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"National Parks don't need your Misty Eyed Reverence"

I had read this article in a hardcopy of Outdoor Magazine in January 2016 and I started to post about this in the forum then but never got around to it. But I'm still curious what others think of this article and some of the points in it.

I'm not sure the author really does much more than rant in total, but what interests me is one reference (given as fact) that made me think and reflect:

"ever since that shift in history when people stopped being afraid of the outdoors and ­began to get mushy about it"

Do you agree in general that this is true? It made me ask myself if I would be as avid an outdoors lover if I lived in a different era and level of wilderness. 


Reminds me of the story of when people started sailing boats for recreation rather than just for work.  Those who had to make their living on the sea said that "anyone who would go to sea for fun would go to hell for a vacation."


Of course, there are those of us who like to go to Death Valley for a vacation...grin

Yes, I agree with the author's premise, that backcountry sports is a modern phenomenon.  Mountaineering got its start as a recreational pursuit in the late 19th century.  This back when most people didn't have much time to spare on such dalliances.  Simpler times required people to be more pragmatic in their use of "free" time.  Trekking in foreign lands I used to be surprised at the local's indifference to scaling the local high peaks.  The general reason given was it is a stupid, dangerous and unproductive activity.  In many cases folklore reinforced discouraged such exploration(e.g. yetis or volatile gods lurking among the precipices).


I agree with some of his points and yes its a rant...But at the same time were just visitors to the wilds for our own reasons...

I agree with the article. The outdoors has become a sort of trend among the people my age (early/ mid-twenties) where everyone is so poetic and in-touch with nature because they went on a hike in their local national park. Essentially, I think people use it to add their identity, as if being outdoors makes them cooler.

Usually, to spot this type of person, you'll see them on the most popular trail at the national park, wearing vans, Carhartt beanie, khakis, and a plaid shirt. Almost always wearing a DSLR around their neck. Now multiply that by like 5 or so, because they usually travel in packs. They most likely use a grunge-type filter for all their pictures on Instagram. 

Thankfully though, these types of people don't ever go beyond the easy trail, and you won't encounter them on anything challenging or remotely out there.

At the end of the day, I can't beat on anyone who's going out and exploring and contributing in some way to the overall wellness of the outdoors. As long as they pay their way and don't litter, they're welcome anytime. 

Camping...where we spend thousands of dollars on gear to live as a homeless person.

People want what they don't have. When most of us were peasants toiling in the fields, a fair complexion was the pinnacle of beauty. Then, when everyone began working indoors, a tan was desirable. So a fascination and romance with nature is a predictable outcome of an urbanized world. Combine that with increasing evidence and awareness of our impact on the natural world.

I have spent a lot of time in "cathedrals," partly because I worked as an archaeologist with the NPS in several parks, partly because I have enjoyed recreational back packing and mountaineering over that time, and also because of extensive experience in SAR as an avid volunteer.  i have experienced sublime beauty, times when the cathedral metaphor seemed apt.  Also times of desolation,dirt, and despair when "hell" is more proper-in the very same landscape.

You don't always know what is in store when you venture out.  But often, the experience will be memorable, one way or another.

This magazine has always had room for many points of view.  

Nature happens to be my religion.  I am in church everytime I go outside.  I did not chose an outdoor career because I liked it, I chose it because I had to.  Some people feel the intense spiritual and aesthetic value of wild landscapes while some don't. 

The author of this article is a cynic and does not understand the topic he is writing about.  

I also thing it's a natural human response to generate some kind of comparison/analogy as a way of understanding out existence.  His complaint about the Magnificent Outdoor Cathedral is fair enough, in that the expression is hopelessly overused, but it's also where our minds go. 

In the 1800's people used the word "sublime" to describe the wonders of nature--something that is so beautiful that it brings to mind the Creator in all His power.  Which seems to be another version of the MOC. The word was used for just about every natural wonder that was encountered--perhaps because many of those early travelers had never actually been in a large city and seen a real cathedral!

Truth be told, one of the things we love about the wilderness is that it makes us feel small and unimportant, and recalibrates our sense of wonder.  We see our true place in the world.  Which is pretty much what cathedrals are designed to do as well.

As far as I am concerned, as long as people in this country love the wilderness enough to continue to protect it, I don't care what metaphor they use to describe it.  We need all the help we can get these days...


Balzaccom is eluding to the ways our view of wild nature has changed over time.  In North America we started with fear.  The wilds were a place to avoid, settle and make safe for families. People "backpacked" during hunting trips and on trails to trade with other groups. It was not recreation. This attitude prevailed until end of the Frontier Era in the late 1800s. Yellowstone was an anomaly and protected in the 1870s because it was so unusual. 

