An unbeatable deal–the national parks of America

by Emrys Westacott

IMG_1161What's the best deal in the world? My vote would be for the $80 annual pass that gives you access to all of America's national parks along with many other recreational areas such as national monuments and national forests that are managed by the federal government. (Actually, there's an even better deal: the $10 senior pass, valid for life. But this is only available to US citizens and permanent residents aged sixty-two and over.)

I have just spent nine days visiting a few of the great national parks of the American South West. In aesthetics, there is a well-known distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, a distinction made popular in the 18th century by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. Roughly speaking, the experience of the beautiful is purely pleasurable, and it is prompted by forms that exhibit grace and proportion such as one finds in a flower, a face, or a well-tended garden. The experience of the sublime, by contrast, contains an element of fear, and is typically produced by what seems to exceed our powers of comprehension. Forbidding mountains, dizzying chasms, raging seas and the like are paradigmatically sublime in this sense. They are literally awesome in that they inspire awe.

The distinction is less pronounced for us than for people back in the 18th century. Our technological power has diminished our fear of nature, so we feel less uneasy when we encounter the sublime, especially in the managed environment of a national park. IMG_1014As one who grew up in England's green and pleasant land, I instinctively incline towards the beautiful: natural scenery on a manageable scale; sheep grazing in pretty fields bounded by dry stone walls, where even on a rugged hike a convenient pub, tea shop, or ice cream van is usually not too far away. Yet nature's more awe-inspiring aspect exerts a pull on most of us. And the national parks of the American west are there to satisfy that need.

Capitol Reef National Park receives far fewer visitors than the better known parks in Utah such as Zion, Bryce, and Arches. But the scenery it offers is every bit as spectacular and rather more varied. Capitol Reef extends along a great fold in the earth's crust. Subsequent erosion has exposed numerous multicolored strata and produced a vast array of weird and wonderful rock formations, including arches, slot canyons, and waterpockets. Here, geological time is rendered visible.

IMG_1234Death Valley in Eastern California offers a ghastly sort of beauty. 282 feet below sea level, it is the driest place in North America (averaging 2.36 inches of rain per year) and holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded (134 degrees F). Even driving through it today in air-conditioned comfort and with the security of knowing that there are others on the road who would presumably keep one from becoming a pile of bleached bones on the desert sand, it's hard not to feel a little apprehensive. The miners and prospectors who toiled among these wastes in the nineteenth century were decidedly a different breed from most of us today.

Only 85 miles North West of Death Valley, at the edge of Sequoia National Park, is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. OK, so I didn't climb Mount Whitney; we were headed for the Eastern part of Sequoia. But the contrast between the extreme desert and the wooded slopes of the snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada just a few hours away is still astonishing. There are certainly contrasting landscapes in countries like Britain, Spain, or France; but nothing to compare with this range of scenery over such a short distance.

Sequoia National Park is famed for its massive sequoia tress, among the largest trees on earth, some of them over 3,000 years old. Just as contemplating the rock rainbows in Capitol Reef, laid down over hundreds of millions of years, puts a human lifespan into perspective, so does walking around inside a sequoia provide a useful corrective to any inflated sense of self-importance.

From ridges and peaks in Sequoia National Park there are many wonderful vistas. It's hard to imagine anything more magnificent. Then you arrive at Yosemite. IMG_1414John Muir, whose campaigning led to Yosemite becoming a national park, described it as “by far the grandest temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” Great granite cliffs scored by glaciers, vertigo-inducing precipices, rushing rivers, crashing waterfalls, and in the valley far below meadows, lakes, and shady woodland. If you don't experience a sense of the sublime here, there's really no hope for you.

In the parking lot at Yosemite I noticed a car sporting a bumper sticker that read, “Don't steal! The government hates competition.” This sort of hostility toward the federal government has been commonplace among conservative-minded Americans for many years now. Those who embrace it typically lionize Ronald Reagan, who famously said that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.” This is the attitude that animates Tea Party Republicans, NRA extremists, and people like Ammon Bundy, the anti-government activist who recently led a an armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon.. It is probably also common among many of those who view Donald Trump as an “outsider” who will shake things up in Washington.

This blanket hostility toward government is, in most cases, ignorant and stupid; and the national parks are a shining example of just how enlightened government policy can enhance the quality of life for millions. Largely because of Republicans in Congress who consistently seek to reduce government spending on just about everything other than the military, the National Park Service is severely underfunded. Yet the parks generally do a fantastic job of handling huge numbers of visitors, maintaining trails and campgrounds, and providing all sorts of services, including information centers, museums, ranger-led walks, lectures, and activities to inspire “junior rangers” with a life long love of nature. They could undoubtedly do a better job, were they given the money. Such an investment would be small as a proportion of the total federal budget, and would probably more than pay for itself through encouraging tourism. But implacable anti-government ideology is deaf to rational argument.

A key part of the mission of the Park Service is to preserve natural and cultural resources for future generations to enjoy. Those who despise government should consider how things would stand now were Yosemite, Sequoia, and similar natural treasures privately owned. Many areas of great beauty might have been irretrievably spoiled by unfettered industrial, agricultural or commercial activity. IMG_1342And many more would be equally lost to most of us since they would be fenced off for the exclusive enjoyment of a few fat cats and their friends. It is a strange outlook that views the use of public funds to preserve public land for public use as a form of theft; a strange concept of freedom that values the right of one individual to cordon off a piece of land and prevent others from setting foot on it over the freedom of millions to go there and savour its beauty.