Modern civilization encroaching ‘middle of nowhere’ territory

Justin Playl and Justin Playl

Everyone has times when they just want to get away from the daily grind. Unfortunately, this is getting harder than ever. In the past, many people who wanted an escape went to national parks. After all, where else is further away from the problems and responsibilities of modern society than the middle of nowhere? However, modern society, which cannot abide large tracts of unpaved land, has begun to encroach on the middle of nowhere. According to the National Park Service Web site, there are currently 8,500 miles of road crisscrossing our national parks with a web of concrete. Thanks to the unrelenting forces of ‘progress’ and ‘development,’ it is now possible for campers with RVs, tour busses loaded with little old ladies and minivans full of screaming kids to drive right up to landmarks and snap photos, spending a minimal amount of time away from necessities like air conditioning. Yellowstone National Park, for example, now looks like Disney World. Visitors who wish to see the world-famous geysers drive to a massive parking lot, surrounded by hotels, restaurants and gift shops, where they can park their cars and actually venture out of their steel-and-glass coffins. After a walk across the concrete expanse (trust me, this is the furthest anyone has to walk in the park), visitors reach a boardwalk, where they can wait with hundreds of other visitors for Old Faithful to erupt. So much for the middle of nowhere. And the middle of nowhere isn’t just being sacrificed to accommodate ‘civilized’ American suburbanites; big business is in on the act, too. According to the Environmental News Service, 77 parcels of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks were auctioned off to oil and gas companies in December 2008. Although not strictly on park land, development of these parcels would decrease air quality in the parks. Development would also surround these parks with pipelines and oil wells, negatively impacting wildlife in the area (surprisingly enough, animals don’t stay inside park boundaries). Fortunately, the Obama administration recognized the danger of developing these parcels and halted the sale of land upon entering office. A study in the September 2008 issue of ‘Backpacker Magazine’ found that the most remote area in continental U.S. is actually in the heart of Yellowstone – a grand total of 20 miles from the nearest road. For those of us cursed with living east of the Mississippi, which is more developed than the West, the furthest a person can get away from civilization is only 10 miles. In short, the wilderness is quickly vanishing. To protect the wilderness, the National Park Service is supposed to swing into action. Created in 1916, the NPS is required to ‘conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such a means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.’ Stripped of official language and political jargon, the mission of the NPS is to protect the wilderness for the recreation of the public. This mission seems fairly straightforward. However, at some point in history someone decided the public would not be able to enjoy itself too far away from their cars. After all, what forest wouldn’t be improved with parking lots? Because of this, the mission statement of the Park Service is now split into two contradictory tasks: to ‘conserve the scenery’ and to ‘provide for the enjoyment … of future generations.’ Right now, the Park Service has deemed it more important to provide the enjoyment of a convenience-loving public than protect the wilderness. Who’s to blame for this mix-up in priorities? Although the NPS is responsible for paving over our wilderness areas, it is merely responding to the public’s attachment to conveniences. In the end, the blame rests solely on our shoulders. We want air-conditioning, gift shops and ready-made Kodak moments, so the NPS obliges us. If we value our nation’s wilderness, we can no longer demand such conveniences from the Park Service. The parks are supposed to be pristine areas of nature – people who can’t handle that should not visit them. To those who cannot hike, who hate dirt and sweat, and who only want postcard-quality photos of landmarks: the parks are not intended for you. Stay in your cities, and don’t try to ‘civilize’ our last bastions of wilderness with more of your pavement.