Reckoning with History: The parks have been fixed before

When the Great Depression and World War II concluded, the national park system was in disarray. The extractive industry sought greater access to resources, such as timber in Olympic National Park, while bureaucrats eyed sites for future dams, including in Dinosaur National Monument.

Most importantly, the park system was growing as new units were added and more visitors came. Costs accumulated, but congressional appropriations did not keep pace. By the late 1940s, the writer Bernard DeVoto was sounding the alarm about the parks’ “alarming rate” of deterioration, while many roads and trails had to be closed because of safety concerns.

DeVoto first drew attention to the problem in his “Easy Chair” column in Harper’s in 1949, hoping that an enraged public might demand action. That hope was in vain. Four years later, he reported, the Park Service was “beginning to go to hell.” Until Congress was “willing to pay,” he wrote, we should close the parks, with the Army patrolling them to keep them secure. Congress, he declared, needed to act promptly to end this national disgrace.

Beginning in 1956, for a decade the Park Service invested more than $1 billion, adding 2,767 miles of new or repaired roads; nearly 1,000 miles of new or improved trails; parking capacity for 155,306 vehicles; nearly 30,000 new campsites and 114 visitor centers.

But, as the Park Service modernized and urbanized the parks, it ushered in what iconoclastic writer Edward Abbey condemned as “industrial tourism.” A program that finds money for roads and buildings, but not endangered species and climate change, is all but guaranteed to undermine landscapes and generate a backlash among those who wish to see the nation’s parks unimpaired and inviolate.

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