Utne Blogs > Environment

Don’t Be a National Park Bagger

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Environment, wilderness and wildlife, national parks, climate change,

Denali National Park

I hope everyone who’s been watching the epic PBS documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea takes inspiration from the series, which was produced by Ken Burns and his longtime collaborator, writer Dayton Duncan. But one thing I hope they’re not inspired to do is follow in Duncan’s footsteps and attempt to visit all 58 national parks, a lifelong journey that he chronicles in the problematically titled article “Collect ’Em All” in the July-August Sierra magazine.

What’s wrong with visiting all the parks? Well, for starters, doing so would leave a massive carbon footprint. When Duncan unknowingly began his quest in 1959, visiting several parks on his Iowa family’s extended vacation, gasoline was cheap and seemingly plentiful and the idea of “carbon miles” was a million miles away. But now, alas, we know better: If we burned the auto and airplane fuel it would take to visit all the parks, many of which are in remote and hard-to-reach locations, we’d emit a huge amount of CO2 that ultimately would work against the very places we’re trying to preserve.

For another thing, “park bagging,” as I’ve heard it called, is ultimately an elitist pursuit, a game that very few can play. Face it, only the wealthiest and luckiest among us has the vacation time, the money, and the means to have a chance at ticking off all 58 parks, and even announcing your achievement to the world can come perilously close to bragging about what an amazingly fortunate life you lead—not the sort of message parks advocates should be sending. The National Parks quotes Teddy Roosevelt exclaiming at the Grand Canyon, “This is one of the great sights that every American, if he can travel at all, should see.” That middle clause, added wisely, is essential: Many Americans find it hard to travel to just one national park, let alone all of them.

Finally, the “collect ’em all” mentality goes against a better, nobler impulse, which is to get to know the land intimately. Better that we should acquaint ourselves with one, two, or a few parks very well than attempt to superficially survey them all in baseball-card-collector fashion. Several years ago, I worked for the summer in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, driving a tourist shuttle van between the tiny gateway community of McCarthy and the mining relic town of Kennicott. Among my passengers I met a few park baggers, most memorably a man and his teenage son. They “explored” the park in an afternoon, which meant strolling among Kennicott’s dilapidated buildings, looking up at the stupendous glaciers around them, and then riding my van back down to resume their journey. Never mind that Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest park at 13 million acres, and that even someone who’s there for months, as I was, can barely claim to have scratched the surface of its vast wonder. The man told me that they were off next to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which they would fly over in a bush plane—not even setting foot on the tundra. They added both parks to their all-important list, yet they didn’t have a true wilderness experience in either place.

Now, I’ve got to cut Duncan some slack: He racked up some of his visits while researching and filming The National Parks, and the greater good that may come of the series is arguably worth the carbon he burned to do it. (This sort of rationale is how many “environmental” speakers and writers justify their flight-intensive, conference-hopping lifestyles.) But still, it seems that he, of all people, ought to know better than to wear his completed life list as some badge of honor.

Sour grapes? Maybe. I once thought I would travel to many of the world’s most beautiful places. The Patagonian Andes, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands—all awaited my intrepid exploration. Now, with the reality of climate change hitting full force, I see that even if I had the means, visiting all my dream destinations just wouldn’t be right, and that in some ways staying close to home is the best way to honor the earth. So yes, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there are some national parks I will never see, and that photo or video images will be my only acquaintance with them. Which is why I’ve been watching every last episode of The National Parks.

Sources: PBS, SierraTeton Gravity ResearchNational Park Service 

Image by Alaskan Dude, licensed under Creative Commons. 

switchbackkids
8/3/2015 7:12:38 PM

I appreciate your thoughts, Keith, but I'd argue that it's hardly an elitist pursuit. My wife and I are preparing to leave our jobs and our home on August 18th, 2015 to visit all 59 National Parks in one year of adventure. Our goal is to promote and celebrate the parks during the NPS centennial year. We are staying about 5 days in each park and tent camping at night. We'll be documenting our experiences and pictures in every park at our blog SwitchbackKids.com. We estimate this whole year, including travel to the 8 parks in Alaska, 2 in Hawaii, 1 in USVI and 1 in American Samoa, will cost under $20,000 for the both of us. We are only 26, but we've been planning and saving for 17 months and taking extra jobs to make our dream a reality. Much of the 20K is normal living expenses (food, insurance, etc.) that we would have anyway and if you stuck to the continental U.S. parks you could probably drop at least 5k. Also, our route will only require about 5,000 more miles than our average annual driving. We will be taking more flights than a normal year, but, without having a house I'd hardly claim our carbon footprint is "massive." I guess my point is that "Park Bagging" can be done in a responsible and even beneficial way and I believe that people should never be dissuaded from something like goal that gets them out and enjoying national treasures. And I would argue the parks are accessible to everyone, it's just about priorities.


