November 30, 2012
by Laura Pochodylo '14
Inspired by their course on U.S. national parks, four Knox College students took an extensive road trip to explore several of the parks and learn more about the complicated relationship between tourism and environmental preservation.
The quartet chronicled the trip on a blog, posting pictures and describing what it was like to interview rangers, go on hikes, and gain a better understanding of the national parks.
"In class, we learned that the landscapes of the National Parks we imagined as ‘pristine nature' and ‘untouched by man' were in fact social constructions," they wrote in the introduction to the blog. "In understanding that the line between what was natural and what was constructed blurred, we came to realize that we were ultimately tourists in our National Parks as opposed to nature-lovers; and for all of our understanding, we were perpetuating the system."
Knox students Will Bouman, Elizabeth Lerum, Nora McGinn, and Arthur Pascale, now juniors, began their adventure more than a year ago, when they enrolled in an environmental studies class focused on national parks. Instructor Nic Mink, a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, offered students extra credit if they visited a national park over a long weekend.
"We originally wanted to go to the Rockies (Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado)," said Lerum, an anthropology and sociology major from Lake Bluff, Illinois. "Instead, we took a 12-hour drive to the Smoky Mountains (National Park). We had a set of questions to ask rangers."
The students slept in an empty parking lot they found. As the sun rose, they discovered it was the lot for Newfound Gap, one of the most popular sites in the park.
"It looked like a mall parking lot at noon. That's when we realized how the parks cater to tourists and not preservation, and we decided we wanted to study it more," Lerum said.
Public Access vs. Environmental Preservation in National Parks
Upon returning from their Smoky Mountains trip, the students were interested in continuing their study of the parks. They crafted a proposal for an independent study course to prepare for a more extensive road trip in summer 2012.
They also applied for -- and received -- a Richter grant to support summer travel for their course, titled "Pondering the Park-to-Park Highway: Roads, Tourism and the National Parks in the American West."
The course's name refers to the Park-to-Park Highway, a concept developed in 1916 by then-National Park Service director Stephen Mather to link 12 national parks in the West to promote greater public access and tourism. Bouman, Lerum, McGinn, and Pascale planned a trip that would trace what remains of this auto route and explore the continuing impact, positive and negative, of roads in national parks.
Their stops included Badlands, Olympic, Mount Rainier, Sequoia and King's Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake, Zion, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, and Arches national parks.
Much of the students' work involved studying the differences between Mather and Sierra Club founder John Muir, a famous naturalist and conservationist. Mather valued public accessibility in national parks but also understood that restricting visitors to roads could promote preservation of other areas of the park. Muir, meanwhile, valued preservation of the parks over public accessibility and recreational opportunities -- both made easier by the existence of roads.
"A ranger we met said that less than 25% of people that visit national parks go more than a quarter-mile from their car," said Pascale, an environmental studies major from Chicago, Illinois. "That was Stephen Mather's dream. If he heard that now, he would have been really happy to hear that because it means that his vision of parks as a destination that anyone could easily access with an automobile was realized."
Natural Wonders 'That Will Knock Your Socks Off'
The students studied the history of the formation of the parks in order to understand how tourism has affected the landscape.
"These parks were created to build our natural cultural identity," said Bouman, an environmental studies major from Oak Park, Illinois. "Europe held the seats of culture, but instead of visiting Europe, you can go to places here."
"We don't have 1,000 years of culture, but we do have natural wonders that will knock your socks off."
In addition to studying the parks, the four Knox students considered the impact that the parks have on their surrounding communities.
"The road system has affected how the national parks deal with tourism and preservation, and how the communities surrounding the parks have developed," Lerum said. "I kept seeing new things to research. It gave me a greater understanding of the West, as well as the knowledge that I'll never truly know it all because it is so huge."
As yet another aspect of the project, the students examined the experience of the American road trip.
"So much work had to go into traveling, but many generations of Americans have done it before," said McGinn, an environmental studies major from Peabody, Massachusetts. "We were doing it in the easiest and most accessible time, but we still had a (challenging) time of it."
Before hitting the road, the students had read about conflicts between preservation and public access in national parks. During the trip, they gained a deeper understanding of how the national park system functions.
"It was really fun to see how the management styles of the parks differed by region and the clientele and volume they were getting, which I didn't really buy when I was reading about it," Pascale said.
Sometimes, the students' experiences at the parks inspired debate.
"Every place we went would change our opinions about access versus preservation, and I think that was really the big debate," Pascale added. "It's impossible to not talk about these things when you're seeing all of this firsthand."
One thing they all agreed on, though, was the management style in Zion National Park in southern Utah, where private cars are restricted. Instead, a bus system shuttles visitors throughout the park.
"It was cool to have the Park Service tell us we couldn't drive," Pascale said. "It was really fun to experience the park in a new way through their eyes on their shuttle system."
After covering a few thousand miles, the students returned to Knox with a more thorough understanding of the landscape of the American West.
"The thing that struck me was that this country is huge, gigantic, and the landscape is so different," Bouman said. "But no matter how different landscapes and people are, we are so similar as Americans."