The Conservation Era started in the late 1800s, when thought was first given to protecting wild lands with the realization that they were not endless.  That is when commercial hunting was made illegal, we got game laws, and started protecting public land. Roosevelt and Pinchot created the USFS system around 1910. At first it was mostly the wealthy that got serious about outdoor recreation.  They could take time off to travel to the Adirondack lodges and hunt and fish with a guide. My relatives used to climb Mt St Helen's every summer around 1900-1910. They went for 2 weeks and camped by wagon. 

By the end of WWII cars were popular and they provided access for the masses to wild lands.  The beginning of modern camping started maybe in the 1930s, call it the Camping Era. Equipment started to become available.  Visiting NPs was not just for the priviledged.  My Dad drove his grandparents to Yellowstone from Seattle in 1938 when he was 14.

By the late 1960s we had the Environmental Era when people started to care about protecting wild lands in earnest. We go the Wilderness Act in the early 1970s along with a lot of other environmental legislation. Backpacking became popular.  It was a cult sport from about 1900-1960. Tent camping is popular. 

In the Modern Era people value outdoor recreation as the antidote for modern life.  It is a chance to unplug and experience nature.  Aestheics are important. For some it is a spiritual journey.  RVs become popular more than tent camping.  Backpacking contimues to increase in popularity and becomes mainstream with several movies and books dedicated to it. 

ppine have to say you just educated me on the eras with your post,,I couldn't agree more that its a way to get away from modern life and see and experience something else,...I also agree backpacking is getting more main stream...

Patman said:

"ever since that shift in history when people stopped being afraid of the outdoors and ­began to get mushy about it"

Do you agree in general that this is true? It made me ask myself if I would be as avid an outdoors lover if I lived in a different era and level of wilderness. 


 Yes and No

1st I think balsacom and Ppine brought out some very clearly worded truths

Yes because we humans are constantly striving for the top of the heap and tend to over state our participation in the events or moments of the life swirling around us, often to the point of purposely delving in or joining just to have a complete resume that is superior to the next person (the eminent man syndrome) I.E.:every super bowl for the last 20years has been the greatest ever and I was there and you were not. Or I saw the Arrora Borealis It's how society seams to build its sense of self worth up.

No- because it leaves out choices or a persons pre disposition that granted can and often are made by one circumstances as Ppine pointed out. However all things being equal  even had we lived during a different era . The outdoor pursuits we've all chosen have lead us to get away to this place that is to each and everyone of us a place of sanctuary outside our normal even though we maybe just going deeper in, because we're already there. And it is also our way of challenging ourselves can I handle it? it's a a wonderful place for adventure and answering and testing, that basic question we all have Do I approve of myself and my choices.  And therefore incredibly rewarding when the answer is yes. No one else's opinion is relevant or needed. 

So to answer your your question other than circumstances , I doubt it would have made any difference. Our spirts were made to roam to challenge to seek and to answer the question what ever that may be for each and every one of us. That we fail to find in society but do in nature and the company of like minded individuals 

The US National Park System is the model for the rest of the world.  It needs a lot of reverence, and also it needs better funding.  People need to step up and pay whatever the price of admission becomes.  If it weeds out some people, that will also benefit the parks that have been LTD, loved to death. 

When people come to the West for the first few times there are drawn to NPs like a moth to a flame. I did the same thing starting in the 1960s, but they were much quieter then. Going in the off season is one great solution.  I have two friends that are going snowmobiling to GT and Ystone next month. 

It is best to avoid the popular parks in the summer.   It is much more rewarding to plan your visits at low visitation times. It is easy to look up the amount of visitors by month for a specific park. 

You guys are forgetting the original inhabitants of North America---the Indians---and their concepts of wilderness, land conservation and their high regard for the land and the mountains and the creeks and the sky.

You could say they had a genuine misty-eyed reverence for the land, in fact modern day Lakota holy man Matthew King once said, "God is Nature, Nature is God."  Many Indian tribes based their religions on their relationships to Nature, obviously.  And have been doing so for many thousands of years, with some current evidence placing humans in California 130,000 years ago at the Cerutti site.

This brings us to the clash of cultures and the resulting destruction of both the Indian peoples and their land thru development and logging and deforestation and sprawl and road building and pollution etc.  I like this quote from Rene Dubos---

""The word 'wilderness' occurs approximately three hundred times in the Bible, and all its meanings are derogatory."

Once the Indians were removed/slaughtered from the picture, the new immigrant european christian culture took the land and developed it as they saw fit, something I call the Chris Columbus Mandate.

