Uncertain Path: A search for the future of national parks

 If national parks are to survive in any significant form, their mission and management goals must be redefined, and that redefinition endorsed and accepted by the American public. The parks will have to undergo a metamorphosis that provides them with both new management goals in tune with our contemporary scientfiic knowledge and redefined societal role that attracts new generations of users. Nothing else will succeed.   — Uncertain Path,  William C. Tweed

Just after the recent centennial milestone of the National Parks Service (NPS), the NPS is in a unique position.

People across the political spectrum cherish and enjoy our national park system.

And Ken Burns famously called our park system “America’s best idea.” 

The American national park system has been emulated the world over and is recognized as one of our contributions to global culture.

But American national parks will have some challenges in the next century of their existence.

How will a dream, an idea, and an implementation formulated in the early 20th century survive into the 21st century?

Among the challenges faced by the NPS in the upcoming decades include:

And recent political changes have exacerbated these challenges.

The NPS rangers have their own ideas on these difficulties it seems.

Fortuitously, I was reading a particular book as the latest political rigamarole concerning our national parks blew up.

The book? Uncertain Path: A search for the future of national parks by William C. Tweed.

Suggested by one of my readers, and easily picked up via an inter-library loan, Uncertain Path has proven to be a thoughtful read. At a little over two hundred pages, a relatively quick read as well.

Tweed is a retired park ranger who called the Sierra his home.  His views on what is faced by our national parks are worth reading.

One of my favorite books is Wilderness Ethics by the Watermans.  Uncertain Path poses many of the same questions. But the book is updated for some of the more recent 21st-century challenges and ones more specific to the national parks.

The tone of these two books is very different, however.

Wilderness Ethics has the tone of a favorite professor with a wry and sardonic sense of humor.   Uncertain Path?  The tone is reminiscent of a professor who you respect and appreciate their lessons but is not a professor noted for levity.

Tweed also has some very definite views of the outdoor experience. Lightweight backpacking and faster hikes,  and how they are not compatible with appreciating wildness, was mentioned several times in the book.  It is an old debate and one I do not have to rehash.

But in between the lectures, there is lots of both useful information and points to ponder.

The brief history of the NPS was something I found fascinating. I did not realize Stephen Mather, the first NPS director, came from a marketing background. Even today, the NPS is very savvy with corporate outreach and branding versus their BLM and USFS peers.

The two themes that resonate throughout Tweed’s book:

  • How will the NPS adapt to the challenges currently faced while maintaining and implementing its minimum requirements mandate? And what is the definition of minimum requirements in the 21st century?
  • How will the NPS adapt to changing recreational activities, skill sets, and requirements in the years ahead?  As Tweed stated: “Like so many recreational pursuits, wilderness travel can turn into an insiders’ club, an activity comfortable for those in the know.”  Will the NPS have the funds and desire to perform wilderness skill outreach? Or will it adapt to what the American public defines and expects out of a wilderness experience?

If the Watermans are wilderness romantics, Tweed is more of a wilderness pragmatist.

The environment, be it culturally or ecologically,  of the national parks will change. What people expect out of wilderness, and their wildness experience will differ from previous generations of users.

Whether you agree with Tweed’s conclusions or not, Uncertain Path: A search for the future of national parks is a book that is worth reading for anyone who ponders what will happen with our wild places in the years ahead.

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