic and a sign of the Indians’ primitive thinking. Many leaders argued that only when the Indians were forced to accept private ownership could they become productive citizens of the United States.)

Spurred on mainly by the burgeoning railroads, the government acquired, by bogus treaty or by force, more land for the national parks. (Constant conflicts occurred between the government and other commercial interests, such as timber and mining companies, and these were resolved in various ways. These commercial interests were not always satisfied, but neither were they ignored. For example, George W. Bush is not opposed to the mining of uranium on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.) [There are thousands of mining claims in land close to the Grand Canyon. The Obama administration has placed a two-year moratorium on new claims in this area, during which it will study whether to permanently protect the land from mining. Only congress, however, can prevent the development of the old mining claims.] Soon a variety of tourist attractions, run by private commercial interests, sprang up and began to make considerable sums of money.

We have given a lot of thought to national park reform. I offer some recommendations, with an acknowledgment to Edward Abbey, who has similar proposals in Desert Solitaire:

1. Sharply reduce the money spent on road construction. As soon as a park has been established, private interests, keen on the arrival of waves of money-bearing motorized tourists, begin petitioning Congress for funding and a frenzy of construction begins. As this process continues, traffic mounts and visitors are stalled for hours in traffic jams. Highways encourage the use of super-sized SUVs and RVs, which slow down traffic further, damage the roads (requiring more repairs), and make accidents more likely.

2. Stop building parking lots and paving trails. At Grand Canyon, a visitor can almost drive a car to the rim by the El Tovar Hotel (named after one of the Spanish imperialist Coronado’s men, who came north aiming at conquest and were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon). Visitors walk from their vehicles or the hotel to an overlook, take a few pictures, and head back to the snack shop for ice cream. Parking lots and paved trails ruin much of the experience of seeing a natural wonder. On one such trail, built for persons with disabilities and from which there are no views of the canyon, workers have actually spray-painted rocks to look like the red earth of the canyon. At one visitor’s center, signs give distances to various buildings in feet so as not to discourage the millions of sightseers who are too unfit to move on foot.

3. Build more trails, maintain existing trails, and encourage exploration. Rangers should lead more excursions into the parks, and they should be teaching us to survive in the wilderness: how to climb, find water, pitch tents, find and prepare food, use a compass, deal with bears and other dangerous animals, ford streams and walk on ice and snow, treat bug and snake bites, identify the things seen on the trails, and dozens of other activities. The rangers should have better job protection and pay.

5. Eliminate the park hotels. The parks ought to be publicly operated, not run by profit-seeking corporations. Expensive private accommodations should be converted into cheap publicly owned hostels and more hostels built, with bunk beds and basic supplies provided. Campgrounds, with water for showers and drinking, should be expanded and more built. Inexpensive nutritious food and tents should be available for sale and rent.

6. Working persons, persons of color, and young people should be actively encouraged to visit. Thousands of “scholarships” should be granted, maybe through a lottery, so that people without means can see their parks. They are supposed to be for everyone, but this is not the case. Their remote locations and commercial focus make them all but inaccessible to people without both time and money. The proportion of park visitors who are people of color (except for Asian tourists) is very much less than the proportion of the population comprised of blacks, Hispanics, and Indians. It is possible to hike an entire day in Rocky Mountain National Park or Arches or even Yellowstone and not see a single person of color. And given the expenses associated with a park visit (gas, entrance fee, camping or motel fees, etc.), poor persons are unlikely ever to come to a national park. Remember the activities I sold at the Lake Hotel. [I was a desk clerk at this famous Yellowstone hotel. Among my many duties, I had to sell activities] Their prices in 2006 [were] as follow: one- and two-hour horseback rides: $34.32 and $54.60; stage coach rides: $9.46; “authentic” Western cookouts: $53.04, extra if combined with a horse ride; guided fishing tours: $148.40 for two hours; several types of bus tours of the park: $26.50 to $58.24; and a photo “safari”: $57.20. [These prices have gone up considerably since 2006, and Xanterra, the Yellowstone concessionaire, has added more activities. Much expanded bus tours now range in price from around $40 to more than $100. The cookout is about $60, and the photo “safari” is about $85.] A family trip to Yellowstone for even a few days will cost a lot. This means that as economic inequality worsens in the United States, the parks will become retreats for those in the top quintile of the income distribution.

7. Prohibit, wherever feasible, automobile traffic in the parks. Have a few large lots at the entrances and shuttles and bikes readily available. This is done now during the summer at Zion National Park, and it works well. [I am opposed to allowing horses on hiking trails. They ruin these, and their excrement is extremely unpleasant.]

8. In conjunction with number 5, forbid concessionaire activities, except perhaps for some cooperative ventures with small local enterprises to supplement what the rangers did. Examples are rafting, pack trips, and the like.

Addendum: Xanterra, National Park Concessionaire

[As I note below, Amfac is now Xanterra.  It is by no means the only National Park concessionaire.  Another one is Aramark, an international company whose contracts have included the Beijing Olympics and many U.S. Prisons.]