In the process the US govt set aside national parks for rolling vehicle tourism and so we have what is today in the Southeast postage stamp sized "wilderness" areas surrounded by sprawl and development and blighted overhead by loud jet airline traffic.  The Smokies is the most air polluted NP in the country.

In my opinion "rolling couch potato" (car) tourism has ruined the NP experience.  The solution would be to close the roads.  Here's Ed Abbey's opinion on the matter---

""On wilderness preservation, DON'T rely on the Park Service; all they can think of is more asphalt paving, more picnic tables, more garbage cans, more sh**houses, more electric lights, more Kleenex dispensers. Those bastards are scared to death of congressmen, who in turn are representatives of and often identical with local chambers of commerce." Edward Abbey

"Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs---anything---but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places." Edward Abbey, 1971.

stepping back and taking a comprehensive view of spiritual views and the outdoors, good point about Native American culture. Read about the Lakota Sioux's relationship with the buffalo, for example. In addition, attributing some sort of spiritual impact to the outdoors isn't new. Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalists wrote at length about how being outdoors would inspire  people and feed their spirit - probably as a reaction against fairly draconian religious dogma at the time, early-mid 19th century. Read "Nature" by Emerson, for example.

I'm not a particularly spiritual person. I observe a religion, but it's a lot more about family that deep spiritual values. I have always loved being outside, whether it's work or leisure time, but I would not describe a beautiful view or the feeling of accomplishment from climbing something challenging as a religious experience.  It doesn't particularly bother me if someone else wants to put that gloss on their experience. Everyone is entitled to their own set of beliefs and opinions (in this country, anyway). 

Nature is my religion. 

It is a mistake to speak of Native peoples in the past tense. I have worked extensively with 3 Native American tribes and have learned a lot about their reverence for the land.  They never had the technology to really make any large impact on natural resources.  It is also easy to over romanticize their treatment of warring tribes. 

The NPS really began in the Frontier Era. The US Army ran Yellowstone for decades. The rolling vehicles were horse drawn wagons. 

By the Conservation Era the US began to set aside lands in earnest for Parks and Monuments.  Most of the large parks are unofficial but de facto wilderness. Ninety percent of the use in NPs occurs within 1/4 to 1/2 mile of a road. They do a pretty good job of accomodating visitors and balancing the human and needs with Nature. 

I have seen the work of the Monkey Wrench Gang first hand at Black Mesa. I think Abbey was a fake. 

The vast majority of wilderness lands in the US are managed by the USFS which is a whole another topic. 

I think there are some Westerners trapped in the East that need to find some more room so they can spread their wings.  I have a million acres of BLM land in my back yard. I can see wild horses and bald eagles from the kitchen window.  Today there was a flock of 12 mountain bluebirds on the bird bath getting a drink. 

The rest of the world wants to follow in our footsteps because of our public land system. The King does not own the wildlife and the habitat, we do. 

ppine said:

I think there are some Westerners trapped in the East that need to find some more room so they can spread their wings. 

 The Eastern destruction of the wild lands is coming West my friend.  Just wait and see.  Opening up Alaska's ANWR to oil drilling, the push for privatization of BLM land, the desire to mine and frack in national monuments, the push by bicyclists to ride in wilderness areas and along the PCT/CDT, the car/RV glut in Yellowstone NP---

Doug Peacock calls it the Domestication of the world.  The wild wild west will soon become just like the Tired worn out East. 

Overhead jet noise pollution is so bad now in the Southeast forests that there is no peace and quiet and therefore no wilderness left.


When I worked for biologist Dan Janzen in Costa Rica in the 80s, he was just getting started on a monumentally ambitious project aimed at restoring huge areas of tropical dry forest that were long ago converted to pasture. A major part of his plan was on the social side, getting the local people to understand an appreciate forests that they saw mainly as dark and scary. When I visited last spring, I met a few of the many Ticos that have become involved as "parataxonomists", educators and other worker in Santa Rosa and other national parks and lands in the Guanacaste Conservation Area. That included a guy named Alvaro, who was skinny teenager working for Janzen when I was there years ago, and is now the resident expert on plants. The old fields are on their way to becoming forests, and it's all managed by locals who have developed an new, partially pragmatic but I think also aesthetic, if not out and out "religious", appreciation for Costa Rican nature. So in spite of the Parks being LTD, mostly in the relative frontcountry, more love/awe/reverence from visitors might do them some good (and so would more money, as ppine points out).

And by the way, Tipi, some of the more out of the way places in the east have substantially recovered from the abuses of the 19th century, at least in a general way, but I have to admit that because of human introduced tree pests and diseases and climate change they may never get back tho where they once belonged.


