Review: Stephen Pyne on the National Parks

Its national parks may be, as novelist-conservationist Wallace Stegner once claimed, America’s “best idea,” but they make an eccentric institution. Each park results from a separate act of Congress, each with its own quirks. From 1872 to 1916 the parks had no dedicated agency to administer them and were largely run by the US Cavalry. Since its founding in 1916 the National Park Service has added to its founding charge oversight for historic sites, recreation areas, urban public spaces, and national monuments. Taken together they look less like a system than a bag of prized marbles. That they face challenges today should surprise no one.

Two National Park Service veterans, Gary Machlis, a sociologist, and Michael Soukup, a limnologist (studier of lakes and fresh water) have in a new book undertaken to reflect on why the parks matter “—in fact, why they are vital—,” making the case that “America needs a National Park Service ready for tomorrow.” They want Americans to imagine their parks as more than pleasuring grounds and scenic pullouts: they propose re-envisioning them as laboratories for science, places of refuge for threatened species, libraries of our natural heritage, models of healthy landscape, alternatives to commercially driven urban lives, and points of positive ecological infection to counter humanity’s mounting degradation of nature. And they want Americans to regard their relationship to the parks as more than a commercial or political contract. They want a covenant, one that connects generations.

Machlis and Soukup identify the usual suspects that menace parks from outside their borders, focusing on great natural parks—the “crown jewels” of America’s lands—such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and their preferred paradigm, Everglades. Everglades’ critical waters have been diverted, and tainted, to supply vegetable and sugar cane farms and housing; its biota is overrun with exotic flora and fauna, from ornamental melaleuca to Burmese pythons sold as exotic pets; its borders are squeezed by the metropolitan sprawl of Miami; and now climate change and a rising sea threaten to transform its rivers-of-grass freshwater glades into saltwater lagoons.

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Comparable conflicts afflict other parks, and public lands generally—for that matter, the nation’s landed estate as a whole—as a fossil-fuel civilization tightens its chokehold and humanity kneels heavily on nature. These perils are largely beyond the control of the Park Service. While the parks and the Park Service are popular, the politically astute have observed that enthusiasm is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Social and political indifference challenge the agency as much as pollution and feckless land use do the parks it oversees.

The authors focus on what is within the Park Service’s reach, which points to reforms in the agency itself.  The National Park Service was created at a time when the parks needed to build roads and accommodations; to promote nature travel to wealthy and middle-class tourists; to fight fires and keep visitors from damaging sequoias or feeding bears. The new agency retained many of its predecessor’s values—even its uniform descends from the cavalry, complete with campaign hat and jodhpur trousers.

Hence the park ranger lingers as a curious beast. Unlike comparable staff in the Forest Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service, the position requires no technical training. Rather, the park ranger is a generalist by design—mostly concentrating on visitor services (“bears don’t phone their Congressman”)—and from the ranger ranks the agency has traditionally drawn its managerial caste. The Park Service managed visitors, nature managed itself. Organizationally, it resembles a feudal order, with superintendents functioning like barons, each with a fiefdom.

But that is no longer good enough. Environmental and political changes, all quickening, have weakened both the parks and their nominal overseers. With exotic species, lost species, unhinged fire regimes, climate change, the hydrology of the maybe-not-so-ever glades—nature needs management, if with a light hand, and for that the agency needs appropriate science to understand the issues and prescribe effective responses. In reply, Soukup and Machlis want environmental science to inform Park Service policy rather than simply serve up interpretive signs on a nature walk; and they want a career ladder that will ensure that future park superintendents will have an honest appreciation for how science can help define problems in solvable ways and measure outcomes.  Managing Yellowstone for climate change requires different skills than managing the occasional rogue bear or tourist vandal.

This slim book will likely find its audience among those people who go to the visitor center bookstore after the overlook. The language is accessible and occasionally wry. The arguments are heartfelt and digestible. The specialist may long for some finer details (a closer edit might have correctly captioned Cape Royal at Grand Canyon, for instance), but the authors have chosen not to write a scholarly or policy-wonkish work because they recognize that theirs is a political and social mission, and they need to appeal to the people whose values and votes will decide the future.  Without advocates, competition for resources among institutions, bureaucratic inertia within the Park Service, and overwhelming environmental threats will doom the parks, and wrest from the natural world one of its most durable footholds. 

When dams threatened the Grand Canyon in the 1960s, the Sierra Club famously asked, If we can’t save Grand Canyon, what can we save? The dangers today are more varied, powerful, and complex. They need science as well as slogans, data as much as vistas. They need an informed public and a scientifically literate Park Service to help do the informing. They need agency veterans like Gary Machlis and Michael Soukup who appreciate how to counter outside threats with inside solutions.


Stephen J. Pyne is a life science historian and author most recently of The Great Ages of Discovery: How Western Civilization Learned About a Wider WorldIn a former life he spent eighteen seasons with the National Park Service, fifteen as a member of the North Rim Longshots fire crew. He wrote about forest fires for Book Post in September, 2019, as commercially lit fires in the Amazon threatened global carbon absorption.


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