A Modest Proposal: Let the National Parks Go Wild

Do our wild places really need so much infrastructure?

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I used to live in Grand Lake, Colorado—the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is bludgeoned by an estimated 4.4 million visitors per year. I could pass the park boundary within minutes of walking out my front door. Yet, I rarely did so. Despite the park’s undeniable majesty, I found RMNP too dense with cars, people, and various accoutrements designed to increase visitor satisfaction. Its trails were too coiffed and its signage too detailed. It felt more like an entertainment emporium than a pure interface with the natural world.

When bit by the hiking or snowshoeing bug, I preferred to drive a few minutes outside town to the Never Summer Wilderness—where the trails were ratty, the signage spotty, the ecology healthier, and the crowds non-existent.

This, I thought then and still think now, is how our national parks and monuments should be managed. So when I hear there’s a $12 billion maintenance backlog on infrastructure, I immediately think, What’s the problem? Rather than filling potholes, the NPS would better serve the actual terra firma that falls within its jurisdiction if the agency removed every restaurant, laundromat, hotel, concessionaire, and damned sure every bit of asphalt.

Admittedly, that’s incompatible with the part of the agency’s mission about “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” So, let’s make a deal. I won’t intrude on that classic American rite of getting a lift to within spitting distance of the Grand Canyon’s edge. But I’m drawing the line at five end-to-end lodges on the South Rim. And in return, I want the excess infrastructure to rot. A lot of obese, habituated marmots would have to learn to fend for themselves, but I’m sure they can adapt to a diet free of Cheetos.

The parks are supposed to contain and preserve our hallowed nature; it’s time they looked the part again.