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autobus
1/11/2011 7:36:00 AM

They're more interested in "bagging" foreign vacations. You'd be doing far more good if you gave up meat. Livestock take a huge toll on the environment -- loss of topsoil, contaminating the water table, using so much energy to plow field to produce feed, etc. http://www.autobus.co.il/


c neal milneil_1
11/9/2009 8:42:09 AM

The carbon footprint issue is valid, but your last point is the best one: what's really problematic about the baggers' attitude is how it reduces these places to petty consumption items, things to be ticked off on a list, like beanie babies. This is entirely antithetical to environmentalism, which requires a nuanced and thoughtful understanding of the natural resources and landscapes that surround us. The National Parks themselves are fetish objects for most environmentalists (and hey, I like them too). But the Parks are lousy places to understand our modern society's real relationship with nature. They don't really offer any lessons about where we get our electricity, or our drinking water, or the raw materials that the Chinese use to forge our consumer goods. Instead, the National Parks offer us an unrealistic vision of the way environmentalists wish things were - a pretty backdrop without any people in it. At their worst (as when the federal army forcefully exiled native tribes like the Blackfoot from parks like Yellowstone and Glacier), the parks themselves could be thought of as costly consumption items tailor-made for "environmentalists." An environmentalist ethic that's focused on acquisition is an ethic that can not and will not address the fundamental environmental crises of our times. more at http://vigorousnorth.blogspot.com


cathy_1
10/14/2009 5:43:32 PM

I'm with James. This carbon footprint obsession is getting ridiculous. I don't see Al Gore staying home or turning off his lights. He's busy working his carbon credits scam. People are not out there squandering gas to get to all of the parks. Or even some of them. Few even brag about bagging them, as you say, as it's too "blue collar". They're more interested in "bagging" foreign vacations. You'd be doing far more good if you gave up meat. Livestock take a huge toll on the environment -- loss of topsoil, contaminating the water table, using so much energy to plow field to produce feed, etc.


san_1
10/14/2009 3:55:54 PM

Thank you for such a great article Keith Goetzman. Only a person that truly loves Mother Earth and nature would understand that just because something exists doesn't mean we have to conquer it. I may never see the ANWR but I will fight to preserve it. Mother Nature has the right to preserve her most dear secrets and man should respect that right. Thank God for Teddy Roosevelt and the many others past and present who appreciate and respect the existence, beauty and wonders of our planet.


dochumboldt
10/14/2009 2:50:00 PM

Get to the park, take the shuttles, sleep in a tent, hike, enjoy...


phil brown
10/14/2009 1:59:12 PM

I'm with James on this one -- judging any human endeavor based solely on a notion as vaporous as the resulting "carbon footprint" is simply preposterous, not to mention soulless. I'm bemused by the fact that the otherwise piously self-aware author of this piece made no comment at all about his van-driving duties at "the nation's largest park." Is he remorseful? Did his environmental epiphany occur only after that job? It's an ironic omission that drains the article of any moral force, leaving only the message, "do as I say, not as I do (or did)."


james_4
10/14/2009 1:35:21 PM

If one is to judge everything in life based only on one's carbon footprint then the obvious choice is to end one's life, as cleanly as possible. No lead bullets, not toxic poisons; no left over contamination. I'm thinking the best choice would to be to bury one's self in a shallow grave with not container so one's remains can decompose as quickly as possible. And take your parents with you.


kathleen_3
10/12/2009 2:28:17 PM

Our suggestion for visiting the National Parks is to choose one within reasonable traveling distance and rent a near-by timeshare. When you stay in a timeshare (we rented ours from http://www.redweek.com) you are there for at least a week, which gives you the wonderful luxury of time to spend really exploring and enjoying that National Park. Also the cost of renting a timeshare is always less expensive than the Park lodge. And, you've basically stayed in one spot, a definite decrease of your carbon footprint.


dave may_5
10/9/2009 2:41:09 PM

Interesting post, Keith. I noticed that the Sierra Club's Trails website has a good response: http://connect.sierraclub.org/post/OnTrack/in_defence_of_exploring.html