I know a lot of park rangers, and they have a really tough job. The pay’s rotten, they spend most of their time picking trash out of pit toilets, acting as cops when people bring their problems with them to the park (most commonly domestic violence and DUI at the campgrounds), and they are at the mercy of a giant bureaucracy. Things we be a lot easier if there weren’t all these damn park visitors getting in the way.
Anyone who’s dedicated to preserving the outdoors would find it a lot easier if it wasn’t for the pesky general public. They pick flowers, drop litter, make noise, cut trails and generally damage the environment. It would be so much simpler to take care of the wilderness if people would stay out.
This means that increasing the number of park visitors is pushed way down the priority list. In fact, while the idea might be paid lip service, any measures that might help usually conflict with other things considered more important. Charging an entrance fee has to be a big psychological barrier, but it’s pretty popular with rangers because it means that they have an excuse to ask for a receipt from anyone causing trouble, and either search or eject them if they didn’t keep it. Publicizing or improving back-country campgrounds to encourage visitors means a lot more maintenance and enforcement work.
Our parks systems have ended up working like a monopoly, where customers are a hindrance, not a priority. Individual rangers are dedicated to encouraging everyone to share their love of the outdoors, but all of their incentives push them away from acting to pull in more people. Environmental organizations are so focused on preservation, they fight against even low-impact recreation. The 1997 Merced flood halved the number of camping spots in Yosemite, but there’s still a battle to build any replacements at all.
This is all part of a slow crisis, where park attendance across the country is dropping overall, and particularly in California, despite yearly fluctuations. This matters because parks all require government money, which means they need popular support. Why should people pay for something they’re never likely to use? During the California budget crisis, the governor planned to close many state parks like Topanga. That was hardly mentioned on the news, and though it was prevented for now, you can bet the lack of a public outcry will affect politician’s calculations in the future.
What can we do about all this? I think there has to be a grass-roots effort to let people know what’s available, reignite their interest and boost attendance. I’m trying to do my bit by documenting local camping, most of which is not covered by the agencies websites. I’m also trying to be a voice for more low-impact recreation at organizations I’m involved in like the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council.