July 20, 1010

Tonight’s topic on Ecotopia is the National Park System. We’ll be talking with a former National Park Ranger, Andrea Lankford, who has written a book called Ranger Confidential, with some behind-the-scenes insights into the National Park system works, and some of the problems it and its employees.

Listen to the program.

Background on the National Park System

 We thought it would be helpful to background this discussion with a little history of the National Parks, this by Barry Mackintosh, who the bureau historian for 17 years as bureau historian. He writes:

 The national park concept is generally credited to the artist George Catlin [who did extensive painting of western scenes, including American Indians].. On a trip to the Dakotas in 1832, he worried about the impact of America’s westward expansion on Indian civilization, wildlife, and wilderness. They might be preserved, he wrote, “by some great protecting policy of government… in a magnificent park…. A nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

Catlin’s vision was partly realized in 1864, when Congress donated Yosemite Valley to California for preservation as a state park. Eight years later, in 1872, Congress reserved the spectacular Yellowstone country in the Wyoming and Montana territories “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” With no state government there yet to receive and manage it, Yellowstone remained in the custody of the U.S. Department of the Interior as a national park-the world’s first area so designated.

Congress followed the Yellowstone precedent with other national parks in the 1890s and early 1900s, including Sequoia, Yosemite (to which California returned Yosemite Valley), Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, and Glacier. The idealistic impulse to preserve nature was often joined by the pragmatic desire to promote tourism: western railroads lobbied for many of the early parks and built grand rustic hotels in them to boost their passenger business.

The late nineteenth century also saw growing interest in preserving prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts on the public lands. Congress first moved to protect such a feature, Arizona’s Casa Grande Ruin, in 1889. In 1906 it created Mesa Verde National Park, containing dramatic cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado, and passed the Antiquities Act authorizing presidents to set aside “historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” in federal custody as national monuments. Theodore Roosevelt used the act to proclaim 18 national monuments before he left the presidency. They included not only cultural features like El Morro, New Mexico, site of prehistoric petroglyphs and historic inscriptions, but natural features like Arizona’s Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon. Congress later converted many of these natural monuments to national parks.

By 1916 the Interior Department was responsible for 14 national parks and 21 national monuments but had no organization to manage them. Interior secretaries had asked the Army to detail troops to Yellowstone and the California parks for this purpose. There military engineers and cavalrymen developed park roads and buildings, enforced regulations against hunting, grazing, timber cutting, and vandalism, and did their best to serve the visiting public. […]

The parks were […] vulnerable to competing interests, including some within the ascendent conservation movement. Utilitarian conservationists favoring regulated use rather than strict preservation of natural resources advocated the construction of dams by public authorities for water supply, power, and irrigation purposes. When San Francisco sought to dam Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir after the turn of the century, the utilitarian and preservationist wings of the conservation movement came to blows. Over the passionate opposition of John Muir and other park supporters, Congress in 1913 permitted the dam, which historian John Ise later called “the worst disaster ever to come to any national park.”

[… When Franklin] Roosevelt launched his New Deal, the Park Service received another mission: depression relief. Under its supervision the Civilian Conservation Corps employed thousands of young men in numerous conservation, rehabilitation, and construction projects in both the national and state parks. .[…]

The postwar era brought new pressures on the parks as the nation’s energies were redirected to domestic pursuits. Bureau of Reclamation plans to dam wilderness canyons in Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah touched off a conservation battle recalling Hetch Hetchy. […]

We don’t have time to read the entire history of the system, but Barry Mackintosh goes on to cover such topics as overdevelopment of the parks for tourist purposes and exploitation and loss of natural resources even as the parks have developed new attractions for tourists, including interpretive centers, exhibits focusing on environmentalism, living history projects, protection of nationally recognized historic places, and development and servicing of trails such as the Appalachian Trails. Check out the full history at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/hisnps/npshistory/npshisto.htm

  We’ll be asking our guest, Andrea Lankford, about some of the problems facing the system, including a number identified in an online article by Eisla Sebastion on the Yahoo Associated Content site. She writes:

 There are seven main areas of environmental problems that face the U.S. National Park System: overuse, insufficient funds for park operation, threats to wildlife, the concession systems, energy and mineral development, atmospheric pollution, and activities on adjacent lands. The popularity of National Parks especially the crown jewel parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, have overwhelmed some national parks with visitors. In fact, the amount of visitors to national parks has steadily increased by 10% each year. This massive increase in pedestrian and vehicle traffic has caused trails to become eroded from overuse, vegetation surrounding trails around popular attraction to be trampled by visitors, and litter, noise, water pollution, and smog have all impeded the enjoyability of national parks. This increase in visitors and the need for the few rangers employed by the park to meet the needs of more and more visitors have created a safety issue. Rangers can’t monitor the entire park for criminal activity, and this impacts the safety of national parks. (Kaufman and Franz, 1993, 474).

[…] Wildlife at national parks is also threatened by the increasing popularity of these areas. More visitors means that there are more people approaching wild animals to take pictures and watch their “natural behaviors.” While these observations don’t necessarily harm the animals if done discretely from a distance, there are a few irresponsible individuals who take risks to get close to animals. They harass the animals and provoke them in order to get an action shot or to prove their “manhood.”

The concession system is another issue that is plaguing the national park system. (Kaufman and Franz, 1993, 478). In this case, private companies bid to sell their products in the park to visitors. While they are able to monopolize a market, and they are allowed to operate on national park property, they only return 25% of the money earned to the government. This percentage doesn’t make up for the amount of pollution they create from the tourists littering, or from the environmental impacts of their concession stand and sales.

There’s more to read in this article about problems facing the national parks.  Read the full article at:


Our Discussion with Andrea Lankford

Our guest tonight is Andrea Lankford. She had a twelve year career as a Ranger in the National Park System, with assignments from Cape Hatteras to Utah to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. She has also trekked the Appalachian trail, kayaked from Miami to Key West, and cycled to the Arctic Ocean. Her book is titled, Ranger Confidential, with a foreboding subtitle: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks.

  • Your book is a page turner, with a number of pretty grim and occasionally funny stories about Rangers and the range of humanity that shows up at our National Parks. Before we hear some of those stories, please tell us a little more about yourself. How did you become a National Park Ranger wearing a Smoky Bear hat?
  • Why did you become a Ranger? How and why did your expectations change?
  • As you say in the book, the public has a variety of images of Rangers, few of them accurate. Please tell us in particular about the public’s misperceptions of Rangers as:
  • people with a great job, viewing sunsets.
  • cops restricting everybody’s good times.
  • public servants who should bow and scrape before the tourists.
  • Please tell us about the Park Ranger credo: “Protect the park from the people, the peaople from the park, and the people from themselves.”
  • Perhaps we could hear (your choice of) stories about yours (and others’) lives as Rangers. Among our “favorites” are: dumb things that tourists do (especially the Grand Canyon). [Not to treat that topic too lightly, since those dumb things can be fatal.]; Scorpion and Ranger karma; Out-and-out criminals encounter in the parks; suicidal people; Mary the typist/Thanksgiving ledge rescuer
  • You write a good deal about discrimination against women in the park service. Please describe some of your experiences here. How did you cope with it?
  • [You have had friends and colleagues who died in the Park Service. If you care to discuss this topic, we would like to hear about those experiences and their effect on you.]
  • After twelve years, you left the Park Service. Why? 
  • The U.S. National Park system is unique in the world. In what ways do you see it as fulfilling and failing to fulfill the dreams of such park advocates as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt?
  • Are there just too many tourists? [In a recent program, we offered the idea that maybe California would be a great place were it not for the Californians!]
  • It’s difficult to become a Ranger, and people have to go through a lot to get permanent positions. How could the training/hiring systems be improved?
  • What about Rangers’ pay and living conditions?
  • You have criticisms of the concession system, which obviously brings in a lot of revenue to support the park system. How could this be corrected?
  • You write some about frivolous and wasteful projects that consume the Park Service budget. Please give us an example or two of those and your suggestions about how this could be corrected.
  • We’re in hard economic times. How is the Park Service faring? Do you think it has a friend in the current president?
  • If you were the Director of the National Park System, what immediate steps might you take?
  • In closing: Please tell us something of your current life and your forthcoming projects.