The name of our employer, Amfac, was short for American Factor. Amfac had its origins in Hawaii. Among the earliest white immigrants to the islands were Germans, including German-American Lutheran missionaries. As the whites began to exploit Hawaii and expropriate the land of the Hawaiians, missionaries traveled there to Christianize the natives and provide an ideological underpinning for Great Power imperialism. By the time the German sea captain Heinrich Hackfeld got to Hawaii, the theft of the islands was well under way. Hackfeld opened a store, Hackfeld Dry Goods, in Honolulu in 1849, and from this base, built a powerful corporation, not just in retail sales but in the sugar industry. Hackfeld became a “factor” or agent for the sugar growers, an entity that connected the growers with the buyers of sugar. The sugar factors parlayed their control of the lucrative sugar market into control over the plantations themselves. This gave them large tracts of land and the power, both economic and political—Hackfeld had close ties to the Hawaiian queen Liliu’okalani; a shipping friend’s son was the queen’s husband—to gain control of many other businesses. Eventually five conglomerate corporations, named the “Big Five,” came to dominate Hawaii’s economy and politics, so that the entire nation was, in effect, a company town. The companies ruled through a combination of force and benevolence, the latter reflecting the missionary stock of many of the companies’ founders. One of the “Big Five” was H. Hackfeld & Company.

Sugar production was ruinous both to the culture of the Hawaiians—who soon couldn’t even get employment in the fields and mills as the corporations began to import Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino labor—and the land. Sugar eventually destroys the land’s health and that of the workers.

The entry of the United States into the First World War spelled disaster for Hackfeld, whose owners were now enemy aliens. The company’s property was confiscated by the government and sold to the other four corporations, whose owners reorganized it and patriotically renamed the company American Factor, Amfac for short. The company’s retail stores were now named Liberty House. Amfac prospered after the war but began to decline in the 1970s and 1980s as Hawaiian sugar lost its government subsidies and could no longer compete in world markets. Amfac sold off its properties and was eventually bought by a Chicago-based realty company, JMB Realty Corporation. JMB removed itself from Hawaii, and Amfac, now a subsidiary of JMB, entered the hospitality industry, concentrating on obtaining the concessions at national parks. In 2002 Amfac changed its name to Xanterra, probably to completely dissociate itself from its former enterprises and to give itself a new focus. The name Xanterra conveys exotic and beautiful places (Xanadu) on earth (terra). [In 2008, Xanterra was bought by Denver billionaire Phillip Anschutz.  Among his holdings is AEG Live, one of the world’s largest private promoters of live events and operator of the Staples Center (home of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings). AEG Live was the promoter for Michael Jackson’s comeback tour.]

Today Xanterra owns the concessions at many national and state parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, the Everglades, and Crater Lake. The company continues a long history of private enterprise in national parks. First the railroads saw a chance to make money bringing in tourists and building hotels for them. Other businesses soon followed; today profit-making operations are integral to the parks. This rampant commercialization is depressing. When you can see a spectacular full moon shining luminously over [Lake Yellowstone] amid a million stars or see trout swimming upstream to spawn or a moose eating by a mountain river, why would you be attracted to a corny stagecoach ride?

It is ironic that Xanterra, which in its past identity as H. Hackfeld & Company and Amfac wreaked environmental and social havoc in Hawaii and treated its workers and resources as exploitable commodities, now promotes itself as a steward of the parks and an environmental watchdog. The company pitches itself to its employees and customers as a leader in corporate environmental practices: recycling, composting, green cleaning products in the hotels, pollution controls for the tour buses, cleaner engines for rented snowmobiles, propane boilers, and no over-fished seafood and some organic foods on menus. Environmentalism on the cheap. It has created a name for its environmental programs—Ecologix. Of course, it is better that the company do these things than not. But it would be better still if the national parks were run as nonprofit public entities. There is no social need for Xanterra.

One Response to Whither the National Parks?

  1. Louis Proyect October 4, 2009 at 7:50 pm #

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/indian/blackfoot.htm

    I want to conclude this article with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah, or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July, 1996 edition of “Environmental History.”

    The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus–the first invader–arrived.

    The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the “most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe.” “Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfeet universe.”

    While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison-hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

    What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that its architect was none other than George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was not only a park administrator, but a friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot story-tellers and this allowed him to put into print the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales.” Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians,” this did not prevent him from declaring Glacier National Park off-limits to a people he supposedly admired. Of course, without any self-consciousness he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man.” When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s, when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while banning them from the park.

    Spence has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales” and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

    Spence concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators never really went away:

    “By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

    “By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the ‘Red Power’ movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet ‘threat’ as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had been buried in the 1930s.”

    A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the “wilderness” makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

    The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the pre-capitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of “Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains.” (Island Press, 1998) I will conclude with his suggestion for a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and animals that were once theirs:

    “The basic Indian goal is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. As Fred DuBray puts it, ‘We recognize that the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.’ In Mark Heckert’s view, this could be called sustainable agriculture ‘because you can get what you need to survive without inordinately disrupting the system,’ and the result would be self-governing tribes in which the bison are thriving again, the ceremonies have been revived, and the bond between Indian people and the bison has been reestablished. At Pine Ridge there is an ongoing program of teaching stewardship: grandparents go into the schools and explain to the children that all the parts of the natural order are necessary and interrelated; they pass on the store of traditional knowledge that has been kept in the memories of the elders of the community The comeback of the sacred bison–and, more specifically, the appearance of a one-in-a-million white bison–would ‘mean a spiritual recharge for our people,’ as Alex White Plume puts it. ‘There’s talk locally that the time is approaching, so people are beginning to get ready, learning the old songs and revitalizing the ritual that they need to go through. It might be within the next ten years. I hope it’s during my time.'”

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