Thursday, August 7, 2008

Visiting the national parks

Heather linked me to this article a few weeks ago and I'm just now getting around to commenting: Out of the wilderness

I hate to see the Economist indulging in such silliness, but I guess they have pages to fill.* Thirteen paragraphs to discuss a "problem," then the "real reason" gets tossed out in the next-to-last paragraph, with no prior - or subsequent - discussion. That's not even half-baked - it's only 15% baked.

There's been a resistance to rebuilding campsites in Yosemite, but can you really jump from there to the notion that environmentalists are locking everyone out of the national parks? The author himself notices that demand for high end hotel rooms exceeds demand for cheaper accommodations. That should have been a tipoff that the affluence-challenged aren't trying very hard to get into the parks.

I've certainly seen this trend at Yellowstone: rotting old cabins at Canyon get torn down (deservedly, to be sure) and replaced by pricier rooms in Cascade and Dunraven Lodges. Or the cheap old Snowlodge - a brick dorm, originally - replaced by the pretty new hotel with the same name.**

Changes in park visitation have been going on all the time, of course. We can trace that with a brief review of one of my favorite places - the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. It was built in 1890 as a plain ol' cookie-cutter hotel with no pretensions to aesthetic quality, but soon sported Greek Revival columns and false balconies to give the place a sense of style. When the NPS was formed, there was a conscious effort to make the national parks comfortable for rich folk, just to make sure that the parks had a politically powerful constituency supporting them. Lake Hotel was never Yellowstone's "Grand Hotel" (that title belonged to the fabulous Canyon Hotel), but it was hardly a shabby place. The class consciousness of the era can be seen in the fact that employees of the nearby lodge and cabins weren't even allowed to enter the building.

Hotel visitors tended to reach the park by train and travel in buses, but throughout the 1930's the trend was unmistakably toward people driving their own vehicles. The operators made plans to replace their hotels with more lodge-and-cabin arrangements to better match American travelers' tastes. For a couple years after WWII, the top two floors of the hotel remained empty because the concessioners didn't want to add a sprinkler system to a building they thought they were going to tear down.

But the post-war boom brought hordes and hordes of motorists to the national parks and the concessioners had to keep the Hotel - they just needed every room they could get. But lodging expansion plans centered on projects like Canyon Village and Grant Village, completely abandoning the Grand Hotel concept in favor of a more middle class style. Lake Hotel continued to operate, but its glory days were past and it slowly decayed until it was a dingy old ghost that would have chosen "Memories" as its favorite song, if it could sing.

Between 1985 and 1988, the Hotel received a major renovation and was intentionally restored to its 1920's style, complete with a string quartet in summer evenings. In the same two decades, the trend toward more expensive and luxurious accommodations has grown more and more noticeable, as I described above.

The simple point here is that it's complete BS to take complex phenomena, point at one little thing or another that you happen to dislike, and say that's The Story. It's an utterly complex-free analysis, which is a fancy way of saying "ignorant BS." The Economist should be ashamed to publish it.

* (Virtue of being a blogger - no publication schedule to maintain)

** (Older winter employees told me they noticed the change in clientele almost immediately - the laid-back locals couldn't afford it any more and were replace by more demanding and high-maintenance guests)

1 comment:

James Hanley said...

"the number of visitors to national parks and historic sites peaked in 1987."

Hmm, 1987 is the year I first worked in a national park. Coincidence? Or was it my treatment of visitors that's at fault?

I think the article was on target at about the middle when it said competition was the issue. There are a lot of other things families can do with their kids nowadays. And if lodging is selling out in descending order of price, then a few campsites blocked by conservationists doesn't fit the logic of the writer's own argument.