The Capacity for Wonder: Preserving National Parks

The Capacity for Wonder: Preserving National Parks

The Capacity for Wonder: Preserving National Parks

The Capacity for Wonder: Preserving National Parks

Synopsis

The national parks of North America are great public treasures, visited by 300 million people each year. Set aside to be kept in relatively natural condition, these remarkable places of forests, rivers, mountains, and wildlife still inspire our "capacity for wonder". Today, however, the parks are threatened by increasingly difficult problems from both inside and outside their borders. This book, enriched with personal anecdotes of the author's trips throughout the parks of North America, examines changes in the park services of the United States and Canada over the past fifteen years. William Lowry describes the many challenges facing the parks - such as rising crime, tourism and overcrowding, pollution, eroding funding for environmental research, and the contentious debate over preservation versus use - and the abilities of the agencies to deal with them. The Capacity for Wonder provides a revealing comparison of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Canadian Parks Service (CPS). The author explains,that, while the services are similar in many ways, the priorities of these two agencies have changed dramatically in recent years. Lowry shows how increasing conflicts over agency goals and decreasing institutional support have made the NPS vulnerable to interagency disputes, reluctant to take any risks in its operations, and extremely responsive to political pressures. As a result, U.S. national parks are now managed mainly to serve political purposes. Lowry illustrates how in the 1980s politicians pushed the NPS to expand private uses of national parks through development, timber harvesting, grazing, and mining, while environmental groups pushed the NPS in the other direction. Overthe same period, the CPS enjoyed a clarification of goals and increased institutional support. As a result, the CPS has been able to decentralize its structure, empower its employees, and renew its commitment to preservatio

Excerpt

I had already been camping in Rocky Mountain National Park for days when I finally got around to doing the more formal part of my research. Even then, on the way to an interview, I stopped off at the backcountry office to pick up a map and an overnight permit. After all, the June day was pretty, and the mountains looked so inviting. the interview went well, and the assistant superintendent, Sheridan Steele, was pleasant and informative. But I felt restless sitting in his office, eager to get on the trail. Occasionally my mind wandered toward the snow-capped peaks and blue skies visible through the window behind Steele's head and, inevitably, my eyes followed. Maybe he noticed. Suddenly, his voice changed in tone and got lower as if he wanted me to concentrate to hear so that I would remember his next comment. "I hope you write this book," Steele said, "I hope you do a good job, and I hope a lot of people read it, because people need to know what's happening to the parks." An hour later, I was on the trail. As I hiked, I thought about Steele's words and realized how clearly he had expressed my own hopes. and as my senses became attuned to the sounds and smells of the forest, they were thus joined by another sense, a sense of urgency.

The national parks have always stretched my own capacity for wonder. From wide-eyed stares at Yellowstone's bears out the back windows of my dad's Chevy as a boy to sheer, exhausted exuberance on the summit of Mt. Whitney as a man, I have been impressed, inspired, and even intimidated by the national parks. I have been fortunate enough to vacation, work, live, love, camp, backpack, hike, swim, raft, kayak, and even howl at the moon a few times in the national parks of Canada and the United States. I have always loved being in the parks and just knowing that they are there.

The sense of urgency came later, as my understanding of politics increased. Modest as that understanding may be, I have learned enough to realize that of all the threats facing the parks, the most important is the behavior of government officials. How the parks are established, managed . . .

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