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Loving them to Death?: Crowding and the National Park Experience After Desert Solitaire

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The national parks are often considered to be one of America’s greatest achievements. Through a rich and sometimes tumultuous history, the national parks have been shaped from unwanted swaths of

The national parks are often considered to be one of America’s greatest achievements. Through a rich and sometimes tumultuous history, the national parks have been shaped from unwanted swaths of land into some of the most famous landscapes in the country. There are ultimately two conflicting goals of the national parks: provide enjoyment for the American people and protect the land. In recent years, increased popularity of the parks has made achieving these dual goals particularly difficult. Crowding in the parks leads to both ecological and social problems that threaten both goals of the national parks. Crowding is a multifaceted issue that must be explored from multiple perspectives.

Using Zion as a case study, the problems of crowding are explored and evaluated. First the history of the national parks is described to determine how the parks were created and popularized. After exploring the history of the parks, crowding in the national parks will be
discussed, including an overview of some of the significant social science literature exploring
crowding and its impact on visitor experience. This analysis will conclude with an examination
of visitor management strategies and an examination of the park-specific literature about the specific problems and decisions confronting managers at Zion National Park. A personal account of a visit to Zion during the peak season will provide a personal narrative about the meaning and purpose of the park experience.

The final section of this thesis will consider a range of opposing views on the philosophy of national parks and the park experience, centering around the ideas of Abbey, to address the deeper questions surrounding the goals of park management as we likely more toward an even more crowded park future. Ultimately the paper concludes that the parks has shifted irrevocably away from the ideals of Abbey, although his voice still provides inspiration to generations of park lovers. Additionally, while hard limits must eventually be set, in an era of increasing human influence, the park experience will need to be redefined to be more expansive and inclusive of all who wish to visit and enjoy.

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  • 2019-05

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Former to future: preservation in the U.S. national parks

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For more than 100 years, the Unite States National Park Service (NPS) has been guided by a mandate to preserve parks and their resources for the enjoyment of present and

For more than 100 years, the Unite States National Park Service (NPS) has been guided by a mandate to preserve parks and their resources for the enjoyment of present and future generations. But all parks are subject to conditions that may frustrate preservation efforts. Climate change is melting the glaciers. Rising seas are sweeping away protected shorelines. Development projects, accompanied by air, water, light, and noise pollution, edge closer to parks and fragment habitats. The number of visitors and vested interests are swelling and diversifying. Resources for preservation, such as funds and staff, seem to be continuously shrinking, at least relative to demand.

Still, the NPS remains committed to the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage. Yet the practice of that promise is evolving, slowly and iteratively, but detectably. Through explorations of legal and scholarly literature, as well as interviews across the government, non-profit, and academic sectors, I’ve tracked the evolution of preservation in parks. How is preservation shifting to address socio-ecological change? How has preservation evolved before? How should the NPS preserve parks moving forward?

The practice of preservation has come to rely on science, including partnerships with academic researchers, as well as inventory and monitoring programs. That shift has in part been guided by goals that have also become more informed by science, like ecological integrity. While some interviewees see science as a solution to the NPS’s challenges, others wonder how applying science can get “gnarly,” due to uncertainty, lack of clear policies, and the diversity of parks and resources. “Gnarly” questions stem in part from the complexity of the NPS as a socio-ecological system, as well as from disputed, normative concepts that underpin the broader philosophy of preservation, including naturalness. What’s natural in the context of pervasive anthropogenic change? Further, I describe how parks hold deep, sometimes conflicting, cultural and symbolic significance for their local and historical communities and for our nation. Understanding and considering those values is part of the gnarly task park managers face in their mission to preserve parks. I explain why this type of conceptual and values-based uncertainty cannot be reduced through science.

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  • 2019