National Parks vs Mother Nature

Our National Parks are constantly changing so how do we handle that?

As the wildfire crossed into Yosemite National Park proper, I found myself conflicted by the classic battle between an innate desire to protect the National Park yet still respect the role that Mother Nature plays in shaping the iconic landscapes we’ve all come to love.

sentinel smoke in Yosemite

Image credit: National Park Service + Yosemite Conservancy. Webcam capture by Westernlabs.

Death – and life – by fire

Those close to the situation who are managing the situation are walking a fine line. The general public expects them to do everything they can to contain wildfires that seem to be increasingly threatening our National Parks. But there is also the natural order to things. Fire is necessary for long term health of the forest. Some trees won’t dispatch seeds until triggered by fire.

So it leaves me, in fact all of us, with a difficult situation to process.

Do we try to extinguish every fire and manage the health of the forests with our own intervention to preserve the Parks as a snapshot of what we see today or do we embrace the natural order of things and accept fire as a necessary part of the forest’s evolution and see the Parks as ever-changing as a result?

Don’t forget water and wind

Fire isn’t the only arrow in Mother Nature’s quiver. She has an arsenal of natural forces that she regularly employs to shape the landscape of the National Parks.

Water constantly changes the essence of Zion National Park as the Virgin River cuts its path through the Park. Roads and trails are regularly rerouted to account for the natural changes.

Wind also paints the landscape with a heavy hand. The effects of wind erosion are evident throughout southern Utah in Arches National Park or even Bryce Canyon National Park, for example.

For eons, wind has crafted the various arches and hoodoos that define those Parks. Should we try to minimize the impact that wind has? Could we even if we wanted to?

Natural forces are constantly changing the view. I’d like to believe that the view tomorrow will be even more impressive than it was yesterday but there are undoubtedly some features that will become collateral damage in Mother Nature’s grand plan like Landscape Arch. At some point gravity wins and the Landscape Arch will cease to exist.

How are we doing?

The National Park Service is charged with maintaining and protecting our Parks. If you could advise them on their strategy for combating natural forces like fire, water, and wind what would you say? How would you grade their efforts currently?

It’s a monumental (pun intended) task to manage that balance between natural order and public expectations. And it’s a battle that rages on. Every Park has a feature, a landscape, attribute that is changing as you read this post.  Some of these changes represent new dangers to Park visitors.

Should the National Park Service limit our access to their changing features and landscapes to protect us from what might happen or should we have access to experience those things while they still exist?

There may not be a right answer in this discussion but it’s certainly worth asking. Please weigh in with a comment.


  1. Kurt Angersbach says:

    Thanks to the research efforts of agencies (e.g., NPS, USFS), industry,
    universities (e.g., Jerry Franklin at UW), non-profits (e.g., Forest
    Guild), as well as private land owners, we now have a much different
    perspective on how national park and national forest ecosystems work and
    what roles we play in shaping them. Reflecting this work,
    policy choices regarding ecosystem management have changed over the decades.

    At this point, it seems that the policy area that is most crucial to yielding
    necessary change in our natural ecosystems is not how we control for fire or
    flood, but how we budget for our parks and forests.

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      Budget is always going to be an issue no matter what. But I see what you’re saying about dollars affecting policy. But that leads to the question as well: Should the Parks specifically avoid developing infrastructure in areas that are constantly changing by the forces of nature. One would argue that the road alongside the Virgin River in Zion is an irresponsible waste of money since the road is continually washed out and rebuilt as the river floods and erodes it’s way through the canyon.

      So in light of tighter budgets, should those money-pits be abandoned? Or should the Park invest in better erosion control up front to keep continued maintenance costs down?

      Or is the current system there working?

      For the record, I’m not sure there is a “right” answer…

      • I think the reason it is hard to come up with a “right” answer is because every park is different and one policy cannot possibly work for all parks. I am definitely more in favor of allowing nature to take it’s course but there are many more things to consider. The people best suited, I think, for making decisions are local park managers and the communities surrounding the parks.

        • Wilderness Dave says:

          I would agree with you Mae, I think the one’s best suited to make the decisions are the ones with their feet in the dirt interacting with the park’s ecosystem on a daily basis. Parks like Gates of the Arctic, it’s not an issue. But high traffic parks like Yellowstone or Grand Canyon is can be a monumental task.

        • I would agree as well Mae. Each of these Parks are fantastic in their own specific ways and many times that is defined by the unique ecology. Managing that in the best possible way is difficult without a very intimate knowledge on the ground.

          • Hey Tim, Dave, and Mae-
            Your comments fit in with a project
            I’m working on for an upcoming conference. I’m looking at the element of local
            knowledge and local input in public lands decision-making scenarios over time. Any
            chance any of you could help out with a related story? Thank you!

  2. Despite having penned this post myself, I don’t know that I have a clear opinion on this either. I read in one of the recent interviews with a wilderness firefighter that they feel one of the biggest challenges is in finding that line so that they can fight the fires but not impede what Mother Nature is doing in the bigger picture.

    That has to be a tough choice not just in the light of public opinion but also in striking the balance that these areas need to flourish. Protecting houses and people is most important but that also requires some thought in the beginning to have the restraint from building right up against the wilderness that requires a good fire every so often to strengthen itself and provide the environment for new plants to grow.

    I think my biggest question is how much of this is taken into account currently by the folks charged with making these decisions. Do they consider the long term needs of the forest and land against the interests of visitors and local residents? I’m sure they do but I have no idea what those details really show. Hopefully, someone with answers can weigh in.

  3. Kurt Angersbach says:

    National Parks were set aside with
    two distinct defining roles: 1) “to conserve the scenery and the natural and
    historic objects and the wild life therein” and 2) “to provide for the
    enjoyment of the same,” along with a proviso stating that these actions shall
    occur “in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the
    enjoyment of future generations. (U.S.C., title 16, sec. 1.)”

    From the start, then, the National Park
    Service story has been about access AND preservation. If we try to remake this
    story into access OR preservation, I think that will be a hard change to implement.
    That said, the National Park Service and the American public have done an
    incredible job of combining these two unwieldy roles—just go to any national
    park unit you choose to see what I mean!

    In 1912, John Muir attended a
    meeting to discuss automobile use in the national parks (and there’s a meeting
    I would have loved to have attended!). If we can infer Mr. Muir’s intent from
    the proceedings as they were reported, the position he took might be a
    surprise. That he was there for the discussion is not surprising (though the
    fact that he got name-checked by the moderator, who also happened to be the
    Secretary of the Interior, is a nice touch!). 100 years later, the debate goes
    on. Thanks to the work of all the park enthusiasts who came before us, we still have these beautiful parks to wrangle over!

    Note: The meeting was “AUTO USE IN THE NATIONAL PARKS:
    PARK: October 14, 15, and 16, 1912”

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      I don’t think anyone is trying to make the Parks Service choose between access and preservation. The question is more about choices in protection: Should the Parks service be fighting against the forces of nature to preserve their infrastructure or should they be allowing nature to shape the parks regardless of roads, structures, trails, etc?

      Access isn’t the issue, and we covered that to some degree in last week’s Weigh in Wednesday about structures and development. This is more a question of how much MAN should be doing in the parks to mitigate the natural process…

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