The book is Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks. a Falcon Guide publication of the Globe Pequot Press. Andrea has also done books on bicycling the Arizona trail, biking in the Grand Canyon area, and Haunted Hikes: Spine Tingling Tails and Trails from America’s National Park. You can learn more about them and about Andrea at her website: http://www.andrealankford.com

A Brief History of Smokey Bear

On the cover of her book, Ranger Confidential, is a battered ranger hat, commonly called a “Smokey Bear” hat–flat brim, familiar to us all through his forest fire prevention ads. Smokey Bear is actually not a member of the National Park Service. He represents the National Forest Service, a separate government division, that is actually part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Nevertheless, we thought it might be interesting to close out tonight’s program with a brief biography of Smokey Bear. Here’s his history from the Pennsylvania Forestry Division:

Smokey Bear, the guardian of our forests, has been a part of the American scene for so many years it is hard for us to remember when he first appeared. Dressed in a ranger’s hat, belted blue jeans, and carrying a shovel, he has been the recognized forest fire prevention symbol for over 50 years. Today, Smokey Bear is one of the most famous advertising symbols in the world and is protected by Federal Law. He has his own private zip code, his own legal council, and his own private committee to insure that his name is used properly. Smokey Bear is much more than a make-believe paper image; he exists as an actual symbol of forest fire prevention.

To understand how Smokey Bear became associated with forest fire prevention, we must go back to World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The following spring in 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced near the coast of Southern California and fired a salvo of shells that exploded on an oil field near Santa Barbara, very close to the Los Padres National Forest. Americans throughout the country were shocked by the news that the war had now been brought directly to the American mainland. There was concern that further attacks could bring a disastrous loss of life and destruction of property. There was also a fear that enemy incendiary shells exploding in the timber stands of the Pacific Coast could easily set off numerous raging forest fires. With experienced firefighters and other able-bodied men engaged in the armed forces, the home communities had to deal with the forest fires as best they could. Protection of these forests became a matter of national importance, and a new idea was born. If people could be urged to be more careful, perhaps some of the fires could be prevented.

With this is mind, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council.

Posters and slogans were created by the Advertising Council, including “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy,” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.” By using catchy phrases, colorful posters and other fire prevention messages, the Advertising Council suggested that people could prevent accidental fires and help win the war.

Walt Disney’s motion picture, “Bambi” was produced in 1944 and Disney let the forest fire prevention campaign use his creation on a poster. The “Bambi” poster was a success and proved that using an animal as a fire prevention symbol would work. A fawn could not be used in subsequent campaigns because “Bambi” was on loan from Walt Disney studios for only one year; the Forest Service would need to find an animal that would belong to the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign. It was finally decided that the Nation’s number one firefighter should be a bear.

On August 9, 1944, the first poster of Smokey Bear was prepared. The poster depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. Smokey Bear soon became popular, and his image began appearing on other posters and cards.

In 1952, Smokey Bear had enough public recognition to attract commercial interest. An Act of Congress passed to take Smokey out of the public domain and place him under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. The Act provided for the use of collected fees and royalties for forest fire prevention. One of the first licensed items was a Smokey Bear stuffed toy. Hundreds of items have been licensed over the years.


 And here’s the Smokey Bear Official Web Site http://www.smokeybear.com/

Playlist for Ecotopia #95: Ranger Confidential

1. Carry Me Off 3:54 The Dillards      Roots And Branches/Tribute To The American Duck

2. Nature’s Way 2:40 Spirit   Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus

3. Sunshine On My Shoulders (Digitally Remastered) 5:11 John Denver  Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits

4. Earth Anthem 3:54 The Turtles     Go Green: Songs for Earth Day, Volume 1

5. Haunted by Waters – A River Runs Through It (Reprise) 4:22 Mark Isham    A River Runs Through It

6. Weave Me the Sunshine 4:28 Peter, Paul And Mary  The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Clear Blue Skies (LP Version) 3:07 Crosby, Still, Nash & Young  American Dream

8. Black Moon (Album Version) 6:59 Emerson, Lake & Palmer   Black Moon