You Don’t Deserve Your National Parks


There will always be difficult people in the world, yes. But in my last season with the Park Service I noticed a growing trend in visitors arriving in the parks with a massive sense of entitlement. Many were angry that they had to pay additional fees to enter the park, to enjoy basic services, or to join guided tours. A lot felt they were above the rules posted clearly on signs and in the park literature designed to keep both the visitor and the resource safe. Plenty were just mad at the current state of the federal government, and decided to take it out on the first civil servant they encountered – that uniformed park ranger asking them to please not throw orange peels/cigarette butts/coffee grounds out of their car window, or to please stay on the trail, or who was simply stationed at an overlook to answer questions with a smile.

It all came to a head for me during the shutdown last October, when I was stuck in my house without any idea of when I’d work again or whether or not I’d get a paycheck I depended on. It seemed like any time I turned on the TV or opened a page on the internet someone was lambasting the Park Service for denying the public a ‘natural born right’. They said there was no reason the parks should be closed. People were regularly breaking past barriers and damaging park property to make this point.

“You think you own whatever land you land on / The earth is just a dead thing you can claim.”

These lines repeated over and over in my head during the shutdown (and yes, I did just quote a Disney princess. Pocahontas was always my favorite).

None of us deserve our National Parks. If we did, there would be no need for them. The fact that it takes a crew of hundreds, sometimes thousands, to protect and preserve just one national park (not to mention the numbers it takes to maintain all 401 units of the National Park System), speaks to that. And the fact that so many still don’t realize this, still think the land should be free for them to use in whatever way they like whenever they like, backs this idea up. We may have deserved our wild spaces at one point, but then we started destroying them. So much so that a group of forward-thinking people convinced our government of the need to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” When people imply or straight up declare that a park shouldn’t be closed, or a fee shouldn’t be charged, or a rule shouldn’t be enforced, they are insulting all the hard work that goes into preserving that place. And that’s a lot of work.

Without the hardworking rangers your entrance fees pay to employ, who would answer your questions, rescue you when you need help, or maintain the roads that take you to these beautiful places (a huge percentage of National Park visitors never walk more than a few feet from their car, after all)? Those trails you love to hike don’t build and keep up themselves. Who would construct and then clean the toilets and the trashcans you use, or clean up after those who choose to forgo those toilets and trashcans? Who would manage the invasive species choking so many parks and their indigenous flora and fauna? Those invasives were almost always introduced directly or indirectly by humans, after all – who would clean up that mess? Who would build and maintain safe campsites – places where hazard trees have been removed and methods of proper waste disposal have been installed so that you can enjoy the solitude you so deserve? Who would keep developers from profiting off those million dollar views? Who would keep poachers from mounting that animal you’ve come hundreds of miles to see on his wall? And how would you know where to even start your visit to this place, without a visitor center to stop in? Or a website to visit? Or, at the very least, a map to peruse? Where do you think all of these things come from? It all starts with that ranger in the entrance station collecting your fees. Without that flat hat and cash register, none of these things can happen.

While there is certainly a population of park visitors who don’t make use of many – if any – of the services listed above, they make up a very small percentage of people in the parks. And within that small percentage, an even smaller number actually use park lands responsibly in a way that truly leaves little or no impact. The vast majority of visitors to the National Parks would not be able to enjoy these places without all of these services and more. And the thing that gets me is that these are the people who insist that access to these lands is their right.

It is not your right. It is your privilege.

Sure, you paid your taxes, and that should count for something. But it’s likely that less than $5.00 of your annual taxes ever makes it to a National Park in any given year. Instead of whining about entrance fees, how about you demand your congressional representatives appropriate more funds to protecting these sacred spaces? If the big wigs in DC didn’t also take the parks for granted, didn’t always assume that they will be there waiting for us no matter what, didn’t view them as a right, but instead as a privilege – maybe they’d take funding them a little more seriously.

The park I worked at was fully staffed the day we re-opened following the shutdown. We were overjoyed to be back at work again, and were eager to welcome the crowds to celebrate with us. So much had been made of our closure, and so many had declared their anger. Certainly they’d show their support on this bittersweet day.

But there was no line at the gate. Visitation wasn’t any more than it would have been without the shutdown – in fact it was less. So many rallied when we closed, but so few showed their support when we opened. The first man I talked to that morning approached me with a chuckle. “I hope you enjoyed your vacation,” he quipped, “because mine was ruined because of your little show.” I tried my best to stay pleasant, but was fuming on the inside.

I had many more interactions like this one over that day. And then finally, the greeting I had been waiting for:

“Hello,” said an older man as he entered the building, “I am so happy that you’re here.”

Now that’s more like it.