The Difficult Matter of Achieving Balance in Our National Parks

It is a difficult and curious matter, the balance between man and nature.

Once camping on lovely Santa Rosa Island, I met a man named Norman. Norman was grizzled, weather-roughened and whippet-lean. He might have been in his fifties; he might have been five hundred. You may have met this type of outdoorsman. Though he didn't need to, Norman told me he had spent many years adventuring in nature. Then he looked at me as if he might take a bite out of me.

Norman was adventuring on Santa Rosa Island - some forty six miles by boat from Ventura Harbor -- with a group that included a woman named Eva. It didn't take long to realize that Eva was cut from the same cloth as Norman. She spoke in a bark, and her words were laced with challenge, superiority, and disdain.

"There are people who were born in Southern California who actually have no idea these islands are out here," she declared. "People go, 'Oh, where are they, in the Caribbean?' I think it is kind of sad."

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"No!" barked Norman. "It's good! Otherwise they'd be out here like crazy."

Norman scowled.

"Having showers and toilets out here is ridiculous," he said.

If you don't know, and it's no reflection on your character if you don't , Santa Rosa Island -- along with the islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and San Miguel -- is part of Channel Islands National Park. And Norman is right. Although Santa Rosa is an isolated, windswept isle 26 miles off, and world's away from, the Southern California coast, its campground does have a flush toilet and a hot shower second to none. But I am not sure if this is wrong. When I camped on Santa Rosa, I enjoyed both the hot shower and the flush toilet very much. On one howling gale of a night I left my wind-battered tent and slept for a few hours in the blissfully warm and relatively quiet facility (there was no one else in the campground at the time). Was I happy for these trappings of comfort and civilization? Damn right. Or it would have been a long night curled around a pit toilet.

I bring this up because last week Yosemite National Park officials decided to shelf plans that would have banned a number of recreational activities in Yosemite Valley, including ending bike rentals and raft rentals in the Valley and tearing out swimming pools at the Yosemite Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel. As you may imagine, these proposed bans created quite a stir. According to one news account, 30,000 people commented on these Park Service proposals. Many of those commenting were not happy. Their protests kept the Valley bike and raft rentals alive, although the new plan does end horse rentals in Yosemite Valley. "It's a shame they just don't leave things be," said someone who wanted the Valley horse stables to stay.

Of course, by leaving things be, things change.

The Yosemite debate highlights the dilemma our national parks have always faced. The Park Service's mission is a profoundly difficult mix -- provide public recreation (and amenities) within the parks while preserving them. And so the new Yosemite plan will restore 189 acres of meadows in Yosemite Valley while increasing the number of parking places by 8 percent.

There are those who would shut down our National Parks completely, padlock the gates, and leave them to themselves, wilderness bereft of flush toilets and jouncing rubber rafts filled with shouting families. Closing down Channel Islands National Park would certainly be a simple matter. The islands present a daunting swim, even for someone as outdoorsy as Norman.

I am lucky to call a number of National Park Service employees friends -- rangers and mechanics and public information officers -- and I can tell you that all of them care deeply about the lands they help oversee. But they -- and we; for these lands ultimately belong to you and me -- are caught in a tough-to-impossible place.

Park Service. Even the name cries contradiction

After my encounter with Norman and Eva I went for a long hike, for bitter people often leave an equivalent taste in my mouth. I hiked out to Carrington Point, a fat thumb of land on Santa Rosa's northeastern edge. Following a flower-edged trail I walked to land's very end. Then I just stood and breathed.

It was everything that makes Nature magic: fog-wrapped, wave-pounded, and fat with Blue Angel pelican formations and industriously plunging cormorants. Large waves rolled out of the horizon-less fog, drawing back the water before them, exposing the foam-edged tops of dark, craggy rocks. Nearby on the rocky bluff, gulls strutted about shell piles in their vaguely psychotic, indecisively greedy manner (should-I-fly-away-should-I-stay-where-I-am-whatever-I-do-what's-in-it-for-me?). Nothing but gulls and wind spoke in my ears.

It was a raw and wild place, this seeming edge of the world, and I had been delivered there by the National Park Service.

Not a perfect situation, but pretty damn close.

This Park Service matter has no easy answers. But balance is something Nature understands. Perhaps man can, too.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine is the author of eight books and lives in Ventura. His most recent novel, “Juncture,” is a cerebral “Jaws”; a suspense-filled thriller, a story of primal love and our changing oceans and, perhaps, a final fork in the road.
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