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.