I just finished a long circuit of the American Southwest, which included visits to the national parks and national monuments at Great Sand Dunes, Gunnison Canyon, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite.
The road trip was instructive for a number of reasons. First, it revealed to me that there are areas in the Southwest that are downright ugly. For example, Desert Center, California, only a few miles east of Joshua Tree National Park, resembles one of the film locations for the post-apocalyptic Australian classic “Mad Max.” The town’s now vacant truck stop, wilting palm trees, and gutted houses look as though the inhabitants hastily abandoned the place. Then there is Bakersfield, California, which is frequently listed in “Forbes” magazine as one of the most miserable cities in America. It deserves the designation. The city and its environs are a shambles of industrial junk, fast food restaurants, air pollution, big agribusinesses, drought parched fields, dilapidated migrant worker shanties, and incessant, high-speed traffic. If someone can make sense of Bakersfield, let me know.
My road trip through the Southwest also made it clear to me that a person cannot go anywhere within the Lower 48 to get away from the crowds. People are everywhere, inhabiting or visiting seemingly remote places. For instance, there’s a geographically fragmented town immediately outside the northwestern gate at Joshua Tree National Park. How it got there is anyone’s guess. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere – but with all the modern amenities.
I also realized by the end of the journey that America’s national parks are diamonds in the rough; they are the last best places in an increasingly urbanized, overpopulated, automobile-centric society. The parks are sanctuaries, refuges from a society that award-winning author George Packer convincingly argues in his most recent book is “unwinding.”
Nineteenth-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world.” I would argue that in wilderness is the preservation of the United States. National parks and wild lands offer the American people a means of regaining a sense of balance in an otherwise dysfunctional society. National parks, with their big skies, long vistas, and wild lands, encourage a person to think expansively, to envision new possibilities, and to physically break the bonds that tie him/her to the corporate dominated socio-political order. In America’s outback, a man or woman can attain a degree of freedom (if only temporarily) not possible in the stifling suburbs and industrial wreckage of a city such as Bakersfield. Most importantly, in the parks, we recognize a shared sense of purpose and values with our fellow Americans. We are all visiting the parks because we love the outdoors, care about wild creatures, and want to ensure the preservation of these places for posterity. The parks are a unifying force in a nation plagued by divisiveness.
And yet, many parks are just too crowded. In Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park, the number of daily visitors challenges any notion of the park being a wilderness area or even a national park for that matter. Los Angelians have overrun the place. I saw hip, lycra-clad rock climbers scampering up many of the park’s fantastic stone formations. A steady stream of cars drove through the campgrounds, as if the tent communities were a simpler version of the burbs. Jet aircraft passed directly over the park on their approach to LAX, their engines easily heard on the ground. To my astonishment, I even saw a rock climber deploy a heli-drone to survey a rock formation (which by the way is illegal within the park). All the noise, people, and machines made it impossible to perceive Joshua Tree as either remote or wild.
Consider this, Yellowstone National Park receives roughly three million visitors annually, most of those visitors arrive in the park during the months of May, June, July, and August. In July, about 200,000 visitors a week descend on Yellowstone, that is the equivalent of the population of Des Moines, Iowa, coming into the park every seven days.
The sizable number of people in parks like Joshua Tree and Yellowstone indicates that the public desperately wants to experience the outdoors. People want to leave behind modern America or at least some of the zanier aspects of the contemporary U.S. But the national parks, within their present geographical configurations, are no longer big enough or in sufficient numbers to meet the rising human demand. The national parks are being overwhelmed by numbers or as some authors have claimed “loved-to-death.”
The southwestern journey led me to a simple conclusion. The United States needs bigger national parks and more of them.
The Midwest in particular is in dire need of outdoor recreation areas. The establishment of a Missouri River Valley National Park would go along way toward meeting the outdoor recreation needs of the residents of South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. Unlike the majority of U.S. national parks, the park would be easily accessible to the urban Midwestern poor – a group that can ill afford traveling the long distances to national parks in the Far West. Moreover, the Missouri Valley could become a Grand Commons, a joining place for the Midwest’s increasingly racially-diverse population.
Such a park could extend from Gavin’s Point Dam southward into the state of Missouri. Its land area could enclose the Missouri’s deconstructed navigation channel, restored side channels and chutes, and the river’s floodplain. It would be the first major national park to be created out of a former industrialized river. The park could provide outdoor enthusiasts a plethora of activities, including but not limited to: hunting, fishing, camping, biking, hiking, bird watching, and ecological study. Park rangers could teach the public about environmental restoration, the importance of floodplain ecosystems to biodiversity, and the vital role of wetlands, bottomland forests, and the restored, widened river channel to flood control.
A Missouri River Valley National Park would be far more profitable (in monetary, social, and environmental terms) than the river in its current state – which is as a defunct, flood-prone navigation channel and agricultural drainage ditch. As a national park, the Missouri River would better serve all the residents of the Midwest, rather than the narrow economic interests of a handful of riverside agribusinesses, power plant operators, and barge companies.
It is a sign of how undemocratic our society has become that a tiny corporate elite are able to monopolize the Missouri and prevent its more equitable and socially-beneficial use. In an era when the proponents of corporate authoritarianism are hell-bent on dismantling the nation’s democratic institutions and processes, the establishment of a Missouri River Valley National Park would signal that “We The People” are still the ultimate authority along the Missouri River.