More Mountain Biking At National Parks?

Jun 13, 2014
Originally published on June 13, 2014 2:56 pm

Outside Magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer makes the case for opening up more national parks to the kinds of sports that he says more and more people are doing, such as mountain biking and kayaking.

The move would require a change in thinking at the National Park Service, where for decades parks have been viewed as cherished “natural cathedrals.”

He discusses the “overdue” movement to make national parks more fun with Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti.


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It's HERE AND NOW. In a provocative article in "Outside" magazine this week, senior editor and staff writer Grayson Schaffer makes the case for opening up more national parks to increasingly popular sports, such as mountain biking, and kayaking, a move which would require a pretty significant change in thinking at the National Park Service. Now, there are signs of change at top levels of the Park Service, and also on the ground level in our national parks. For instance, on the Merced River in Yosemite starting next year. And Grayson Schaffer joins us from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Grayson, welcome.

GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, describe to us what exactly is going to happen? What big change is happening on the Merced River in Yosemite next summer?

SCHAFFER: Well this is a really exciting program that's been about five years in the making. You know you Yosemite National Park, which is one of the crown jewels of the National Park System, has this new plan they're rolling out this year and in the coming years, where they'll be allowing whitewater kayaking on parts of the Merced. There's also - it looks like - the Tuolumne will probably be added to that list in the coming years as well. What this is, it's a big management plan where they'll be trying to fix a lot of the sort of, bad growth decisions, some of the bad planning that they've done in the past. Rerouting some of the traffic issues. Moving the ice rink that's sort of built there in the shadow of Half Dome.


SCHAFFER: And you know, essentially trying to make the park a little bit less Disneyfied than it had been in years past. Trying to make it feel, I think, a little bit more natural than commercial.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, and in your article you make the point that the Merced River plan is a really important part of the park's overall sort of broader embrace, or shift in focus. Because I mean historically, this kind of athletics and activities haven't even been allowed in national parks right?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. And it's not so much that they haven't been, you know, allowed in blanket form, or that there's going to be a sort of major sea change. But that in general, there's this culture within the National Park Service that views recreation pretty skeptically. In the past, the idea of, you know, of the national parks has been kind of to treat them like, almost like a snow globe, where, you know it's this sort of, look but don't touch mentality.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you quote that a frequent saying is that, "You're not allowed to roller skate in the Sistine Chapel."

SCHAFFER: Yeah. That comes from Mike Finley, who was the former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park among several others. And I think that that sort of really illustrates this kind of culture within the National Park Service that wants people to, you know, to drive through the parks, to sit quietly and to reflect upon them. But not really get out into them and enjoy them necessarily. Which is not to say that there aren't ways to do that. You know you can go climbing in certain national parks. Hiking and backcountry permits are definitely available. But in general, when the Park Service is examining which activities to allow and which things to disallow, things like the Badwater Ultramarathon, you know, which had been run for a number of years in Death Valley National Park, suddenly finds themselves without a permit.

The idea of white water kayaking in Yellowstone National Park has been off-limits since the 1950s. The way that Americans recreate has changed fundamentally in the past 50 years, where, you know it used to be that you would go on a car road trip and you sort of have this image of, you know, going out with Dad and sort of this "Leave It To Beaver" era.

And now, I think it's much more about fitness and this sort of active lifestyle. People are into taking cycling trips. That aesthetic, I think, is really catching on, but it's bumping up against this culture within the National Park Service that looks upon recreation as, you know, the agent of the park's destruction rather than as this, sort of, this next generation of people who will probably be the great protectors and park stewards.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. So this is basically the heart of the point that you're making in your article. And that is that, on the one hand, the Department of the Interior and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, has announced this huge initiative to really do some aggressive outreach to a younger generation of people to help them fall in love with parks. I mean, you quote that at Yosemite, the average age of visitors is 38, but the largest group is between 46 and 50.

So the National Park Service really wants to reach out to younger people, and they're really specifically targeting getting, what, 10 million urban kids into the parks by 2017.

But you're saying that that may be too narrow of a focus. That in order to get a whole new generation of young people to feel the same romance and love with the national parks as their parents did, that they've got to reach more broadly and let folks in who want to cycle, or climb right?

SCHAFFER: You're right. That's right. And to some extent they do, but this is a case where their stated goal is coming into conflict with their, you know, with their current culture. And you know, I think there was this park ranger who I spoke with in Denali National Park who laid it out really clearly. Which is, you know they're saying out of one side of their mouth that they want to get all these kids into national parks. But they're also making it difficult for people to do the kinds of things that they want to do in the wilderness these days. And so for like, for me personally, I don't actually spend much time in national parks. In - one of my favorite river trips is on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. And so where we actually put in is right at the outside border of the national park, which allows you to have, you know, to have things like dogs and campfires. And one of the things, I think, that it's important to say here, is not that, you know, that you should just be able to run willy-nilly around every national park, bombing every creek, you know mountain biking...

CHAKRABARTI: No X Games Yosemite, right?

SCHAFFER: ...Yeah. We're not saying, you know, I don't think were saying that you know, we just need throw out all the rules. It's about removing some of the skepticism instead of, you know, examining you know, say, a mountain biking trail. The idea that there couldn't be, you know, one or two multiuse trails in every park.

You know, you mentioned in Yosemite, you know that the median age is rising. Among the National Parks Conservation Association, which is the, sort of, historical you know, nonprofit guardian of the national parks, you're seeing that median age actually rise into the '60s.

Meanwhile, there's another group that's coming up now called the Outdoor Alliance, which is sort of made up of these human powered recreation groups. And you know, they now have 100,000 members who are skewing mostly toward millennials. And so I think what we'll see, you know in the coming years here, is this sort of younger group starting to assert themselves more.

CHAKRABARTI: Did you see in your reporting that - that maybe there is the beginning of some kind of culture shift, at least in a small way? I mean we reference the fact that the secretary of the interior Sally Jewell has the big initiative to reach out to young people. I mean, isn't that the start of exactly the culture change that you're looking for?

SCHAFFER: That's right, and if anybody understands this culture, it's Sally Jewell, who spent 17 years working at Recreational Equipment Inc....


SCHAFFER: ...As one of the biggest recreational gear retailers in America. You know, if there's anybody who understands this, it's her. But, at the same time, you know, the sort of institutional memory of the National Park Service is very much scarred by some of the earlier development that they had done. You know, there was a, you know, a program started in 1957 called Mission 66 which was responsible for, you know, building a lot the, you know, thousands of miles of roads and, sort of, gift shops, and a lot of the things that we associate with today's sort of national park commercialization. And I think that they've - the Park Service - still feels very much stung by that.

CHAKRABARTI: So how important is this? This sort of culture shift that you're calling for, this embrace of a younger generation? How important is it for the Park Service to, to really be successful here? Because, I mean, there's always the question of it's long-term funding, and being able to...

SCHAFFER: Yeah, that's - I think that's what it comes down to. I mean, I'm convinced that if mountain bikers, and hikers, and equestrians are fighting about whether, you know, there should be new wilderness or national parks designations, it means that there probably aren't going to be new national parks designations. And, we've seen that already.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Grayson Schaffer is a senior editor and staff writer at "Outside" magazine. Grayson, thanks so much.

SCHAFFER: Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And Schaffer is making a more than controversial argument. He says he's already heard from users of "Outside" magazine. But what do you think? Do you think it's possible to balance protecting our national natural treasures, but let more recreation in? How would you do it? Let us know at You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.