I have a small booklet of illustrated postcards from National Parks, both ones I’ve been to and others I have yet to see: Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Glacier, Olympic, and more. The cards are whimsical. Each in the set features an outline of a park, and a smattering of critters, landmarks, and flora and fauna in bright colors. There is a cartoon banana slug; a meadowlark, beak open in song; a sunny yellow coneflower, petals all the way unfurled; a bighorn sheep; a branch of a ponderosa pine; a hiking boot looming larger than a small illustrated tent; and a herd of antelope making their way toward Delicate Arch.
Whether because of the tiny size of the cards — a whole park scaled down to the size of a palm — or the natural world tuned to carefully blocked hues of teal and mustard and coral and lime green and blue, when I look at the postcards, I tend to daydream about the National Parks in a way that mirrors the illustrations themselves: my perception of the parks becomes two-dimensional, sanitized of any complication. I envision myself hiking along a dirt path, a Steller’s Jay swooping down to scavenge for seed, Ponderosa pines lining the way, the sky blue and open above the picture-perfect peaks of a mountain chain. In my daydreams, there is never anyone else around: there is just me moving through a landscape freckled with flowers, silence broken only by the chittering of birds.
Some parts of these daydreams are feasible, which I know from time spent in parks. I have followed a dirt trail for miles around a lake in Grand Teton, the woods quiet save for the stirring of small creatures. I have hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in a day, the sun baking every shade of orange-red rock in sight. I have kept my body still in Yellowstone in hopes of watching a coyote limber across a field just a few moments longer. I have foraged for blueberries in Acadia, sat by the placid, shockingly-blue waters of Lake McDonald in Glacier, and hiked through parts of Denali, pink fireweed lining my way.
The time I’ve spent in National Parks has always seemed restorative, a reminder that there is wild beauty to be protected. But my perceptions can be complicated, underlying tensions teased from what I simplify. For example, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Hour of Land, she grew up with the myth of Yellowstone National Park being “void of people” when it was established in 1872, before learning as an adult that the lands where the park was created “was the seasonal and cyclic home of Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow Nations.” She writes, “Like any good story with the muscle of privilege behind it, it seemed believable. And I never asked the question: ‘Who benefits from the telling of this particular story?’”
What stories have I told myself about the natural parks? Why do I imagine myself alone there, when I have rarely — if ever — experienced solitude on the trails? What kinds of privileges afford me the ability to travel to the parks, and who are parks truly accessible to? What types of harmful histories have I buried or blurred in the way I’ve narrativized the parks in my own mind? What environmental protections have the park lands been granted and what is at risk in a time of climate change and a president’s dangerous decisions? The essays curated here approach these questions — and more.
1. Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream (Kathryn Joyce, HuffPost)
As a child, the outdoors felt most like home to Cheyenne Szydlo, a trait she carried with her into her professional life as a wildlife biologist. But when she earned the chance to find the elusive — and possibly locally extinct — Southwestern willow flycatcher in The Grand Canyon, her experiences outdoors took a sinister turn, not because of any natural threats, but human. A man named Dave, her river guide, perpetually harassed her and threatened to sexually assault her.
Szydlo’s story is far from uncommon, as Kathryn Joyce writes in this harrowing longform piece. From interviews with Szydlo, women firefighters, and other women park employees, as well as a bevy of researched statistics, Joyce emphasizes the dramatic scope of sexual assault and harassment that far too many women have experienced while working in national parks and other natural places.
The agencies that protect America’s natural heritage enjoy a reputation for a certain benign progressivism—but some of them have their own troubling history of hostility toward women.
In 2012 in Texas, members of the Parks and Wildlife Department complained about a “legacy” of racial and gender intolerance; only 8 percent of the state’s 500 game wardens were women. In 2014, in California, female employees of the U.S. Forest Service filed a class-action lawsuit—the fourth in 35 years—over what they described as an egregious, long-standing culture of sexual harassment, disparity in hiring and promotion, and retaliation against those who complained.
2. We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us. (Latria Graham, May 1, 2018, Outside)
Number seven on a list of “22 Things Black Folks Don’t Do,” an article Latria Graham finds on BlackAmericaWeb.com, is “Go to national parks.” Graham, who encounters, both online and in life, an array of stereotypes about black people not liking the outdoors, explores the premise of those stereotypes by mapping the locations of national parks and discussing the ways in which historic practices of segregation still influence people’s perceptions today.
By blending gorgeous ruminations of growing up on her own family’s land, reminiscing on the ways in which Zora Neale Hurston’s work helped her discover her own voice, recounting her trips to national parks and incorporating hard-hitting research, Graham’s essay asks readers to evaluate their own internal biases and work to make real change.
