Rio Grande, Big Bend
Sacred Wonderland

Why do we have national parks?

Rio Grande, Big Bend
Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2010)

In his affectionate review of author Michael Frome’s corpus of writings about national parks, Alfred Runte asks, “Why do we have national parks?” Runte summarizes Frome’s insistent answer: “Because every generation deserves to have them. They are not for the economy; they are rather for the soul of the country. They are all about keeping our tomorrows whole.” In Frome’s view, this means preserving the parks as wilderness areas: “Only if the national parks are managed as wilderness can we expect them to survive as national parks.”

Certainly ideas of wilderness and national parks go hand in hand in the national consciousness. But isn’t there something ironic, even oxymoronic, about “managing” parks “as wilderness”? Is a place still wild when it is being intensely managed? The tension between “park” and “wilderness” has to a large extent defined the longstanding conflicts that surround America’s embrace of the national park idea. Wilderness may offer solace to the tormented soul of the country, but their benefits to the economy keep our parks open. ♨


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