Glacier Centennial: Nature is YOU

“That was the moment that defined my place in the natural world. The moment I understood that I, a human being, was not above the other creatures of Creation. Not better than the bees and the birds and the bears. Not superior to the snakes and the snails and the swallows. I was Nature. Nature was me.” –Smoky Trudeau, writing of an early childhood experience in Observations of an Earth Mage

Like many visitors to Montana’s Glacier National Park, I enjoy the historic hotels, the ancient red tour buses, the launch trips on the lakes, and a fine meal in the dining room with a wide-windowed vista such as Waterton and Swiftcurrent Lakes.

The highlighted sites and activities in park service and hotel brochures hardly scratch the surface of what a park is–and what it could be.

There has always been a fight over what the parks are for. Are they wildlife habitats and protected ecosystems or are they recreation areas that must continue to be “developed” for use by visitors at the expense of that which is preserved?

Montana’s Glacier National Park and Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park form the world’s first International Peace Park, a designation they received in 1932. Since 1976, the parks have also been designated by the U.N. as Biosphere Reserves; and, since 1995, also has World Heritage Sites.

Biosphere Reserves focus, to great extent, on the relationship between man and nature. I like the idea, but see in that outlook the fiction that nature and man are opposing forces with different agendas. True, it often looks that way, and we have a lot of damage to show for it. Nonetheless, the biosphere approach and designation take us deeper into the heart of what wilderness is, deeper than the red buses and the old hotels, and the sightseeing approach to the natural world.

The National Parks Second Century Commission wrote in its recent “Advancing the National Park Idea” report that “In 1916, Congress created the National Park Service to manage a growing collection of special places ‘unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.’ The world has changed profoundly since that time, and so has the national park idea, adapting to the needs of a changing society. But at the core of the idea abides an ethic that embraces the preservation of nature and our shared heritage, and promotes regard for their significance inside the parks and throughout our country.”

I hope this report will help generate the positive discussions we need for ensuring that continuation of Glacier National Park as a safe haven for wildlife and a continuation of the natural world of the Crown of the Continent. What, indeed, will we have in here in this mountain fastness to celebrate 100 years from now. While public access and enjoyment is part of the picture, I see no entitlement there that allows access at the expense of what we are trying to preserve. Perhaps this means limits to daily visitor counts, the elimination of park overflights, the reduction of vehicle traffic, and other facilities and features that lend themselves more to crowds and theme parks than wilderness.

Not everyone wants to step off the historic red bus and get out on a trail. That’s fine, but it’s also a pity. For, as Robert Pirsig said in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” seeing the world from a car window is just like watching TV. I agree. One only experiences a fraction of his own heritage–as opposed to a separate nature heritage–by riding on launches and buses. And, attempts to sanitize and make nature overly accessible simply put the world of which we are a part at a further remove while creating unnatural eyesores where the mountains, lakes and forests are all that we need.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell

6 thoughts on “Glacier Centennial: Nature is YOU

  1. I’ve long had philosophical problems with the idea of parks, Glacier in particular, with the developments and the amenities existent within them. I’ve somewhat made peace with the idea upon the thought that the parks are intermediaries between the wild country and the folks who would never be courageous enough to enter them, and for that reason they are very necessary.

    1. I’ve been somewhat uncomfortable with some aspects of the park concept, most notably when the NPS does stupid things like allowing airplane overflights at Glacier and Snowmobiles in Yellowstone. Today, of course, Sun Road would (I hope) never be built, nor any of the historic hotels either. But they arrive in another age and have survived long enough to be on the National Register. The park as a transition to a greater, more protected and more rustic wilderness is a concept I like–as long as those wilder places don’t become compromised through lesser protections.


      1. The current superintendent at Glacier wants to have it given wilderness classification but I don’t understand how that would work or exactly why. It really can’t be wilderness any more, but it’s priceless exactly as it is. Few people can handle real wilderness.

        1. Well, I don’t think it qualifies, for true wilderness is a tougher class and includes some things I don’t think NPS would like to implement in an accessible park. Real wilderness means no amenities, more or less.

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