COMMENTARY: A Walk in the Parks

Close Encounters with Federal Disaster Areas

Road trip ready at Monument Valley, Utah.© Photos Brian Colleran

We didn"t see anything that bothered us until we began heading west. An enormous cattle feedlot in Greeley, Colorado. My girlfriend and I were in the midst of a 9-week cross-country road trip, visiting 32 national parks and four weddings—a pair of environmental majors out to connect with the land. This feedlot seemed to stretch on for miles, only thinly veiled from the highway by a shabby row of trees. After passing through miles of open country for the better part of three large states, there was something ominous about all those cows clustered together. The fenced facility was out of place, and it set the tone for environmental problems to come.

We headed into the Rockies looking forward to visiting the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park. But Estes Park, Colorado was so full of traffic, overweight tourists and chintzy knick-knack and knock-off shops that we didn"t even consider stopping. We preferred actual wilderness to the idea of purchasing a "been there, done that" T-shirt.

The park itself preserves high alpine environments where weather can be dangerous and cold even at the height of midsummer. But the place was unnaturally tame. Animals weren"t afraid of people or cars, and tourists stood and gaped at the "wildlife" as if they were at the local zoo. While we were there, we heard that the high alpine ecosystems are suffering due to pollution from visitors and airborne pollutants blowing up the mountains from the highly developed Front Range cities. It was a beautiful park, but with the SUVs and overstocked coolers, the experience felt practically suburban.

The next planned stop was Great Basin National Park, on Nevada"s eastern border, two states and 10 hours away. I was thrilled by the opportunity to see Great Basin. I"d been trying to get there for years, since my time living in western Nevada on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The Lehman Caves in the park are amazing, but they had been abused since the time of their discovery. People have collected souvenir stalactites and stalagmites for about a century, used the caves as a dance hall and generally left their mark all over the place. Even the bats no longer roost there. Our guide told us we"d leave a belly button full of lint in the cave before we left.

The mountains in the park are amazing, but they hide a historical crime. One of the world"s oldest living things was killed here. "Prometheus," a 4,900-year-old bristlecone pine tree, was cut up and sectioned for scientific research in 1964. We couldn"t help but compare the park to a tragic figure from a Shakespearean play. We couldn"t linger to mourn, however, because we had a wedding in Tahoe coming up soon, and we had very little time to get there. After more driving through empty basins and ranges, and passing one tree completely decorated with shoes of all sorts (including horse shoes), we made it to the Tahoe wedding. We had an excellent time, and were able to look forward to wandering throughout the southwest before the next wedding in Seattle some weeks later.

After touring the grandeur of Tahoe and enjoying the company of old friends, we headed down to Yosemite National Park the back way, past the highest gas prices I"ve ever seen (in Bridgeport, California, where the gas station holds concerts). When I lived in Tahoe as a ski bum waiting to get into graduate school, I couldn"t get down to Yosemite as much as I wanted to, and I had dozens of things on my to-do list.

I refused to go down to Yosemite Valley, however, because an earlier visit with my parents was all I needed. The local black bears are clever at stealing food, have lost their fear of people, and often end up being killed. It"s really not fair that Yosemite"s wildlife has to pay for the mistakes made by tourists, and the bears are simply the most famous example. The high country, however, still maintains some of the majesty lost in the valley, and it"s easy to see why this park is still so popular.

Signs of distress: a coal plant in Page, Arizona.

In a somewhat negative frame of mind, we drove past Mono Lake and the Owens River Valley, major water sources for Los Angeles that were diverted by the city in the early part of the last century (as depicted in the film Chinatown).

Our next stop, at noon on Friday the 13th of July, was the lowest point in the U.S., Death Valley National Park. It was at this point that we questioned our combined intelligence. It was over 120 degrees outside. If climate change is going to make extreme weather worse, this park is going to need to be roped off, though I suspect the heat will make even the mountain peaks look like moonscapes. How anything will be able to survive the coming summer heat is beyond me.

