National parks are predominantly in the western United States, where vast tracts of land were set aside and protected as settlers and development pressed beyond the Mississippi River. Significant national parks and monuments exist in every state. An old park service policy of granting private concession monopolies, without open bidding, caused uproars about injustice early on. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) also operated concessions in the form of lodging, guides, and so forth as the parks were created. In many areas the national parks provided needed jobs and tourist revenue, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still a revenue corridor to the local economy, most forms of recreation—including snowmobiling, river rafting, skiing, and the use of all-terrain vehicles—impact the environment and have been argued as activities in conflict with the overall mission of the NPS.
The U.S. national park system is often the focus of environmental controversies. One current example is the extent to which scenic preservation and environmental quality in the parks is surrendered in favor of money that concession stands contribute to keep the parks open. Concessions, for example, require electricity. Bringing electrical lines into the parks has an environmental and scenic impact. Consequently, some environmentalists oppose the stands as business operations in national parks.
I. Emerging Issue: Electricity
II. Perennial Issue: Campgrounds
III. Another Environmental Impact: Noise Pollution
Emerging Issue: Electricity
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the U.S. secretary of energy the authority to designate public and private lands as National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (NIETCs). Two regions served as the starting point for creating the corridors: the southwestern United States, passing through southern California, Arizona, and Nevada; and the Mid-Atlantic states, through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
Weaker environmental impact assessments are allowed for projects within these designations, which pass through five national parks, at least 13 national wildlife refuges, and many other nature preserves. Environmentalists argue that the designations clash with the National Wildlife Act. Concessions almost always need electrical power; as they expand, so too will their need for electrical energy. When the source of the electrical energy is a coal-fired power plant, environmental activists have publicly chided the government for supporting nonrenewable energy sources that pollute the environment instead of cleaner and more sustainable fuel sources, such as solar power.
Taking sides with environmental activists yet presenting a different argument, landowners from surrounding communities have also objected to the corridors, citing documented impacts to livestock health from waves of electricity. As well, there is similar research indicating that electromagnetic radiation causes negative health effects in people and plants. This aspect of the concessions controversy will expand as more projects are proposed and begun in designated areas.
Many requests for concessions were denied amid this controversy after the 2005 law. However, in early December 2007, the Department of Energy granted rehearings to further consider arguments from all who filed timely requests in the Mid-Atlantic and Southwest corridors. In January 2008, eleven environmental organizations from both areas filed suit against the Department of Energy (DOE) over its corridor designations. Led by the National Wildlife Federation and the Piedmont Environmental Council, the groups challenged the designation as violating the National Environmental Protection Act and Endangered Species Act by failing to study the potential harmful impacts of the corridor on air quality, wildlife, habitat, and other natural resources. They also restated that the NPS is mandated to conserve the scenery in national parks, and that having energy corridors run through them is inappropriate. According to the suit, DOE overstepped what Congress called for in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and designated lands that lie outside of the identified congestion area. Three months later, on March 6, 2008, the DOE issued an order denying all applications for rehearing. As of May 2010, corridors in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, and Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii awaited approval.
In addition to health and fuel source concerns, local control of land also is part of this issue. Because federal law supersedes state and local land-use controls when it is more strict, communities tend to fight federal land grabs. In the many jurisdictional controversies around the fear of federal encroachment on states’ rights, the issue of concessions to local residents and their businesses is one of the most significant. Generally, compromises have to be made on both sides—sometimes following a public hearing.
Despite the congressional mandate to protect the scenic beauty and environmental quality (about which the Transcendentalists and American Romantics waxed poetic), entrepreneurs have long sought to create recreational ski areas in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, one of the oldest national parks. Park Service philosophy has maintained that all outdoor sports, including winter sports, should be encouraged there. Early powerful park administrators believed that to get appropriations from a parsimonious Congress they had to publicize the recreational potential of the park system. Others contended that visitors should be allowed to use the parks to the fullest no matter what the environmental impacts. As a result, ski lifts were eventually built in the Mt. Rainier, Sequoia, Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic, and Olympic national parks. To implement these directives in Rocky Mountain National Park without marring the scenery became the special problem of more than one superintendent, and the fact that a winter sports complex was built there suggests that the Park Service was bowing to political pressures.
Perennial Issue: Campgrounds
Park officials regularly grapple with controversies surrounding campgrounds and inholdings— privately owned land contained within a national park. The existence of both is considered ecologically unsound by some, since they irrevocably alter the environment for wildlife. Thus it seemed logical to buy out privately developed lands within areas acquired for national parks. To replace developed areas with campgrounds was a politically realistic policy. Pressures from politicians and chambers of commerce demanding more campgrounds, roads, and trails are ever present for many park administrators. Allowing campgrounds within national parks also presented a business challenge for hotel, inn, and motel owners who could not compete profitably with such campgrounds.
Another Environmental Impact: Noise Pollution
Noise generated by human activities is another ongoing issue. Large recreational vehicles often need to run generators, so their use in large campgrounds tends to compromise the wilderness experience. Some communities want to expand their airports to take economic advantage of the presence of a national park, thereby also contributing to noise pollution. Larger airports mean bigger planes and more tourist revenue. They also mean extending the environmental impacts of noise and air pollution into the community. Some wonder what existing land-use policies involving concessions will bring in the future.
Controversy and litigation have increased in the case of parks where visitors hear touring planes and helicopters, snowmobiles, watercraft, off -road vehicles, and even the NPS’s own equipment and concessions. Members of environmental groups, off -highway vehicle groups, the air tourism industry, tribal nations, and some of the major government agencies that oversee public lands all spar over noise control. Will the national parks allow racecar driving, manufacturing industries, or tall office buildings?
As park users increase their demand for the national park experience, conflict and controversy are increasing as well. Strong economic and political pressure from logging, mining, and ranching opportunists could arise once concessions for in-park businesses are made. The NPS’s mission clashes with many of the special interests that drive economic pressure for concessions stands; it also collides with ranchers, for example, who resent wildlife reintroduction programs—including for wolves, which eat livestock, and grizzly bears.
It is likely that national parks will continue generate strong and controversial issues around noise, electricity lines, and other activities disrupting wildlife and issues that relate to businesses operating concessions in the parks. Ecosystem risk assessments, endangered species, and cumulative impacts are themselves all environmental controversies that are heightened within the confines of a national park.
Robert William Collin and Debra Ann Schwartz
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