You Don’t Deserve Your National Parks

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Yes, you read that right.

You don’t deserve your National Parks.

In the last few weeks two of my good friends and former coworkers have written blog posts about personal encounters with rude and self-righteous visitors to the National Parks that left me reeling, but sadly unsurprised. I have worked for five seasons at two National Parks, and experiences like the ones chronicled in those posts (you can read them here and here) are a major reason I chose to leave the Park Service. I guess you could say that I didn’t have the backbone for it.

There will always be difficult people in the world, yes. But in my last season with the Park Service I noticed a growing trend in visitors arriving in the parks with a massive sense of entitlement. Many were angry that they had to pay additional fees to enter the park, to enjoy basic services, or to join guided tours. A lot felt they were above the rules posted clearly on signs and in the park literature designed to keep both the visitor and the resource safe. Plenty were just mad at the current state of the federal government, and decided to take it out on the first civil servant they encountered – that uniformed park ranger asking them to please not throw orange peels/cigarette butts/coffee grounds out of their car window, or to please stay on the trail, or who was simply stationed at an overlook to answer questions with a smile.

It all came to a head for me during the shutdown last October, when I was stuck in my house without any idea of when I’d work again or whether or not I’d get a paycheck I depended on. It seemed like any time I turned on the TV or opened a page on the internet someone was lambasting the Park Service for denying the public a ‘natural born right’. They said there was no reason the parks should be closed. People were regularly breaking past barriers and damaging park property to make this point.

 You think you own whatever land you land on

 The earth is just a dead thing you can claim.

These lines repeated over and over in my head during the shutdown (and yes, I did just quote a Disney princess. Pocahontas was always my favorite).

None of us deserve our National Parks. If we did, there would be no need for them. The fact that it takes a crew of hundreds, sometimes thousands, to protect and preserve just one national park (not to mention the numbers it takes to maintain all 401 units of the National Park System[i]), speaks to that. And the fact that so many still don’t realize this, still think the land should be free for them to use in whatever way they like whenever they like, backs this idea up. We may have deserved our wild spaces at one point, but then we started destroying them. So much so that a group of forward-thinking people convinced our government of the need 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.”[ii] When people imply or straight up declare that a park shouldn’t be closed, or a fee shouldn’t be charged, or a rule shouldn’t be enforced, they are insulting all the hard work that goes into preserving that place. And that’s a lot of work.

Without the hardworking rangers your entrance fees pay to employ, who would answer your questions, rescue you when you need help, or maintain the roads that take you to these beautiful places (a huge percentage of National Park visitors never walk more than a few feet from their car, after all)? Those trails you love to hike don’t build and maintain themselves. Who would construct and then clean the toilets and the trashcans you use, or clean up after those who choose to forgo those toilets and trashcans? Who would manage the invasive species choking so many parks and their indigenous flora and fauna? Those invasives were almost always introduced directly or indirectly by humans, after all – who would clean up that mess? Who would build and maintain safe campsites – places where hazard trees have been removed and methods of proper waste disposal have been installed so that you can enjoy the solitude you so deserve? Who would keep developers from profiting off those million dollar views? Who would keep poachers from mounting that animal you’ve come hundreds of miles to see on his wall? And how would you know where to even start your visit to this place, without a visitor center to stop in? Or a website to visit? Or, at the very least, a map to peruse? Where do you think all of these things come from? It all starts with that ranger in the entrance station collecting your fees. Without that flat hat and cash register, none of these things can happen.

While there is certainly a population of park visitors who don’t make use of many of the services listed above, they make up a very small percentage of people in the parks. And within that small percentage, an even smaller number actually use park lands responsibly in a way that truly leaves little or no impact. The vast majority of visitors to the National Parks would not be able to enjoy these places without all of these services and more. And the thing that gets me is that these are the people who insist that access to these lands is their right.

It is not your right. It is your privilege.

Sure, you paid your taxes, and that should count for something. But it’s likely that less than $5.00 of your annual taxes ever makes it to a National Park in any given year.[iii] Instead of whining about entrance fees, how about you demand your congressional representatives appropriate more funds to protecting these sacred spaces? If the big wigs in DC didn’t also take the parks for granted, didn’t always assume that they will be there waiting for us no matter what, didn’t view them as a right, but instead as a privilege – maybe they’d take funding them a little more seriously.

The park I worked at was fully staffed the day we re-opened following the shutdown. We were overjoyed to be back at work again, and were eager to welcome the crowds to celebrate with us. So much had been made of our closure, and so many had declared their anger. Certainly they’d show their support on this bittersweet day. We were prepared.

But there was no line at the gate. Visitation wasn’t any more than it would have been without the shutdown – in fact it was less. So many rallied when we closed, but so few showed their support when we opened. The first person I talked to that morning approached me with a chuckle. “I hope you enjoyed your vacation,” he quipped, “because mine was ruined thanks to your little show.” I tried my best to stay pleasant, but was fuming on the inside.

