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National parks and the idea of conservation in the fossil fuel age

In the past week many people have been watching Ken Burns' latest documentary film, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, on television. The series is a moving tribute to the men and women who saved some of America's most stunning landscapes from the greedy hands of the mining, timber and development interests.

As we have come to expect from Burns, the caliber of the storytelling, the cinematography, the soundtrack and the narration are top flight, and I recommend the series. My focus, however, is not on the film itself so much as on what the story tells us about the relationship between the idea of conservation and the fossil fuel age in which the national parks were established and expanded.

It is clear that Burns' history of the national parks is meant to convey that the creation of the parks was a reaction against the grimy industrialism spreading across the United States in the 19th century. Beautiful places were being encroached upon. Often, it was individuals who valued those places who took up the fight to protect them. And, quite often the cry was: "Not another Niagara Falls." The idea was to protect other special landscapes from commercial exploitation so that visitors could see them as they were when Europeans first set eyes on them.

And, here is the first omission from the story. We are told that such places had to be protected from human exploitation if they were to retain their aesthetic and spiritual appeal. But these landscapes had already been exploited by Native Americans for centuries for food, water, clothing, shelter, and even spiritual purposes. It's just that these native peoples generally had done so in ways that neither destroyed the beauty nor depleted the resources of these places. It is our modern methods of exploitation, our numbers and our consumptive habits that threatened these unique landscapes.

Second, some of those who championed the creation of the national parks were made rich by the very extractive and transportation industries that threatened the parks' beauty. Railroad tycoon Charles Shelton and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of oil titan John D. Rockfeller, come to mind. The railroads, of course, made it possible for a great many more people to travel to remote places for work and for leisure. The positive role of the railroad companies in advocating for the national parks is well-covered in the film. But railroads also made it much easier to transport to market the resources extracted from remote places by the very industries that threatened the parks. Coal and then oil extracted from the Earth, usually in ruinous ways, were used to power those railroads and much of industry as well.

As touching and heroic as the concern of Shelton and Rockefeller for unspoiled scenic beauty was, these men were, in fact, exemplars of a system that made national parks a seeming necessity. Before the industrial age, what are now national parks were just places where people lived, foraged and hunted.

Third, if one has seen some the country's national parks--I was recently in Utah at Zion and Bryce Canyon--it is not hard to understand why John Muir and others have spoken of such landscapes as places of spiritual awe and renewal. To paraphrase President Theodore Roosevelt, these are landscapes God has shaped through the ages and that man cannot improve. Thus, we have the dichotomy. The vast majority of the Earth's surface is ripe for improvement. Only certain small tracks of unusual topography, vegetation or wildlife are perfect as is.

Of course, we must remember that these progenitors of the national park idea lived on an Earth that had only a fraction of the population we have today. The notion that we could exhaust the world's resources or change its climate and in the process endanger the very survival of the human species was unthinkable. Coal, iron ore, timber, petroleum, copper, fish and land seemed limitless compared to the needs of the current population or even the needs of any future population.

And, herein lies my fourth point. The age in which the national parks were established was an age in which people could be made to believe that saving a few wild areas would in no way hamper the continued material progress of humankind. There have always been those who wanted to exploit the ready riches which lie in such landscapes. But today in the face of escalating energy prices, it has been all too easy for the American Petroleum Institute to succeed at convincing the American public and the Congress that the United States must open as much area as possible to oil drilling.

As the fossil fuel age winds down, will the public be so amenable to setting aside additional landscapes, keeping them out-of-bounds to extractive industries? Will it even be willing to defend the national parks we already have? I wonder.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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