Photo: Empty water bottle at the Grand Canyon

A controversy erupted over plastic in the park.

Photograph by Sylvia Serrado, és Photography/Corbis

By Costas Christ

From the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

It’s sunrise and I’m huffing along the South Kaibab Trail as it descends into the mile-deep chasm known as the Grand Canyon. I’ve come to America’s most celebrated sequence of eroded rock, in all its gold and crimson glory, to celebrate an anniversary of sorts. This is the first national park I ever visited, as a high schooler on a solo quest for adventure. For the 16-year-old me, it was love at first hike in the canyon’s million-acre wilderness. Now, older and wiser, I am on a sentimental journey back to the place where my love affair with national parks began.

The concept of a national park was born in the U.S.A. 140 years ago, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed Yellowstone into law, setting a major conservation-for-the-people precedent that today includes 58 parks. The idea took off, and national parks have since been established in nearly every country and continent. But succeeding in the National Park Service mission of “preserving unimpaired our natural and cultural resources … for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” has not been easy. There have been many challenges along the way. The Grand Canyon—among the most venerable and beloved of parks—offers some valuable, hard-earned lessons. It’s older and wiser too.

Lesson One: Don’t build tourist facilities right next to your star attractions. Driven largely by moneymaking interests eager to feed on a growing stream of visitors, a frenzy of construction took off along the scenic rim of the Grand Canyon between 1966 and 1983. The resulting hodgepodge of parking lots, convenience stores, curio shops, restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds is a notable contrast to nature’s architecture. (This isn’t just a Grand Canyon problem, by the way.) Rather than allow a new trinket outlet at Grand Canyon Village, park officials in 2009 appropriately turned the curio shop that stood there into an educational center for visitors.

Confront big business: Corporate influence seeps into every slice of American life, and our national parks are no exception. After Grand Canyon park staff determined that plastic water bottles were the biggest source of litter (generating a whopping 20 to 30 percent of all park trash), it prepared to institute a ban on January 1, 2011—opting for refilling stations and reusable water bottles instead. The policy was sound, sensible, and—once Coca-Cola heard about it—controversial. The ban was too big a gulp to swallow for the soft-drink giant (which owns Dasani water and is a major donor to the National Park Foundation). Just days before its start date, the ban was scuttled. It was later revealed that Coke had expressed “concerns” behind the scenes, leading Steve Martin, the park’s superintendent, to raise questions about whether park policy was being unduly influenced by big business. It took another year before the park prevailed and the ban went into effect. Parks owe it to the people to push back on corporate interests where they might cause harm.

Cut the cars: Like the rest of America, Grand Canyon National Park has accommodated a car culture that is proving unsustainable, harmful, and unsightly. The summer afternoon traffic jams at scenic turnouts and overflowing parking lots were threatening to destroy the natural experience. After park officials warned of “a dysfunctional transportation system with two-hour waits at the entrance and chaotic parking along the South Rim,” traffic was reconfigured and a new shuttle bus transit center opened in 2011, resulting in less traffic congestion. Note to new parks: Design with a public transportation system from the outset.

Make friends: Underfunded national parks cannot go it alone. They need engaged partners—local communities, municipalities, nonprofit groups, and visitors—to further their mission. “Partnerships bring expertise, talent, and volunteer service to support park staff, and can raise needed funds for conservation. They are essential to the future of the parks system,” says Todd Koenings, executive director of Global Parks, a volunteer organization of veteran conservationists working to strengthen national park systems worldwide. In the Grand Canyon, those partners have volunteered to help remove invasive plants (over four million since 2009) in order to restore natural habitat and save native species, and a partnership with Arizona Public Service led to the installation of solar panels that provide 30 percent of the energy needs for the visitors center. Grand Canyon Youth, a local group based in Flagstaff, supports scientific research and environmental awareness, helping to inspire a new generation to safeguard the park. Call them friends with conservation benefits.

By the time I reach the footbridge across the Colorado River, the day-trippers have thinned and I dip my feet into the icy water—just as I did when I first hiked this trail more than three decades ago. The Grand Canyon, like other early national parks, has weathered more than just wind and rain since its establishment in 1919. Surely there are more challenges to come. It occurs to me that even our “protected areas” are never totally safe. That travelers must remain engaged and vigilant is probably the most important lesson of all. There is a national park near you that needs a friend.

Editor at large Costas Christ writes about the changing world of travel. E-mail your comments to Travel_Talk@ngs.org.

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