The parks were designed to be clean and white, and if we let the data tell the story, that’s how they’ve stayed. In 2009, the National Park Service did a comprehensive survey of the American public, consisting of phone interviews with more than 4,000 participants. According to their data, African Americans comprised just 7 percent of visitors.
3. Dear Mr. Abbey (Amy Irvine, Autumn 2018, Orion)
In this direct address to Edward Abbey, Amy Irvine writes about how life within public lands has changed since Abbey’s death, and also ways that his work might be reconceived if thought about through a more contemporary lens. Irvine, as she reckons with who has the freedom to travel to natural lands — “a privilege that belongs to the able-bodied, upper classes” — tells Abbey about the destruction of natural lands that has occurred as a result of Trump’s decisions, and discusses the ways in which her experiences of natural parks and solitude differ than Abbey’s because she is a woman.
Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it “Amy’s country”? I could have justified it; my family has been there for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn’t get to call it ours because it’s all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn’t snatch from the region’s Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another.
4. The Government Won’t Let Me Watch Them Kill Bison, so I’m Suing (Christopher Ketcham, May 20, 2015, Vice)
The history of bison in North America is a long and sordid one, which includes settler colonial violence that, at one point, led to there being only 23 bison left in existence. Though the population of bison has increased since then, there are still tensions surrounding their existence, as Christopher Ketcham reports in this piece. Most notably, Yellowstone National Park “culls” (through slaughter) bison from natural lands. The damning part? For over a decade, park officials haven’t allowed the public to watch, spurring the ACLU to file a letter of intent to sue.
I once saw a video of bison being trapped in preparation for their sorting and slaughter. It had been filmed in 2004, in Yellowstone, the last year the Park Service permitted viewing of their bison operations. In the video, the bison are angry, bucking and kicking. The wranglers cry, ‘Hyah, hooee, yah yah, uhsh uhsh,’ smiling as they whip and beat the animals from catwalks. The camera angle shifts to the colliding bodies of the creatures, which cram in the bottleneck of the chutes.
5. From Yosemite to Bears Ears, Erasing Native Americans from U.S. National Parks (Hunter Oatman-Stanford, January 26, 2018, Collectors Weekly)
Though the National Park Service prevented wholesale industrialization, they still packaged the wilderness for consumption, creating a scenic, pre-historical fantasy surrounded by roads and tourist accommodations, all designed to mask the violence inherent to these parks’ creation. More than a century later, the United States has done little to acknowledge the government-led genocide of native populations, as well as the continued hardships they face because of the many bad-faith treaties enacted by the U.S. government.
Accompanied by photographs, maps, historic promotional materials, and other artifacts, Hunter Oatman-Stanford lays bare a multitude of violences and injustices perpetrated against native populations in the creation of National Parks, as well as chronicles the ways in which the harm of this history still affects people today.
6. Are We Losing the Grand Canyon? (Kevin Fedarko, September 2016, National Geographic)
During an end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon, Kevin Fedarko notes how much of the landscape has been impacted by human development and ruminates on Edward Abbey’s prediction that the wilderness he was writing about “is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial.”
How much of the Grand Canyon should be developed? And in what ways? What tensions exist because of the Grand Canyon’s capacity to generate revenue? And who has been harmed in the process of development? Fedarko explores answers to these questions, and more, in this longform piece.
But according to U.S. Geological Survey data, 15 springs and five wells inside the Grand Canyon area have levels of uranium that are considered unsafe to drink, due in part to incidents in older mines, where erosion and problems with containment have allowed uranium to leach into the groundwater.
7. Clothing Companies Are Funding Our National Parks Because Our Government Won’t (Jen A. Miller, August 27, 2018, The Outline)
Jen A. Miller, who has a goal of visiting all 417 sites in the U.S. overseen by the National Park Service, began receiving Instagram ads for “Parks Project,” a company that seeks to fund NPS-related charities through their sales of shirts and other goods. Upon researching further, Miller discovers that “Parks Project” is not the only company attempting to help with NPS funding through the sale of merchandise, a noble goal, though one that still falls far from providing the kind of money NPS actually needs to thrive.
And while on paper it looks like the National Park Service budget has gone up from $3.276 billion for fiscal year 2009 to $3.460 billion for fiscal year 2018, when adjusted for inflation, it’s really an 8 percent drop. The New York Times has referred to this paradox of rising crowds and shrinking funds as a “crisis” — I was in Zion National Park in Utah right around the time their reporter was, and I don’t think the pictures do justice to the massive crowds I had to work through.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.