As They Are…Always Changing

The title of this blog is an adaptation of Theodore Roosevelt’s words upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time:

Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.

Roosevelt was talking about a great natural site before it would be protected. Already there were mining designs on sections of the canyon. Parts of it were no longer pristine wilderness, and they aren’t now, nor will be. Now, as then, there are parts of the park designated wilderness and others for heavy tourist use.

I have no illusion that the parks as my traveling companions and I will experience them are truly pristine (save for perhaps the remotest of the Alaska parks), but they are somewhere on a continuum between civilization and wilderness.

Parts of Isle Royale, for instance, were subject to massive logging operations, from which the forest has only recently recovered. The island was also a cottage vacation destination, particularly for the wealthy of Duluth. And it was the place of home and livelihood for fishing families, whose way of life and claim to a home on the island predated the establishment of the park.

Remnants of the Edisen Fishery operation on Isle Royale

As the owners die off, their properties revert to the park, and the Park Service determines which will be maintained for historical importance (such as Edisen Fishery) and which will be left to revert eventually to wilderness, or at least to public use.

Our experience on Isle Royale last August was vastly different than those who experienced the park in the late 1940s, before the wolves arrived and the moose were rampant. Natural changes within the parks are just that, natural. But there are also policy and management decisions by the Park Service, which effect changes in the experience of a park. The Final Wilderness and Backcountry Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (pdf) for Isle Royale National Park, for instance, recommends a policy that, had it been in effect when we were on the island, would have caused our trip to have been quite different. The statement calls for the ability to pre-reserve space in backcountry campgrounds to prevent overcrowding or hikers’ having to press on to another site (usually miles away) if one site is full. In the past, unlucky hikers were turned away, which happened to us at Lane Cove and at Three Mile. The proposed policy makes a huge amount of sense, but it changes the experience. I think that the NPS absolutely should adopt this change, but I’ll always be glad that we got the thrill of adventurous uncertainty.

Researching Olympic National Park to prepare for our visit next month, I’ve been reading about a massive dam removal project. From the press release, dated July 20, 2011:

On September 17, Barnard begins the three-year, $26.9 million removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, the largest project of its kind in U.S. history. The start of dam removal will also set into motion one of the largest restoration projects in the 95-year history of the National Park Service.

The 45-mile long Elwha River is the historic home of all five species of Pacific salmon and has been legendary as one of the Northwest’s most productive salmon streams. Because neither dam provided passage for migratory fish, salmon and other fish have been restricted to the lower five miles of river since dam construction. Removing the two dams will allow fish to access spawning habitat in more than 70 miles of river and tributary stream, most of which is protected inside Olympic National Park.

How cool!

Stewardship of these places and the ecosystems within them is an ongoing project. Each visit throughout all of my and my companions’ journeys to the parks over the next 15 years is about a snapshot, experiencing these places as they are, right now, managed in the present, as well as learning about their pasts and imagining their futures.

An NPS road barricade marked JOTR, for Joshua Tree National Park. Image: Sean M. Santos

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