|Jen Lamb, NOLS Public Policy
As a non-profit wilderness educator
and public lands permitee with a strong wilderness
protection bent, NOLS wears many hats. First and foremost,
we are wilderness educators. And we work hard to protect
our classrooms. But we also hold roughly 100 permits
of all kinds to teach students on public land. In
the eyes of many U.S. land managers, this makes NOLS
a commercial entity.
Sometimes donning the commercial operator
hat is helpful. It opens doors with legislators, facilitates
productive partnerships with land managers, and it
earns us a seat at the table where discussions about
public lands and recreation issues take place. But
sometimes it’s not so helpful. Especially when
it pits us against individuals and private groups
who like to spend time on their own in wild lands.
This scenario is becoming increasingly common in some
of the most popular national parks where the intensity
of use continues to grow and present new management
The historical trend in park visitation
puts this growth in perspective. In 1940, 21 million
people visited national parks. The National Park Service
placed attracting visitors high on its priority list,
and by 1970, that number had grown to 172 million.
With increasingly active lifestyles and healthy tourism,
the number swelled to 421 million by 2002. NOLS offers
programs in 21 national parks throughout the West
and Alaska. Some of these are national and international
favorites with visitors, and the Park Service is faced
with deciding how to protect the natural resource
and the experience of visitors as visitation continues
Unfortunately, when the agency looks
around for ways to control visitor use, permit holders
such as NOLS become an easy target–we hold a
contract that provides a mechanism for the agency
to define the level and type of our use. Private visitors
have no such contract and therefore are more difficult
for the Park Service to manage. NOLS supports the
need to limit use when necessary to protect the resource.
But we don’t support the selective management
of one type of use rather than another. All types–commercial,
private, institutional–should be considered
when making critical park management decisions.
Mark Langston, from NOLS Pacific Northwest,
and I recently attended a public meeting to discuss
alternatives for managing commercial use within Mt.
Rainier National Park outside Seattle–a beautiful
park located 65 miles from a metropolitan area of
3.3 million. Lots of people want to spend time at
Rainier. Park management is grappling with how to
protect the area while still allowing reasonable access
and providing “necessary and appropriate”
services for visitors–no small task.
Most of the management alternatives
proposed by Rainier recommend restrictions on commercial
use, not surprising given the popularity of the Park.
But some alternatives suggest restricting the routes,
areas and days of the week that commercial entities
may visit so that they don’t intersect public
visitors traveling on their own. While we still have
access to the Park, changes like this start to whittle
away at the reasons we teach there. And they raise
some fundamental questions.
Will visitors who elect to visit parks
with an educator or guide be restricted? Will they
not be able to climb the route they want, for example,
because they choose to travel with a professional?
Ironically, these folks are less of a risk to the
park–they are under the wing of a permitted
operator with experience and following emergency protocols.
They are receiving valuable training in technical
skills, Leave No Trace practices and environmental
ethics during their visit, consistent with the Park
This is not to say that commercial
use shouldn’t be limited when appropriate, or
that commercial entities should be favored over other
visitors. Not at all. Resource protection–the
primary charge of the agency–requires that limits
be set when visitor education alone isn’t enough
to minimize impact. NOLS supports that mandate. But
limits must be set thoughtfully and carefully with
full consideration of the big picture. Parks (and
other land managers) must look at use as a whole and
manage with an even hand. Individuals who choose to
visit a park with an educator or guide shouldn’t
wear a commercial stigma and be treated as second-class
visitors. They are still visitors.
Herein lies the value of public-private
partnerships–a commonly used buzz word in this
administration. NOLS is well equipped to provide students
with the type of education and training that the National
Park Service values but isn’t equipped to provide.
What we offer directly supports the agency’s
mission. We must continue to do what we do, do it
well and make clear our relevance at every opportunity.