Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of the National Park Service

Uncertain Path - A Search for the Future of Natural Parks
Uncertain Path – A Search for the Future of Natural Parks

If we define Wilderness as a place where humankind has no influence on the species or biological processes within it, one has to conclude that there is no Wilderness left on Planet Earth. Pollution, human habitat encroachment, and global warming have now reached every corner on the planet with such a pronounced effect that no ecosystem has been left untouched.

Herein lies the paradox of the US National Park Service, whose mission it is to preserve all aspects of our parks’ scenic beauty and biodiversity including the processes that sustain them. While this policy has strong historic roots and broad public support, it is increasingly unsustainable in the face of global environmental change and changing public attitudes about the relative importance of resource preservation.

This is the dilemma that William Tweed sets out to ponder on a 240 mile backpack trip along the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Route. A 30 year Park Service Ranger and Chief Park Naturalist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park before his retirement in 2006, Tweed describes the wonderous views and natural history of the region with a rich eloquence that has you pining to see what’s around the next bend and over the next hill.

While the story of his journey alone makes this book worth reading, Tweed explains the philosophical origins of National Park Service which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016 and its increasingly out-of-touch mandate to preserve our national parks as they were for future generations when global ecological forces such as climate change make this impossible. Plant, animal, and fish species are dying, migrating, or adapting around us and the nineteenth and twentieth century notions that humans can control these processes are historically out-of-date.

Our relationship to nature has also undergone widespread change with fading social interest in the natural world. Rather than viewing nature as a place to escape and recuperate from the overwhelming and rushed pace of urban life, park visitors bring it with them with phones and a myriad assortment of electronics to keep themselves amused when they’re in the backcountry. increasingly, today’s hikers view hiking trails as race courses rather than retreats, seeking to establish Fastest Known Times by hiking 30 miles days with ultralight gear, rather than experiencing the landscape in a Muir-like state of reverence.

How do such changes affect the future of the National Park Service, Tweed wonders. Should it detach itself from trying to control natural processes? Does it need to change its visitor policies to maintain relevancy in a world where there are so many other amusements for people instead of the outdoors? This is certainly not just an US problem, but a challenge for all national park systems worldwide. “The answer to these questions lies with those of us who care about these special places,” writes Tweed optimistically.

I enjoyed reading Uncertain Path – actually I couldn’t put it down – because it made me consider the futility of trying preserve our national parks and wilderness areas as islands to themselves. When viewed this way, it’s no wonder that our wild lands cannot credibly be called Wilderness Areas anymore. What will their future be, when they can no longer play the part for which they were cast?


  1. A few random thoughts as I read this post:
    I view trail runners in the same light as thru hikers, section, hikers and peakbaggers. They are all different types of goal orientated hikers.
    I think New Hampshire and New England has struck a good compromise between hikers, mountain bikers, snow mobilliers, ATVers, hunters, fishermen, loggers.
    I have found that the fewer electronics I bring the more I enjoy my solitude. That said I really enjoy reading while in the backcountry which I am sure some would view as missing the point of being in the wilderness.

    • Tweed is referring to the UL style speed backpackers.

      this book makes an interesting contrast the the Park Service whose mandate it is to preserve the parks as they were in 1850 before global warming, a now impossible task although it’s the law.

      The national forests are managed by the USDA, a different branch of the government entirely. Their mantra is management not preservation, so they have much more freedom to adapts to environmental and social changes. We have nation forests in New England, like the whites.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I like having a diverse set of park standards. Mt Washington and the campgrounds along the Kanc at one end thru to Baxter and dispersed camping in the Wild River drainage at the other.
    I would think that the naturalists in the Park Service understand that these places can not be frozen in time.

  3. Yes, I agree with a lot with what you say. But *preservation*, *conservation*, and all the other catch phrases realy mean not using the land for any industrial purpose till we need it. In this respect the terms have changed meanings. And the concepts of “forever wild” often means exactly what the law makers decide it means. Laws change. Perhaps the greatest pressure to this change is the number of people that visit our “wild” places, the number of people that demand goods from our natural areas, people that want the clean water from these areas so they can build the cities our era demands. Everything you touch, everything you breath, everything we experience was all part of our natural environment at one time. Even the dead branch as I toss it into the fire…fire is, perhaps, the simplest requirement for everything.

    As far as global climate change, it is too late to change it. But, the additional heat means soo much more than simple global warming. The planet has seen major changes in the past. No doubt, we shall see this trend continue. Good, bad or indifferent depends on your viewpoint.The rangers out there are well conversant with this. A good example will be the loss of all the alpine areas in the NE. Does it make sense to preserve, protect it from backpackers when such efforts are doomed to failure? Rangers know that. They do it anyway.

    It boils down to what the planet can sustain as the human population becomes more demanding of good and services. There IS a limit. Whether we continue to fool the limit with ferilizers for food production, increased production from mines, or other methodes, that limit can be reached. Even backpacking is not natural. Our stoves are made of metals, our cloths are made from oils, our food is mass produced in a factory, even our tents and the backpack itself is synthetic. It is mearly a recreation.

  4. “increasingly, today’s hikers view hiking trails as race courses rather than retreats, seeking to establish Fastest Known Times by hiking 30 miles days with ultralight gear, rather than experiencing the landscape in a Muir-like state of reverence.”

    Sounds like a bunch of older aged hikers are bitter and feel that the only way to enjoy the outdoors is at their snail’s pace.

    What’s more “wild” about the wilderness that pitting one’s body against mother earth (and nature)?

    I don’t care for trees, don’t bother naming birds or flowers or weeds. I climb up a trail as fast as I can just so I can descend as fast as I can. It’s the challenge I find relaxing and rewarding and no one should be told they can’t push their body to the limit.

    • You would do best just to ignore them as that type of person is never happy. They have an idea of what purity should be and won’t acknowledge anything else.

      If you do find yourself talking to someone like that you should ask them how was the wagon ride from Boston. Take the stance that any non-dirt road+automobile is wrong and that the journey to the mountains is just as important as the hike.

      Fortunately I haven’t actually run into many people like this. They seem to be in the minority for the most part on the actual trails.

    • I agree with you and it’s an element of my hiking experience too. But you have to put yourself in Tweed’s shoes. It is a change in the social norm for him and feels foreign. Perhaps more importantly though, the “smelling the flours” expectation is what the NPS has to give you by law, further demonstrating the disconnect between NPS policy and user needs.

  5. I was not aware of this book … will reserve a copy at the library as soon as done here.

    Is there just one way to experience the natural world? I don’t think so. However I will confess to drawing the line where folks insist that we absolutely need to be protected from the natural world at all times.

    Philip’s comment: “it made me consider the futility of trying preserve our national parks and wilderness areas as islands to themselves” caught my eye.

    Consider Aldo Leopold, a driving force behind the first designated wilderness area and a founder of the Wilderness Society. Yet by then he had come to realize that although islands of wilderness are important they are not enough. So he proceeded to focus on the health of the rest of the land.

  6. Your title says “Natural” Park Service. Did you mean “National” Park Service to match the book title?

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