Then we passed through the excesses of Las Vegas, Nevada, met some of my family for dinner, and moved on to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. The "bathtub ring" that had formed on the walls behind the dam spoke volumes about how much we need water, and how finite a resource it is. As the dam silts up and the water level drops, the bathtub ring will only grow, and that does not bode well for the millions who rely on this water and the electricity from the dam. From there, we headed up into the canyon country of southwest Utah and northeast Arizona, having a grand time for a few weeks before visiting the other great power plant/environmental disaster of the southwest, Glen Canyon Dam.

Lake Powell National Recreation Area has a coal-fired power plant just outside its boundaries, on the other side of Page, Arizona from Glen Canyon Dam. It struck me as rather absurd that a coal plant was needed next to a huge hydroelectric facility. Not only did the dam drown a geological wonder on par with the Grand Canyon, but the environment is further sullied by a destructive power plant.

From Page, the trip continued through the monuments of the Navajo reservation, and into the Four Corners region. The injustices in this area were less environmental than social. We were not encouraged, especially after buying coffee from a Navajo woman who said her brother had not only helped build her coffee shop but had robbed it as well for booze money. It seemed out of place to worry about conservation issues here, when social justice issues were so pressing. We didn"t pay attention to another environmental problem until we got to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

Mesa Verde was the worst-designed national park of the trip. To needlessly self-guide ourselves through most of the attractions, we had to drive a one-way loop. There was no trail connecting the attractions which were often spaced less than a quarter mile apart along the road. There was also no shuttle service, and no place for pedestrians on the road. It would have been easy to run a shuttle service and cut down congestion and air pollution. Zion National Park required us to use the shuttle system.

Nearly two weeks later we reached the Pacific coast near Washington"s Olympic National Park, which came closest to breaking my heart. The clear-cut forest extends to the very border of the park. If this park were privatized to help close the federal budget deficit, as has been proposed, I would fear the ravages of the lumber companies. There is so little work in the towns on the park boundaries that natural resource extraction industries are often the only game in town. But there must be a better way. The park preserves wilderness and biological diversity, with a number of endemic species. I"m really sc

ared that it will be cut down to profit timber companies and supply building materials.

Nevada"s Lehman Caves have been so abused that even bats no longer roost there.

Finally, we went to the third wedding, and began the long trek back to Michigan for wedding number four. The road home took us through a number of parks on the northern bounds of the country, and two stood out for what may be lost. North Cascades National Park and Glacier National Park are famous for their glaciers. But Glacier"s glaciers will be gone in about two decades, and those in the Cascades will be vastly reduced. No matter what we do to change our behavior now, that result is inevitable.

The fourth wedding was great fun, and after that it was time to head to Florida to pick up my girlfriend"s dog, which had spent the summer with her parents. On the way down, we stopped at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which preserves its excellent reputation. Ecologically distinct, full of the culture of Appalachia, and just plain pretty, this park was one we weren"t going to miss. But getting into the park from the north required traveling down the most awful, disgusting and mentally terrifying stretch of road we encountered on the entire trip. If there is a record for longest strip mall ever, longest mind-numbing uniformity on a road or worst highway ever, this stretch of road is certainly in contention. Some would say that with a NASCAR track and Dollywood, the route isn"t so bad, but I"d beg to differ.

The park itself was suffering from its very popularity. Cades Cove at 8 a.m. was already developing traffic backups on a narrow one-way road. Much like Mesa Verde, the road through the Cove runs right alongside the attractions, with no path for walking. I think Mesa Verde might have set the standard for worst layout and use of resources, but the Cades Cove loop is awful as well, and receives the position of first runner up for "worst drive in a national park." It was gorgeous, certainly, but the whole set-up is simply asking for increased air pollution, road rage and a wide variety of traffic nightmares.

I realize that the hard work that goes into preserving our national parks is rarely acknowledged, and the people who carry out the day-to-day chores are some of the least-appreciated in the federal government. But it doesn"t change the fact that the parks are suffering, and we are all responsible.

BRIAN COLLERAN is an editorial intern at E. He received a master’s degree in 2007 from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

CONTACTS: National Parks Service