We have heard these ideas for years.  I have worked with all of the agencies and plenty of mining, energy companies, synfuels and water resources companies.  Public lands are afforded much more protection than people realize. The National Environmental Policy Act  (NEPA) alone makes it hard for any private company to create much in the way of environmental impacts without some serious repercussions.

ANWAR has also been known as the National Petroleum Reserve for decades. 

A good example of a mining operation that will never be approved is the Pebble Mine in Alaska.  Even local residents who are notoriously conservative and pro development, are opposed to the mine because of the potential impact to anadrymous fisheries. 

The State of Nevada is 87% Federally owned. None of that land will ever be transferred to the State because the State Constitution expressly waived all rights to public land.  The transfer of Federal lands to the States is mostly the fantasy of some ultra-conservative zealots that make a lot of noise. 

The controversy about National Monuments in so Utah has been going on since the 1970s.  The monuments get bigger with a Democratic president and smaller with a Republican one.  

It is difficult to keep up with these environmental battles by reading the newspaper or reading the Sierra Club Bulletin or Outside magazine.  Attending public hearings, stopping in and talking with the agencies is the best way to gauge which way the wind blows.

I make it a habit as a retired person to stop in on a week day and talk with the USFS, BLM and NPS biologists and foresters on a regular basis.  There is a lot of variability in the responses depending on the location.

Perhaps this is a puritanical POV, but...

We idolize the notion of unspoiled wilderness to some extent, failing to acknowledge mankind has been altering the environment well before the Whites set foot on the continent.  For example the PNW has some amazing costal "wilderness".  It looks unsullied to the casual observer, but anthropologists studying the shore line soil strata have determined some areas owe their current "wild" state to the effort of generations of locals who changed the shoreline to facilitate clam and oyster cultivation.  Many of the pocket bays currently there are the result of centuries of aquaculture activities.  Likewise there are mountain areas in the west where locals altered water courses to serve their purposes, and planted streams with fish stocks to support the human population.  Granted most of these alterations are relatively modest to what modern western mankind have carried out, but even modest alterations can result in long last, significant chances to the local ecology.  Thus it is worth noting that the notion of an unsullied ecology is applicable to only areas that have never supported human populations of any significant size, even the vast tropical jungles of Yucatan have been permanently altered by pre-Columbian cultures that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.


Excellent point Ed! I doubt any of us took into account that anyone other than modern man had made any of these modifications.

Current politics and policies not withstanding, the public lands have greater protection now than anytime in history except for maybe during the Obama administration.  Our wildlife populations have made great recoveries since the unregulated market hunting before game laws. Predators are making a comeback.

I was recently at the convention of the North American Foundation for Wild Sheep in Reno.  The State of Nevada has the most wild sheep of any state outside of Alaska, around 12,000.  The main limitations to expanding their range are not related to habitat, but communicable diseases from domestic sheep.  We have around 17,000 elk in the state, which are reproducing at a high rate. We have the most wild horses and a very large mountain lion population. There are around 600 black bears in the western edge of the state.  The problem bears get air lifted from Lake Tahoe to the mountains behind my house.

Let's face it, even in western and Alaskan wilderness areas (designated or otherwise) people now have both far better and lighter clothing and gear than in decades past but GPS devices to keep themselves "found" and also rescue beacons and compact sat phones to call for help or just chat or text with friends and family to keep the loneliness and scariness of being in the wilderness at bay. 

So given these things, yeah, we are seeing more people in areas that usually only saw quite experienced and very fit trekkers a few decades ago. The rest of us usually stuck to trails - we hunters excepted.

But given the "Mine it, drill it, timber it off." mentality of the rapacious Trump administration it is a good thing that we have more people seeing more outdoors than ever before. Maybe they will become protectors of what they see and grow to cherish.

With Interior Sec. Zinke reducing designated protected areas drastically we all need to make our voices heard to protect them and restore their originally designated boundaries.

Eric B.

Zinke and chump are clueless. It reminds of the days with James Watt as Interior Secretary.  These days too shall pass. Take heart my friends.  At the rate he is going chump may not be around that long.  It will be easy to reverse a lot of his stupid land use decisions on public lands. 

This is a really interesting topic.

I just decided to do an hour long lecture on it with a slide show at the continuing dinner/lecture series at the Gold Hill Hotel near Virginia City, NV.

My inspiration recently has come from the excellent book, "Wilderness and the American Mind"  by Roderick Frazier Nash.  First published in 1967, it is now in its Fifth Printing from Yale University Press.  check it out. 


September 24, 2020
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