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Balancing Access and Education in National Parks
By Jen Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Director

Jen Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Director

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 challenges.

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 to swell.

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 Service’s mission.

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.

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