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The Carletonian

Share With Us the West: Accessibility and Education in the NPS

<tional Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.
      – National Park Service mission statement

Before January, I had not thought very deeply about what wilderness was, or how we treat it. My family did not camp regularly, but I attended fieldtrips with elementary school to places like the International Crane Foundation and water treatment plant, and went on a few trips with friends’ families. I have been aware of things like waste management and vehicle use, and the impacts of human consumption on the environment, but beyond lessons I learned earlier in school and ranger talks at the local parks, I have not intimately engaged in the debates and conversations surrounding American Wilderness and preservation. That is why I decided to participate in this seminar. I had engaged with ideas of the American West, and took special interest in the contradictions of the West as simultaneously undeveloped and tamed by civilization. After visiting the Grand Canyon, I have a better understanding of how that contradiction plays out and is embodied within the immense natural wonder of the world.

As I looked out the bus window at the towering Saguaro cacti, expansive vistas, roomy highway, and sprawling cities during our drive from the Phoenix International Sky Harbor airport to Grand Canyon National Park, Roy Roger’s song “Don’t Fence Me In” entered my head; there to stay for nearly the entirety of our trip. I hummed it to myself during that drive, sang it quietly as we descended into the canyon for our wilderness experience, and shared the song with Shannon the Mule as we looked over the Grand Canyon on our final day at the national park. It’s a cowboy song about a man in favor of roaming the open country under starry skies, who can’t look at horse hobbles and can’t stand fences. The song makes sense in spaces like Arizona and the Grand Canyon.

The drive presented a dichotomy of old and new as the Saguaros, each dating hundreds of years old, contrasted what our driver told us were newly completed overpasses, with perfectly manicured, gravel spiral-snake designs. The snake patterns resembled ancient Native American petroglyphs, ineffectively attempting to age the new structures. The idea that overpasses can appropriate Native American symbols reveals the thorough consumption of first peoples’ culture. As we entered the park, old and new once again drew my attention. The old, majestic El Tovar hotel sat sturdily at the edge of the Grand Canyon, evoking grandeur of its own. So, too, did the Kolb Brothers studios and other antiquated buildings. Inside however, these buildings were brimming with new merchandise, and El Tovar’s entrance was flanked by shiny, luxury sports cars. During our visit I found it impossible to escape the newness our presence as human beings has imposed on the Canyon; even the trails we trammeled had been carefully constructed for our safety and pleasure through the ancient rock formations of the canyon.

This has given me a lot to think about in relation to the National Park Service’s mission to preserve parks for our enjoyment, education, and inspiration. I understand that with five million visitors annually, they cannot afford to have zero facilities or structures for guests, and I do appreciate, to a certain degree, the luxury behind those amenities so we can comfortably enjoy the beautiful expanse of the Grand Canyon. The existence of a public bus line and grocery store threw me for a loop though, as I had not considered those as part of a visit to the Grand Canyon, or any national park for that matter. Overall, the existence of Grand Canyon Village and the South Rim visitor center area is small compared to the expansive canyon, and I think they do a good job monitoring their impact on the surrounding environment, yet after spending significantly more time at the park than most visitors, I found the presence of these features distracting, suffocating, and itchy. People go to the national park to see the Grand Canyon, not to see the mule barn or visitor center. Yet, upon arrival these are prominent features and destinations. Upon visiting one of the Kolb studios, excited to engage in the parks mission to preserve the park for our education, one is instead bombarded by postcards, souvenirs, and imported “Native American Look” jewelry. Hungry for lunch after learning from a park ranger about the impact our litter has on native animal species, perhaps inspired to create change, you go to the Phantom Ranch canteen to get a plastic-bagged lunch full of prepackaged, shiny-wrapped foods—the very stuff the rangers told us to consume sparingly. Furthermore, the NPS mission to “cooperate with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world” seemed in great part reliant on its relationship with the concessionaire company Xanterra, which promoted the commodification of resource conservation. The production of the abundance of trinkets Xanterra sells in a year from Grand Canyon National Park surely presents tangible risks to natural resources in China, Singapore, Mexico, and other global factory communities.

During our stay at the Grand Canyon, I saw innumerable contradictions of this sort, which after lots of contemplation, I still do not feel comfortable digesting in relation to the National Park Service mission. Are we, as humans, capable of enjoying wilderness without impacting it or permanently changing its landscape? After our visit, despite the National Park Service attempts to minimize impact and restrict our access to wilderness, I believe we cannot. The idea of wilderness “pre-humans” is impossible to imagine and restore, but I don’t think preserving it in the state it was when we encountered it is much better either. It doesn’t sit well with me.

After interviewing some of the rangers for my project, however, I see how to varying degrees they believe it is possible to at least move forward with minimal impact on the park by inspiring visitors to treat the canyon with respect, and foster a feeling of ownership over its creatures, plants, and geology. Engaging with the rangers in a visitor capacity as well as a researcher capacity has allowed me to consciously acknowledge that their work can inspire people. After two days of interviews, I was asked if I had ever considered a career in the National Park Service. This question surprised me, and led me to think that my newfound passion for the park, and dissatisfaction with the consumerism, was misdirected. Through sharing the park’s wonders with visitors, the rangers are able to focus on the thing that really matters to them: wilderness preservation. By sharing the cool things they know about the canyon, rangers have the ability to inspire visitors to think more deeply about their impact on the park, and there is something about that that appeals to me. It is one thing to simply tell people to pick up their trash, and another to tell them the impact their litter has on the environment. The rangers I have talked to seem to understand the contradiction inherent in their mission yet find ways to make their work meaningful and important regardless.

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