The United States national parks celebrate an impressive 100th anniversary year in 2016 and what a privilege it was to re-visit some of the national parks over the summer.
Living on an island that would easily fit into some of the American national parks, I had forgotten about the space, big skies, sheer spectacle, that if you don’t have a regular fix of all the above, just blows you away. “America’s best idea,” said writer Walter Stegner. “Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” As the United States celebrates this important centenary, I share too, my congratulations for a world-class system that copes effortlessly with millions upon millions of visitors who flood through each year; many on a whirlwind tour to bag the big-ones, taking selfies anywhere anytime and putting increasing pressure and strain on these natural resources.
The United States has 59 national parks that are operated by the National Park Service, with the first national park, Yellowstone signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. The time was ripe to set in motion the legislation that would chime with the public’s mood across the States and then the world, to protect an increasing number of areas facing ruinous consequences of increased commercial activity in places such as Niagara Falls, Yosemite and Mesa Verde amongst others. Hard-fought no doubt as protection of wilderness areas, (many remote and inaccessible in an era before mass tourism), was not high on anyone’s agenda, that has seen our most loved and treasured international landscapes relatively untouched today.
You can only marvel at the annual visitor numbers; 4 million in Yellowstone Park and 5.5 million expected to visit the Grand Canyon. These parks are vast, yet where would they all fit? As it turned out, easily. The landscape is so vast, we were all simply swallowed up. Helped by official advice and site descriptions of the wide range of RV and camping locations ‘having few facilities’ for example, is really code for: go there as the crowds need good roads, coach parking, RV hookup’s, hot showers, toilets, a restaurant (definatly a restaurant) and Wifi. We had the place to ourselves!
“Five ways to Die in Glen Canyon” screamed the check-in ‘welcome leaflet’. Clearly all was not well with the world. As I scanned the brochure that the ranger handed us when we entered Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, I concluded there must have a serious problem to produce such a blunt instrument to try and prevent more deaths in 2016. Turns out those deaths were avoidable as they involved that lethal cocktail of water and alcohol. The desire to take selfies is a growing problem however, not just for the national parks, but across the world in places where wild animal viewing is popular; taking a selfie with an Elk, Buffalo, Rhino, Elephant or Lion often ends in death for both parties.
To become a victim of your own success is a difficult challenge; when your remit to is promote accessible tourism to these special places, but the market overtakes your messages and resources as the numbers go up and up each year with domestic as well as visitors from abroad, each of us wanting to experience that piece of the American landscape, no matter how superficially or thoughtlessly.
To the ranger who patiently tried to ensure the hordes complied with the ‘heat alert’ warning at Horseshoe Bend Lake Powell, and to the ranger who tactfully suggested we did not drive our RV down a nearby dry river bed, you do your job with courtesy, good humour and not a hint of peak season fatigue, thank you.
Many original silkscreened travel posters that were created between 1938 and 1941, some by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA) that are now in the collection of the Library of Congress have enjoyed much-needed airtime in this centenary year, a small selection included here.