Susan J. Demas: National parks are America’s best idea. Here’s how we can make sure they survive.

Yosemite National Park (Susan J. Demas|Michigan Advance)

By Susan J. Demas, Michigan Advance

No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principal of civilization itself.”
Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire”

With steady progress against COVID-19 and almost half of Americans fully vaccinated, millions are already flooding our 63 national parks this summer.

I can’t blame people for celebrating their newfound freedom from the pandemic’s threat to our health and our spirits in what filmmaker Ken Burns aptly called “America’s Best Idea.” It’s entirely fitting to satisfy long-delayed needs for adventure by rafting the Colorado River, traversing the Cascade mountains or climbing through Utah’s flaming slot canyons.

While I’m sure many people have other more social ideas for their “vaxspringa,” as it were, I knew that I wanted to see my family, the mountains and the ocean as soon as it was safe.

I spent more than a year avoiding my favorite travel sites (many of which sadly gave sketchy pandemic safety advice) and trying not to stare too long at the dozens of photos on my wall from seemingly long-ago mountain hikes through Australia, the Canadian Rockies, the Sierras and more.

So after my family got their shots (the utter relief of having children old enough to be vaccinated is incredible), we planned a road trip to see my brother in California, hitting several national parks along the way.

Not surprisingly, park officials are bracing for the busiest year in history amid this pent-up demand. Many iconic parks already have been strained by years of poor funding and increased use (thanks, Instagram), which has often been harmful for the environment and native species.

Coupled with climate-change-fueled extreme weather and fires and business interests eagerly encroaching on public lands (often with the blessing of the former Trump administration), our national parks could be nearing a breaking point.

We had initially planned to visit Arches in southern Utah, but after reading reports of hours-long waits both there and nearby Canyonlands, we decided to head to their lesser-know red-rock cousin of Capitol Reef instead. The park was relatively uncrowded, so the only real impediment was hiking in 100-degree heat before 10 a.m.

It’s a shame that the Utah parks aren’t taking a page from venues like Rocky Mountain, Glacier and Yosemite, which all have reservation systems in place to stave off overcrowding and stop COVID’s spread. This has the added bonus of reducing human impact in these popular destinations, which have been overrun by tourists in recent years.

But U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has said such a system is a non-starter, arguing they reduce access. The main concern, of course, is that this would mean less money flowing into his state, even if people are miserable waiting in idling cars to enter and smaller parks like Zion likely can’t sustain the amount of visitors swarming its fragile landmarks.

More than a half-century ago, Edward Abbey would presciently write in his masterpiece, “Desert Solitaire” that industrial tourism “is a big business. It means money. It includes the motel and restaurant owners, the gasoline retailers, the oil corporations, the road-building contractors, the heavy equipment manufacturers, the state and federal engineering agencies and the sovereign, all-powerful automotive industry.” He argued the “interests are well organized, command more wealth than most modern nations, and are represented in Congress with a strength far greater than is justified in any constitutional or democratic sense.”

Given many business groups’ incessant wailing against common-sense health restrictions during a pandemic that’s killed more than 600,000 Americans because they ate into their profits, of course they would lobby against entry restrictions in tourist hubs like national parks.

As for us, we knew that Yosemite was a must-see on our trip, so we applied for a permit online with no hiccups. I’ve hiked the granite dome wilderness most summers for more than a decade, but I’ve found myself retreating to the less-trampled high country and neighboring national forests more and more to get some solitude.

The waterfall-framed Yosemite Valley — which is perhaps the most perfect eight miles ever created — often feels like it’s as bustling as a mall Christmas Eve in the pre-Amazon era. You can spend hours fighting for a parking spot or waiting to grab a slice of pizza and good luck finding a campsite without booking months in advance.

But this trip to Yosemite was unlike any other I’d experienced in the height of the summer tourist season. While it wasn’t as quiet as when I made a spontaneous detour during a particularly snowless February in the Sierras three years ago, it was stunningly easy to find parking at my favorite trailheads and even to catch the sunset at Glacier Point.

After 15 months of being cooped up inside my house at sea level, being able to wander through an alpine meadow without a soul around (besides a pair of deer) was such a gift.

This is the kind of experience everyone deserves in our amazing national parks, not suffering through traffic jams and fighting through crowds at viewpoints. And even more importantly, that’s what these precious lands, flora and fauna need in order to survive.

We’ve rethought a lot of our ideas about conservation since Yellowstone was established as the nation’s first national park in 1872. Roads were built everywhere to accommodate travelers, often with little regard for the lands that were supposed to be protected. Wildlife was fed for visitors’ amusement, but we’ve sadly learned the toll that’s taken on the parks’ first inhabitants.

Stemming the flow of visitors in our busiest parks is a win-win for the environment and weary travelers who will have more space to revel in their majesty. There are many lessons to be learned from this pandemic. This is an easy one.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.