Meeting the Challenge of Wild Land Recreation Management: Demographic Shifts and Social Inequality [*]

Article excerpt

KEYWORDS: National parks, wilderness, public lands, recreation, white, minority

Americans are visiting the national parks, forests, wilderness, and recreation areas (hereinafter wild lands) in record numbers. For instance, 238.6 million people visited the national parks in 1981; that number is projected to reach 291.3 million visitors by the year 2000 (NPS, 1999). Similarly, recreation use of the U.S. Forest Service land is increasing. In 1950, there were 137,000 vehicles per day on Forest Service roads, by 1996 that number had increased to 1.71 million vehicles. It is projected that road usage will increase by another 64% by 2045 (Chamberlain, 1999; see also Fedkiw, 1996). In addition, the Bureau of Land Management reported 71.97 million visitors to its sites in 1997 (BLM, 1999). Together the federal land management agencies oversee about 632.7 million acres of land. Of this, the Bureau of Land Management oversees 270 million acres, the U.S. Forest Service manages 191 million acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service another 91 million acres and the National Park Service the remaining 80.7 million acres (NPS, 1998; 1997a). Hence, the managers of these public lands have to figure out how to balance the growing demand for recreation with management practices that will maintain the integrity of the natural resources. This paper focuses on the traditional definitions and assumptions about wild lands, demographic shifts and the changes required to accommodate the recreation needs of the population in the new millennium. This issue is extremely important to managers of the most fragile (and in some cases the most popular) ecosystems--national parks, forests and wilderness areas.

Historical Context

As interest in public lands recreation increases, more people are becoming concerned about the demographic profile of the user groups and unequal access to recreational opportunities. In addition, people are raising questions about how the traditional definitions of wilderness and other wild land areas influence management and issues of cultural and social diversity. To understand why some people are comfortable using wild land areas and others are alienated from them, we need to understand how the social construction of these entities converges with race relations issues to exacerbate social inequalities.

For much of the 19th and early 20th century, the environmental discourse presented wilderness as a pristine, endangered place unspoiled by civilization and untouched by human hands. It was a place where people could escape the urban ills and transcend their earthly concerns. Wilderness was an antidote to the worst human instincts, therefore, it was a refuge to which people could turn (Nash, 1982). However, as Cronon (1995) argues, far from being the only place on earth that stands apart from humanity, wilderness is a human creation. Wilderness is a social construction of a particular human culture at a unique moment in time. It is a creation of the very civilization seeking to escape the urban-industrial complex they created.

Wilderness was not always viewed positively. Until the mid nineteenth century, wilderness was seen as savage, barren, desolate, a wasteland where people were banished to wrestle with evil. However, by the 1860s, Thoreau, Muir and others were writing about the virtues of the wilderness in glowing terms (Cronon, 1995; Nash, 1982). Soon places like Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite became "must see" stops on the affluent traveler's itinerary. The creation of Yellowstone and other national parks hastened the transformation of wilderness areas from desolate wasteland to repositories of natural wonders.

Three major factors accounted for the changing perceptions of wilderness, viz., (a) Transcendentalism, (b) Romanticism and (c) frontierism. These ideas converged to construct an image of wilderness that is potent and persistent. …