Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 6 August 2020

It’s impossible to leave only footprints when US parks are being trampled

National parks in the US will be disfigured if the Trump administration allows mining, the construction of malls and introduces WiFi and Amazon deliveries

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, and Reservoir in Utah, US. Education Images / Getty Images
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, and Reservoir in Utah, US. Education Images / Getty Images

One of my most vivid holiday memories is almost like a dream, only it really happened. I was swimming with my son just after sunrise in the western part of the US, in Flaming Gorge in Utah. It is a US national recreation area, a reservoir where the Green River is dammed, running between beautiful red rock canyons and home to more trout than I can remember ever having seen anywhere. We were swimming because it was fun – but also to get clean.

We were camping by the side of the lake and there were no showers anywhere near. A morning swim in the orange light just before breakfast felt perfect. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a glorious bird of prey, an osprey, swept down from the sky, claws outstretched. It hit a trout near the surface of the lake a few metres in front of where we were swimming.

The bird rose, a magnificent sight, with the large fish flapping in its talons as it headed to the other side of the canyon. The early morning silence was alive with the sound of osprey chicks calling their mother. They wanted breakfast too.

I suppose it is possible to make money by building a shopping mall in Grand Canyon and a McDonalds among the caribou in Denali National Park in Alaska

My son and I watched in astonishment at one of the wonders of the natural world.

The osprey disappeared into the cliffs and the calls from the chicks subsided. We guessed that their mouths were full of trout.

I am writing this because the wilderness of the American West is one of my favourite places and because it is under threat. The so-called Made in America outdoor recreation advisory committee wants to open up American parklands to generating income from US national parks.

I suppose it is possible to make money by building a shopping mall in Grand Canyon and a McDonalds among the caribou in Denali National Park in Alaska.

There could be car dealerships in Florida’s Everglades and perhaps a department store in Glacier National Park in Montana – but that is not what the wilderness is for. It is supposed to be wild. It is not a shopping opportunity.

That doesn’t mean “generating income” is a bad idea. From Yellowstone to Flaming Gorge, tourists pay to see natural wonders. My family always had an annual pass, paid to camp and sometimes stayed in park hotels.

As a Scot, I am especially proud that more than a century ago, a fellow Scot who emigrated to America, John Muir, played such a large part in ensuring the national parks were created to preserve wild and unspoiled land generally free from farming, grazing, mining and logging.

Muir was known as “John of the Mountains” and “father of the national parks”. He founded Sierra Club and California’s Yosemite National Park, and you could see him as the Greta Thunberg of his day – someone who woke Americans up to the idea that ruthless economic exploitation to make money now could ruin the wilderness forever.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: John Muir (1838-1914) Scottish-born American naturalist, engineer, writer and pioneer of conservation. Campaigned for preservation of US wilderness including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. Founder of The Sierra Club. Photograph. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
John Muir (1838-1914): Scottish-born American naturalist, engineer, writer and pioneer of conservation campaigned for preservation of US wilderness including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park and was founder of The Sierra Club. Universal History Archive / Getty Images

And that is what worries me about the Made in America advisory committee, especially with American President Donald Trump in the White House.

True, their mission statement is anodyne enough: “The committee will advise the secretary of the interior on public-private partnerships across all public lands, with the goal of expanding access to and improving infrastructure on public lands and waterways” and to “expand and improve visitor infrastructure developed through public-private partnerships.”

But the track record of the Trump administration on the environment is dire. He has pulled out of the Paris Climate Change Accord, for one.

The most recent figures show a rise in US greenhouse gas emissions of 3.4 per cent – the biggest rise since 2010.

He doesn’t think much of science demonstrating man-made climate change. He cut the size of two great national parklands in Utah.

One, called Bears Ears, was reduced from 1.5 million acres to 250,000 acres. The other, Grand Staircase-Escalante, was halved from two million acres to one million acres.

This is reckoned to be the biggest cutback of public lands protection in American history.

The Trump administration has also announced plans to increase mining on parkland and to remove key provisions from the Endangered Species Act.

Other ideas being discussed include privatising campgrounds, introducing wifi and electric bicycles and permitting Amazon deliveries.

The great John Muir will be turning in his grave and there will be significant resistance to these projects from the Sierra Club and others.

The US national park system is a place where humans should leave only footprints and take away only memories.

Mine include watching grizzly bears feed on berries, beavers making a dam in a slow-flowing river, a herd of wild buffalo stopping my car in Yellowstone and the tranquillity of the Sonoran desert.

The genius of America has been to create wealth, the innovations of Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Google and Microsoft.

But the Made in America plans are not wealth creation. They sound like wealth extraction. When the trees and animals and minerals are gone, what is left? And if you want an Amazon delivery in a national park, you have to wonder what kind of world we’re living in.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: November 25, 2019 07:38 PM

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