It’s a common trope I hear these days that our National Parks are “being loved to death.” (Looking at you New York Times). While much of the conversation is accurate and valid-that our parks are seeing record, unsustainable number of visitors, budget strains, and unmanageable waste calling it “love” misses the mark and the larger, systemic problem at hand.
If what is happening in our National Parks is “love,” it’s the love akin to swiping right. Love would imply stewardship, responsibility and deep, mutual connected-ness. Yet, we collect parks like Tinder matches, as we stamp our passports and vie for fleeting likes and followers, with our parks playing the pretty background. Moreover, this “love” for our National Parks is not translating into higher budgets, larger and more robust protections, nor a collective environmental consciousness. It is, however, allowing for the continued commodification and commercialization of our public lands.
America’s “Greatest Idea,” to instill within an industrial culture so disconnected sense of re-connection and wonder has fallen victim to the inevitable effects of industrialism itself. The very nature of capitalism leaves nothing sacred, nothing holy enough to prevent its parceling and selling, including our sacred National Parks. Concessionaires like Xanterra and Aramark make billions off of our parks in a Walmart-esque race to the bottom. They hire young students and college graduates, provide squalid living conditions, and barely enough salary for employees to afford the bare necessities. According to Indeed.com, the average salary for a server at Xanterra is a measley $8.70/hour. In Yosemite, concessionaire Delaware North is in litigation over the names of famous landmarks, including the Ahwahnee Lodge and the iconic logo of Half Dome. (Ahwahnee is actually the name of an Indian Village, so I’m very confused as to how a U.S. Corporation has the rights to it…) Furthermore, private online booking agent Reserve America runs the majority of camping reservations on Public Lands, obtaining sweeping user data and cashing in on what should be a public resource.
If the National Park Service expects visitors to cherish and “love” our parks, we must treat public lands with the sanctity and reverence they deserve. A real ethic of stewardship and respect for ALL life must be the ideal in mission and in action. This leaves no room for cheap contracts, no matter how good the deal seems. As most people know, if it seems too good to be true it probably is. Of course, the NPS needs a higher budget, yet more than anything we, as a culture, need a new land ethic. We need connection. We need solace from capitalism, not more of its insidious tentacles woven into wild spaces.
We go to our Parks to find our higher selves, to quiet our minds, to connect to something bigger. With every new cheap contract signed, with every new monstrous RV digesting peace and silence, with every plastic selfie stick and egoist Instagram post, we’re losing the magic of our National Parks. I believe we can find it again, but it will take a shift to which we are all responsible for creating. Like Terry Tempest Williams lost in the silence and terror in Timpanogos Cave, or Edward Abbey wild and free on the Colorado River, creating a new land ethic will require listening. It will require slowing down and paying attention to the howl of the coyote, to the whispers of desert rain. It will require paying attention to the dance of the june beetle and monarch butterfly. It will require keeping the damned capitalists the hell away.
“Never for money, always for love…”