Don’t Be a National Park Bagger

| 10/7/2009 4:21:02 PM

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.

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 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.

3/10/2015 2:19:19 AM

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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.

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