Earlier this month, Yosemite National Park announced a $235-million dollar plan to tackle overcrowding and traffic. The plan would increase parking by 11% and campsites by 37%, allowing for 20,000 visitors per day. Now, I have to ask, what kind of “wilderness experience” can you have in what can only be called a small, mobile city of 20,000? (Not including the temporary and permanent park staff, of course.) I think the question here should not be, how can we pack more people into the “wild,” but rather, whether or not we should.
I suppose we should first consider the idea that people don’t go to national parks for a wilderness experience. (I use the term “wilderness experience” lightly, as you will later see why.) The very infrastructure of our national parks leaves the idea of wilderness more to the imagination than to any real physical experience. I can only describe Yellowstone as an amusement park. Less than 10% of Yellowstone’s 3 million annual visitors enter the backcountry, leaving the rest to putter down the highway in an eternal traffic jam of RVs and bus tours.
But the 3 million people must come to Yellowstone for a reason. An escape from civilization, perhaps? But as William Cronon states in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” the idea of wilderness is merely a product of civilization.
Wilderness came to embody the national frontier myth, standing for the wild freedom of America’s past and seeming to represent a highly attractive natural alternative to the ugly artificiality of modern civilization. The irony, of course, was that in the process wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape. Ever since the nineteenth century, celebrating wilderness has been an activity mainly for well-to-do city folks. Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.
– William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness“
As an avid backpacker, hiker, overall connoisseur of the outdoors, Cronon’s idea is exceedingly humbling. But I can’t deny its truth. The amusement park nature of our national parks does more damage than good – not just to the land, but to our cultural mentality and attitude toward wilderness. Yes, the scenery is powerful, awe-inspiring, but it’s tame. The waterfalls are kept carefully within metal boundaries and the wildlife is best viewed from the safety of an RV. Our treatment of wilderness is liken to that of the conqueror and the conquered.
This brings up a larger issue than overcrowding in national parks. I firmly believe that if one is to vote and fight in favour of legislation to protect the environment, one must have an appreciation for it. You have to experience it and understand the importance of preserving our natural spaces. But is the manner in which we enjoy our natural spaces conducive to their preservation?
In the coming weeks, I will explore the idea of what wilderness means to us as a society, how our national parks are failing us (and themselves), and ways in which we can redefine our relationship with the wild.