National Parks Conservation Association
Access to National Parks
Before the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands
U.S. House of Representatives
July 20, 2000
Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee, my name is Kevin Collins and I am a Legislative Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. NPCA is America's only private, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated solely to protecting, preserving, and enhancing the National Park System. NPCA was founded in 1919 and today has more than 400,000 members. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on access to the National Park System.
The National Park System is perhaps the most popular American public institution. More than 287 million people visited the parks in 1999. If the Park System were a country, it would be the third most populated in the world. The National Park System is four times more popular than that other great American institute, Major League Baseball (just 70 million fans last year). Even the Smithsonian pales by comparison—it receives just 35 million visits per year. There is clearly no shortage of public access to the parks.
Even in the face of these extraordinary visitation numbers, however, the National Park Service does a masterful job of making sure that most of those people have a safe, enjoyable, educational, and often unforgettable experience in the parks. The Park Service does its best to accommodate the desires of as many visitors as possible.
Occasionally, however, the desires of some visitors threaten to destroy the substance of the parks themselves or are in direct conflict with the desire of other visitors for high quality experience. In those cases, the Park Service steps in and restricts or prohibits certain activities. We should all be grateful for the diligence of the Park Service in trying to protect America's national parks so that what we enjoy today will be around for our children to enjoy tomorrow.
Instead, we have groundless allegations that the Park Service is somehow locking out members of the public, denying them "access" to the parks. That is a distortion of reality on a par with charges that the United Nations has taken over our national parks.
The real truth is that some people have assumed that they should be free to do anything they want in national parks at any time, regardless of the impacts. Jet skiers want to speed across lakes without a thought for the pollution they are dumping into the water. Snowmobilers feel free to have their engine noise dominate the winter landscape. Tourist flight-seeing companies put profit before parks and fill the skies with helicopters.
Fortunately, these thoughtless users represent a very small minority of the people who love, respect, and enjoy the national parks. There is broad public sentiment that the national parks were not created to be motorized recreation areas. And they weren't created to be multiple use areas where dirt bikes race through one alpine meadow while hikers stroll through another.
The core mission of the National Park System is to preserve unique, nationally significant places, objects, and experiences so that they will remain in their original, unimpaired condition for future generations to appreciate. Many recreational activities can be enjoyed in national parks without compromising that core mission. Some activities cannot. The irony is that for most inappropriate activities, such as jet skiing and snowmobiling, there are thousands of other recreation opportunities available. There is just no legitimate reason why national parks should be misused as motorized recreation areas.
What Does Access to National Parks Really Mean?
The National Park System is open to everyone. It's that simple. Anyone, not just American citizens, but people from all around the world can visit the national parks just about whenever they want.
In the context of national parks, however, "access" does NOT imply a right to do anything we want once we go through the gates. Just like visitors to a great university library, we have access to all the wonderful resources inside, but only if we treat them with respect and behave responsibly. We can't tear pages out of the books or practice our climbing skills on the stacks. Libraries were created for a different purpose, and so were national parks.
National parks are not amusement parks. Their purpose is not to provide thrill rides or to make money through industrialized recreation. Parks provide recreation, yes, but only in the context of learning about and appreciating resources unique to the park itself. A jet skier smashing across the waves at Cape Cod National Seashore is not doing anything that is connected to the values and resources the park was created to protect. It's just another body of water to play in.
Having access to national parks also means having access to all of the elements that make a park special. That includes clean air, natural sounds, undisturbed wildlife, and the scent of woods and flowers. The presence of the motorized machines that the subcommittee is discussing today denies access to these features to all other visitors.
What Are the Responsibilities of National Park Visitors?
Whether you are looking at the 287 million people who visited the National Park System as a whole or the 4.5 million who experienced the Grand Canyon, it is clear that with such huge numbers, individual visitors have some responsibility for the impact they have on park resources.
Most Americans are extremely conscientious when it comes to protecting national parks. Surveys done by NPCA show that the public is very willing to accept some personal inconvenience (such as riding mass transit into parks) if it means the park will be healthier and the overall visitor experience more enjoyable.
The public is even willing to accept limits on park visitation if necessary. In 1998, NPCA asked a random sample of Americans: "Should the National Park Service limit the number of visitors if a park is too crowded?" Eighty-nine percent said yes.
We also asked: "Should the National Park Service limit the number of visitors if the number is harming the park's cultural or natural resources?" Ninety-five percent said yes.
Further, 92 percent said they would personally ride a shuttle or make a reservation to reduce overcrowding.
And finally, a wide majority of Americans agreed that certain activities need to be limited or banned altogether in order to protect parks: 87 percent said overflights should be limited or banned; snowmobiles, 89 percent and; Jet Skis 92 percent.
These Americans know that the real concern is not about "access" to national parks; it's about controlling the excesses that endanger the parks.
What Activities Are Appropriate in National Parks?
There are some activities that are inherently inappropriate for national parks. One example, BASE jumping (parachuting from fixed objects), has had a relatively high public profile because of a death at Yosemite. The Park Service briefly allowed BASE jumping in Yosemite in 1980, but later prohibited it based on safety concerns. For park managers and ordinary visitors, however, the question is really whether seeing skydivers plummet from El Capitan should be part of the Yosemite experience. I think most people would agree that BASE jumping creates a carnival ride atmosphere completely out of context in a national park.
But what about activities that are less clearly high adrenaline stunts? Generally, how should the National Park Service determine what types of activities are appropriate in national parks?
Decisions to allow certain activities in national parks should be based on whether the activity preserves the ecological integrity, natural and historical context, interpretive values, and unique experiences contained within the National Park System. The heart of the issue is: Do we want a visit to Yellowstone National Park to be a unique experience, different from a trip to anywhere else? Again, most Americans would say "yes." It is reasonable, therefore, to expect national parks to be managed differently than national forest, BLM lands, state parks, etc.
This kind of management distinction—that what's right for one place may be totally wrong for another—is one that we have accepted in many other aspects of our lives. We don't put prisons near elementary schools, nuclear plants on earthquake faults, or McDonalds in National Military Cemeteries. Call it what you will—good public policy, common sense, or plain self-preservation—our society recognizes that some things just don't belong together. It makes sense to do the same for our national parks.
Thank you. I would be happy to answer any questions.