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Mountain News: Role of national parks in 20th and 21st centuries



JACKSON, Wyo. — Even as the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service was celebrated from New York to California, there were questions about whether we need to rethink the role of national parks.

For the actual birthdate in late August, some 6,000 people showed up at Gardiner, Mont., the north gate to Yellowstone National Park. Among them, reported the Jackson Hole News&Guide, were several governors and the singers John Prine, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.

In Jackson Hole, Brad Mead recalled when Grand Teton National Park was created. Local ranchers were unhappy about the loss of grazing privileges at the base of the mountain chain, and they rode their horses in protest to the national monument that had been declared under the Antiquities Act.

"There was widespread animosity in Jackson Hole about what was seen as Franklin D. Roosevelt's high-handed approach to conservation," Mead wrote in the News&Guide. "Fundamentally (the ranchers) were well-intended — but wrong. If FDR was high-handed, the outcome forgives him."

In time, the cowboys accepted the federal designation. "They saw private land gradually transition from agriculture to residential developments and wondered what the valley might look like if the park didn't exist. They watched local businesses struggle, then survive, then thrive with the commerce a national park brings. And they changed their minds."

One of those ranchers opposed to the park creation was his grandfather, Clifford Hansen, who later became governor of Wyoming then a U.S. senator. Mead said his grandfather later in life freely admitted he was "dead wrong" about the park. "My guess is that most of those who rode with him that day eventually felt the same way," added Mead.

But do we need to rethink the national parks? That question was pondered by David Gessner in a 7,000-word essay published in the summer issue of The American Scholar. He described hiking up Yosemite's Half Dome with the crowds, "jostling and body-checking as if fighting my way onto a New York subway."

Yellowstone's wildlife traffic jams are fundamentally no different. "Driving through the park, I was reminded not of other times in wild nature but of the van Gogh exhibit I saw in New York, standing four deep in a mob of people, craning my neck in an attempt to glimpse something beautiful. The metaphor can be carried further, much further, because that is exactly what Yellowstone felt like to me that day: a museum. A museum that held works of beauty from long ago, curated for the curious and the many."

A group dubbed the ecomodernists think that parks have lost their purpose, he reported. "Yes, they are a good place to take selfies but, really, what else?"

In Kentucky, Gessner obtained a conversation with Wendell Berry, the philosopher, writer and farmer, who told him: "Land use — I think the people who confront it are the relevant people today. And the specialists — the preservationists and the literary specialists — are becoming less relevant."

The thinking here is that in a world that will soon hold nine billion people, we need new solutions, new alternatives. The idea "that we can simply put huge swaths of land aside is naive, and even when we do it, it has quickly become apparent that the land, far from being wild, must be managed. This becomes more pressing in the age of climate change, when habitats are shifting and leaving certain species stranded."

Gessner finally takes readers to Banff National Park. It's included in the idea of interconnected ecosystems called the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. To help provide the interconnectivity for wildlife, the TransCanada Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise is braided with overpasses, to allow animals more free movement. From Lake Louise you can also find more wildlife bridges over Highway 93 all the way to the outskirts of Phoenix.

Crowding is not really the issue, Gessner concluded. You can avoid the crowds by getting just a short distance away from the main attractions. The problem, he said, is that we're still not thinking big enough.

"My dream on this 100th anniversary is that if parks can grow and change, then on the 200th anniversary we can look back and think, yes, parks were America's best idea, and then we had a better one. We connected the islands of parks with ribbons of migration, with corridors of wildness."

Grizzlies keeping track

BANFF, Alta. — You may not see them, but grizzly bears are keeping track of you, according to a study conducted in the Kananaskis Country south of Banff. This is where the movie The Revenant was filmed.

The study by Cheryl Hojnowski, a PhD student at University of California, Berkeley, found that bears avoid people to reduce risks of a negative encounter.

"Maybe those adjustments that bears are making are part of the reason that they can survive and share this landscape with people," she told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

"I think there's a philosophical question we can ask... are we creating the grizzly of the future in the frontcountry? Because if you're a bear in the frontcountry, then success for you probably depends on adjusting your behaviour around people, being aware of people and being a bit wary of people."

The Outlook explained that Hojnowski's research accepts as a basic premise that the grizzlies she studied need to be in the frontcountry for a significant period of time in order to get berries and other food. Frontcountry here is defined as being within 500 metres off a road, trail, campground or other human-use area.

A previous study found that adult grizzlies needed 69 per cent of their home range secure from people to survive and reproduce. But some bears in Hojnowski's study seemed to do OK with less isolation.

"They've survived, they've showed up year after year, they're very tolerant, they're not aggressive to people, and they're even raising cubs," she said.

She found that the bears appeared to modify their behaviour on trails in response to variations in human use over the course of the week. On roads, they might change their behaviour based on the number of vehicles.

"It does speak to the fact that bears are employing some strategies in order to avoid people, and those strategies are nuanced," she told the Outlook.

Based on thousands of locations downloaded from GPS collars, Hojnowski found bears tended to spend more time by roads at night when there were fewer vehicles. The upshot? Bears need quiet times, when humans stay away. But there's also this: bears, as for humans, life is all about balancing risks and rewards.

Record visitor numbers

JASPER, Alta. — National parks on both sides of the border have been seeing record numbers of visitors this year.

In Glacier National Park, located in Montana, visitation in August was up 27 per cent compared to last year. It was the fourth consecutive monthly record, beginning in May.

In Jasper, the number of visitors was the highest in a decade, and the majority of hotels had a nightly occupancy of 85 to 100 per cent.

The Jasper Fitzhugh reported that all these visitors impose costs on the namesake town of 5,000 that is the central hub for activity in the park. It calls for provincial authorities to allow "financial tools," such as some resort municipalities have enjoyed since 2007 and most Colorado mountain towns for far, far longer. The "financial tool" enjoyed by Colorado ski towns is the sales tax that Breckenridge, Durango and other local jurisdictions commonly assess as a portion of total sales of lodging and goods.

First step may be hardest

SILVERTON, Colo. — In August 2015, a dam at the portal to a mine high in the San Juan Mountains, near the Silverton Ski Area, was mistakenly breached. A flood of orange water surged down through Silverton and into the Animals River and through Durango.

Today, there has been a silver lining to that orange flood, said a local official. The Gold King Mine and others above Silverton on Friday were designated as a Superfund site.

The Durango Herald reports that the mineral-rich project area includes 35 mines, seven tunnels, four tailings ponds, and two study areas. The cleanup is expected to take a decade or two.

Before they assented to the Superfund designation, local elected officials in Silverton toured EPA-supervised cleanups in the Colorado communities of Creede, Leadville, Minturn and Idaho Springs. They had long feared the stigma of Superfund designation.

Don't worry about any stigma, local officials told them. Get the mine problems fixed. Dean Brookie, a city councillor in Durango, believes the cleanup will increase tourism and the economy of the region.

It's a long haul, but in this case, the first step might have been the most difficult one," said Bill Garner, the Silverton town manager.

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