On my most recent exploits through southern New Mexico and northwest Texas, I had the opportunity to indulge in my favorite past times on two radically different fronts. This past week has provided clear insight into a phenomenon that many of my adventurous idols have looked back on with sorrow; that is the transformation of once wild and unexplored areas into overdeveloped and heavily regulated parks. The irony here lies in the fact that while state and national parks are intended for the preservation of North America’s natural beauty, its visitors are finding that (at least among the contiguous United States) their freedom to explore these areas in the same way that our forefathers did is increasingly limited and controlled often with a police like force. It is assumed by the authorities that visitors will abuse their privileges and ultimately devour these areas, in the same way that a concerned parent would not leave their kid alone with a jar of cookies. While this protocol is not necessarily unwarranted, it is a fairly negative outlook towards humanity and I believe that there is a happy medium that can be reached.
One example of this dilemma is the park system put in place at Hueco Tanks State Park nearby El Paso, Texas. This area is an ecological masterpiece in the desert, full of whispers from a previous era that are demonstrated by cave paintings, burial grounds and the like, left by cultures that once lived with the land instead of against it. This oasis in the sand existed before man walked the earth, but the fear is that man will be responsible for its’ demise. This argument is hard to refute when a greedy few have defaced the area’s natural beauty, and have effectively treated this fragile ecosystem as if it could be reproduced easily. The fact is however, that these places bear no similarity to anything man is capable of creating and that is ultimately why these vandal acts jeopardize their very existence. The need for preservation is undoubtedly necessary, however, most often times, the conservation programs put in place seem hypocritical and limited.
Ken treads lightly on 'Best of the Best', another bizarre roof formation in Hueco Tanks.
As a rock climber, it is not unusual that I get stereotyped before I even enter parks like Hueco Tanks. It is assumed that because I use white chalk and have a different perspective than that of historic generations, I must therefore have no desire to preserve the natural beauty of these areas. That could not be further from the truth. One of the fundamental reasons why I am passionate about this ‘sport’ is because it deposits me into the heart of mother nature; I can hear it beat life and death, feel the air flowing from her lungs, and can see her joy and sorrow when her children mistreat her. Nowhere do I feel her beauty, her strength, her resilience, and yet her delicate fragility more than when I am out with her, and not embedded in the illusion of a world that we humans have created for ourselves. That for me is the very foundation for my overwhelming desire to preserve her, and ultimately I believe true conservationism cannot exist without first being able to enjoy this wonder. In that sense, the establishment of park systems is positive in the sense that they are intended to allow people to feel this same phenomenon. But do they actually accomplish this?
I would argue not. The end product of these systems does not allow people to freely explore and experience the awesomeness of Mother Nature’s anomalies in their own way. Rather, these systems tend to limit one’s ability to do so, and ultimately turn a once wild domain into an entrepreneurial opportunity. Are these programs really preserving the natural beauty of these areas, or are they essentially turning them into a business? I know that park and tour fees are designed to be invested in the parks’ preservation, but all I see as a result is more publicity, more asphalt, more concrete, more tourism shops and ultimately less freedom to explore these places as they once were.
I am NOT advocating the dissipation of the park system, but I do believe that more often than not it does not accomplish its intended goal. My reasoning here is that, I am constantly a scapegoat because of my desire to experience the world in a more natural way than these park systems offer. I would be more prepared to deal with this label if there were not such a hypocritical demonstration of low impact ethics in these areas. For example, it is hard to accept criticism for wanting to carefully explore the amazing volcanic corner systems that make up Devils Tower by Sundance, Wyoming when the tower itself is surrounded by a wheelchair accessible asphalt road, and the area is littered with RV parks, hotels, and stores, amongst other things. Tell me how does all this infrastructure preserve the Tower’s natural state for everyone to enjoy and recognize its significance, while my longing to explore it more intimately and my consequent decision to protect its magic by leaving no trace of my presence does not?
The story in Hueco Tanks State Park is essentially no different. Park service officials now shake their fingers at climbers, essentially blaming us for the vandalism of Native American artifacts and cave paintings, and overdevelopment on top of a fragile ecosystem. Again, the good intention of the park service is there; they force visitors to watch an educational video that demonstrates the importance of preserving geographically and culturally significant areas like these. At the same time however, there is monitored road access, a dance club-esque entrance line at the gate, guard rails drilled into the rock, and with the exception of North Mountain, access is only granted through guided tour only. Where is the wilderness experience in that? It is hard to want to preserve an area’s natural beauty when immediately upon entering the feeling is anything but natural. There lies the problem. Education is essential to conservationism. I fully agree with that. But to really establish a community desire to preserve a unique natural marvel, people have to be able to experience it for themselves.
There is a recurring illusion throughout the lower 48 that wild places cannot remain preserved in their natural state without the implication of park systems. I can think of many places where that is hardly the case at all, and perhaps one terrific example of this was demonstrated to me just yesterday, on a jaunt through the Organ Mountains just outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. With huge lichen streaked granite walls amongst undisturbed wildlife habitat, this range has all the appropriate criteria that could result in the construction of a natural park and a world-class climbing destination. But this beautiful and majestic range has no park gates, no paved roads, has a minimum approach time of about an hour and a half by foot and is guarded by thick brush and loose rock. As a result, this place feels devoid of human intervention and truly does feel wild and authentic when compared to any natural park I have been to. My reaction to places like these is to cherish them, and to treat them with the respect and awe they deserve. Places like these feel so removed from the bustles and bumps of a material world, that to deface them in any way would be quite nearly sacrilegious. The Organ Mountains are only about 10 miles away from a largely urbanized city, yet they seem so natural, and without any of the negative human impacts that park systems are attempting to prevent.
Perhaps there lies the key to a more successful conservation technique. Instead of building better access roads, providing all the technological accommodations we are so used to, and essentially turning a natural wonder into a business, it seems that by leaving these areas alone and allowing people to be driven to their beauty independently, I strongly believe that the desire to preserve and protect these areas will come naturally.
Dan in a sea of perfect granite in the Organ Mountains