Summer is approaching. Soon coach buses filled to maximum capacity will deposit thousands of camera-toting tourists at popular and easy-to-access scenic points in our national parks. In Yosemite Valley, the most popular spot in one of the most visited parks, the roads will resemble the bumper-to-bumper traffic of major metropolitan expressways, with competition for a parking spot as fierce as it is in Lincoln Park.
The connection with nature that many visitors come for will prove elusive. The hordes arriving en mass will not pause to observe how others shed the noise of civilization at the park gate. They will visit with their eyes and their mouths but not with their brains or their hearts.
But, it’s a free country, and Roosevelt’s words remind us the parks are “for the benefit and the enjoyment of the people,” even those in gleaming white tennis shoes towing screaming children and large sodas. We have to share the parks, even with them.
But, to these hordes: let’s just get a few things straight.
Fear. You need to bring some. A national park is not Disney World. The parks were not built for the amusement of tourists or with their safety in mind. It is not your playground. A dangerous cliff that drops 1,000 feet into a ravine was not designed to thrill and delight you as you teeter on the edge for a hilarious “Hey-look-I’m-about-to-fall-off-the-edge’” photo op.
The trails are not “attractions.” You cannot climb 4,250 feet in 5 miles to Mt. Brown Lookout wearing flip flops and a giant purse as though you are queuing for Space Mountain. A little fear is healthy. It shows you have respect for the damage the wilderness can do to you.
Trash. If you drop your trash on the ground, a dapper groundskeeper in a red-and-white striped shirt and suspenders is not going to come along and sweep it up. It’s going to stay there for a million years.
Would you throw the crusts of your sandwich and the wrapper it came in on your bedroom floor? No? Then don’t throw it on the forest floor either, because that is nature’s bedroom. Turn the tables. How would you like it if a deer came and threw up in your bed? That’s nature’s garbage. And you would hate it.
The national parks belong to the plants and animals that live there. Be a good houseguest. Don’t ruin the last bit of land they have because you’re too lazy to find a garbage can.
What’s that? You say your apple core is biodegradable?
Did your apple grow on a tree in the middle of the Virgin River in Zion National Park? Then your core doesn’t belong there.
Souvenirs. They come from the gift shop, not from the trail. But it’s just one little rock, and I really want to remember this trip, you say? Everyone really wants to remember their trip, because the parks are awesome. You don’t have special privileges just because you really want it. How would you like it if someone came into your house and took your stuff? Every part of the natural world has a function. We’ve interfered with that system enough, so please leave stop making it worse.
Animals. Don’t feed them. This isn’t a petting zoo. Feeding wild animals is selfish. You do it for your own amusement, not because that squirrel really might starve it you don’t give it some fries. Animals eat the crap you feed them instead of the stuff they’re supposed to, and it messes up the food chain. Stop interfering with the system. It works really well.
Smokers. People fly for hours, then drive for hours, and wake up at 4:30am to hike the Narrows to get some fresh air, not a whiff of your cigarette. Please don’t smoke on the trail. I leave Chicago to get away from the stink.
Even in Roosevelt’s day, people acted like spoiled children in the parks, etching their names into rocks and trees and such. (That reminds me—don’t carve your name in things.) When he said for the “enjoyment of the people,” that’s not quite what he had in mind. He also said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each on must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worth of its good fortune.”
Today, despite their protected status, the parks are still in danger because of the hordes of people who visit but don’t consider the mark they leave behind. They aren’t worthy of their good fortune. Don’t disappoint Teddy. Be a good citizen of our parks. When you cross the gate you are leaving behind one world and entering a new one. Pause, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and be still in nature, just for a moment. Trust me, you won’t need a rock to remember it by.