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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?

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.

Ultimately, Smith says, the whole enterprise of business-think is bad for the soul of the parks. “There’s a spiritual element and a historical-philosophical element that’s entirely missing in this hardheaded realist idea of the world,” Smith says. “The bottom line is, when you set something aside, you set it aside. Not because it’s convenient, but because that was the deal. And to try to remake it as something that follows the goals and responses of business is to misunderstand it entirely.”

Maybe so, but high-minded rhetoric doesn’t put money in the coffers. Harvard MBA student Reese Neumann, a 28-year-old business-plan consultant who’s helping staff at California’s Channel Islands National Park improve endangered species preservation and distance-learning offerings, thinks Smith’s hard line is nuts. “My perspective is, you’re not going to get all the money you want. You should never stop fighting for those funds. But in the meantime, what can you do to meet the deficit? Do you spend more here, or there?”

Apostle Islands’ Krumenaker wistfully agrees. “I’m up here with my business plan, saying, ‘It’s a new world, folks.’ We’re talking to corporate donors, and others, and there’s a certain amount of salesmanship that is uncomfortable. People worry, are we selling ourselves to the highest bidder? It’s a concern,” he admits. “We all may long for our grandfather’s National Park Service. But it’s not here anymore.”

Eryn Brown approaches freelance writing like a business from her home in Sherman Oaks, CA.

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