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Backpacker Magazine – November/December 2005

National Parks Inc.

Like it or not, national parks are officially in the business of business. Will this focus destroy the soul of a national institution--or save it in these lean times?

by: Eryn Brown

Most of all, park lovers who worry about business-think's influence on the park service question how the focus on the bottom line jibes with the parks' official mission, which isn't to save or make money, but to preserve natural and historical resources so that present and future United States citizens will be able to enjoy them. The parks might be in the business of business, these people say, but at heart, they aren't businesses. That distinction is key.

It's also, critics say, the reason why handing a few campsites over to private businesses, while not a big deal on the surface, bodes ill. Jordan Fisher Smith, author of Nature Noir and a former ranger with two decades in the field, is horrified by the switchover at Grand Teton, which he thinks represents a bald abdication of the parks' mission to inspire visitors and protect the land. "Those of us who went into rangering remember meeting our first ranger," he says. "In my case, that young ranger had an archaeology degree and was dressed in the uniform of the park service. So what goes on in that meeting either introduces a visitor to the spirit and values of America's crown jewels, or there's just a warm body in a McDonald's uniform collecting fees. There's a tradition of selflessness for the benefit of nature itself and all future generations, and there's one institution that keeps that as its flame: the National Park Service." Hiring outsiders to do the work, he argues, undermines that mission.

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