I had many more interactions like this one over that day. And then finally, the greeting I had been waiting for:

“Hello,” said an older man as he entered the building, “I am so happy that you’re here.”

Now that’s more like it.

 

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_areas_in_the_United_States_National_Park_System

[ii] National Park Service Organic Act, 16 U.S.C.1.

[iii] http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2010/11/typical-americans-income-tax-contribution-towards-national-parks-little-more-cost-latte7254

13 thoughts on “You Don’t Deserve Your National Parks

  1. A co-worker was harassed just last night at a bear jam, because she asked a gentlemen to move his car farther off the road so it wasn’t blocking traffic. There are understanding, kind, and polite visitors, but it’s the ones who decided to take it out on you who keep you up at night.
    Very well written and I hope you return to the green and grey uniform soon! 🙂
    Oh…. can you come write my blog as well? 😉

  2. M, this makes me think of one of my worst experiences at ISKY, which sadly enough didn’t come from just another visitor, it came from my grandfather. When they were visiting one summer I took them out to Mesa Arch since that was the only hike they could take. Knowing my grandfather’s propensity to feed birds and knowing the ravens at Mesa Arch I reminded him not to feed them. But, we were not back from the hike five minutes when he fed them right in front of me. I asked him to stop, but he did not. The fact that someone in my own family could have so much disrespect for me and for the place I loved so much galled me beyond words. To this day when I try to explain why his actions hurt me he just smiles and ignores what I’m saying. Talk about not deserving the parks…

  3. Hi,

    I have taken my 3 kids on vacations to national parks around the us for years. And we love it. we are polite, grateful, amazed and in wonderment at every park we get to.

    And at almost EVERY park, we encounter horrifically RUDE and entitled rangers and park employees!.

    It is hilarious to me that you call us visitors “rude and selfrighteous” cuz thats EXACTLY what we think of you!

    You guys are always threatening families with “expulsion”for tiny human errors!! ….yes, like parking in a way you all dont like; and over other silly things like a baby crying or a 5 year old who == as you say == may accidentally drop a small piece of an orange peel somewhere!!!!! Really???? do you guys really feel its cool to berate mothers of small children and babies (visiting NATIONAL parks!!!) for behaving like all babies and little children do?

    We love the parks and go regardless BUT we always notice that the park employees want to kick everyone out and ruin their vacations! And your blog now confirms that!!!

    You want all of us to go away and leave the parks to you!

    That is sick! That is a terrible.

    AND REALLY SORRY GUYS, BUT YOU DO NOT OWN THE PARKS!

    WE PAY TAXES SO YOU HAVE THE PRIVILEGE OF WORKING THERE! And you guys regularly ruin peoples visits with your lousy attitudes of superiority! Which your blog post perfectly displays!

    You park employees seem to have a culture of being as mean and insulting and grumpy as possible to all visitors. You guys LOOK for reasons to be mean and threatening to visitors….. It is so pronounced that we all joke about it.

    You rage on in your blog that we visitors dont “deserve” parks? Do any of you ever consider that the national parks DO BELONG TO AMERICANS! THAT WE PAY FOR THEM (and your salaries!) through our taxes? I believe the American people do deserve to visit the national parks of the USA. I believe that is literally the point of the parks! And if you hate visitors so much , go work elsewhere!

    You suggest that visitors should be nicer to you!!?? Has it ever occurred to you to be nicer to the visitors?

    Cuz == just so you know == we are all VERY NICE TO YOU GUYS CUZ WE ARE SCARED TO DEATH OF YOUR THREATS AND GRUMPINESS!!!!! Its you guys who are not nice!

    It is mean of you to complain that some visitors are upset about the added fees you guys impose? You act like they should just pay and shut up…..did it ever occur to you that those visitors might not have the $? That we looked on line,researched the cost, saved to get to the park (often with friends and families), then get blindsided by new additional fees that we do not have the $ for……and then YOU GET MAD AT US? And you write blogs insulting us? Insulting us for not being rich? really? You are proud of that?

    You feel fine complaining about your $ and lost salary (as you did in your blog) but where is your compassion for others who visit the parks who may be out of work as well?

    ever think of that?

    FINALLY, You have the Audacity — after slamming all of us visitors as rude, selfish, cheap, etc…- to suggest that we should all gush over you and effusively tell you “thank you” and “have a nice day” when you all are so so horrible to deal with? how about this: Be nice, and people will be nice back to you! try that instead of your nasty blog!

    Net net, you park employees are right up there as the worst and meanest and most passive aggressive nasty govt bureaucratic employees of all time! You regularly ruin family vacations via your mean spirited condemning culture. So your complaining blog comes as no surprise!

    Ps there are always a few nice employees at the parks, who honestly want to help and who are just good people. whats funny is that those good employees all seem to be scared of and mistreated by the mean rangers as well. We laugh with the nice employees about the meanies, roll our eyes with them, and try to enjoy (and learn from) our great parks despite you all!

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