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America's National Park system is vast. As a collection of properties, it encompasses more than 52 million acres. At the time of its inception, with Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the concept of national parks - lands designated for protection from development - was unique in the world. Since then, however, the idea has grown in popularity and scope, resulting in more than 6,000 national parks worldwide, in nearly 100 countries, offering opportunities for sightseeing, wildlife observation, and recreation to the some 8 billion park visitors they attract each year.

National Parks of America
by Donald Young
Smithmark Publishers, 1997
ISBN: 0-7651-9152-0
144 pp

The Organic Act of 1916 created The National Park Service with the purposeful directive:

    [T]o conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
That, and the creation of the world's first national park in 1872, represented monumental seachange in how our federal lands were viewed and managed.

Late to the Game
In the introduction to National Parks of America (not to be confused with James Murfin's similarly titled tome), Donald Young maps out a brief history of our National Parks system. The former Chair of the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, he writes with a critical eye, praising Ulysses S. Grant for establishing the world's first national park (Yellowstone), while chastising its creators for their short-sightedness. Yellowstone was a land apart, filled with odditites that attracted the attention of Congress to act. The "shiny objects" within the proposed park caught their curiosity. In the meantime, as yet entirely intact ecosystems elsewhere were falling victim to the wood and pick axe, ignored for protection because they didn't have the geothermal sideshow Yellowstone did. Young writes, "Consequently, the creation of official parks were belated and imperfect attempts to preserve representative remnants of what once had been pristine wilderness."

Prior to the formation of conservation societies (like the Sierra Club), national park designation usually relied on the persistent championing efforts of a lone warrior. The great naturalist John Muir lobbied Congress for nearly a quarter of a century to give California's Yosemite Valley national park status (1890). John D. Rockefeller, Jr. of Standard Oil fame, had a different approach. Using his money and influence in promoting park designation, he bought, then donated most of the land that is today Maine's Acadia National Park (1919). He put his money to similar use in establishing America's most visited park, Great Smokey Mountains National Park (1926), and in the expansion of Grand Teton National Park to include Jackson Hole, a battle that didn't conclude until 1950, twenty-four years and $1.4 million after his initial efforts.

Regional Wonders
Although Young's introduction to Parks is critical of the park system's nascence, it's an honest look at it, noting its successes and failures. The rest of the book is divided by regions, the author focusing on the most iconic and interesting parks within them. These protected lands include unique geological features, wildlife, forests, rivers and seashores. The first section, The East, begins with Acadia National Park, celebrating its unique seashore, climate, and seabirds. The Great Smokey Mountains and Florida's Everglades National Parks are also included, along with a boatload of other parks in the east, with interesting stats on each. And while I use the word "stats," Young's writing is hardly technical. The words flow from his pen in sensual paragraphs accompanied by more than 150 full-color photographs, conveying his love and commitment to America's wild places.

In his romp across the states, he next takes us to the central plains and mountains. Here, Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks feature prominently, explaining the geological pressures that created their unique landscapes while providing an interesting (if brief) history on our 26th president. Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain National Parks (among others) are also explored.

Young next focuses on the southwest. In Canyons and Deserts he explains the geological forces behind such dubious landscapes as found in Colorado and Dinosaur National Monuments, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef (where an ancient sea floor of sedimentary rock soars in spires overhead), and Grand Canyon National Parks. Also covered - but not limited to - are Utah's Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, and Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park.

Go West Young Man
Young's journey continues west to California. The chapter titled The Golden West includes the hanging valleys of Yosemite National Park and the towering forests of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. On the coast, Point Reyes National Seashore is featured, along with Redwood National Park, home to the tallest living organisms on the planet.

The Ring of Fire, named for the volcanoes that circle the Pacific Ocean, takes us out to sea. Here, Young introduces us to the Big Island of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano (the most active volcano in the world) in Volcanoes National Park, and Maui's Haleakala National Park, a dormant peak whose moonscape appearance contrasts sharply with our vision of tropical paradise. Of course, the Ring of Fire isn't limited to the volcanoes of Hawaii. Rather, the same tectonic forces behind Kilauea's stunning fireworks are also responsible for volcanic activity elsewhere, ranging from Indonesia to Japan; Alaska to New Zealand; and the west coasts of North and South America. California's Lassen Volcanic, Oregon's Crater Lake, and Washington's Mt. Rainier National Parks are all beneficiaries of this activity. The Ring of Fire also includes The National Park of American Samoa, America's only National Park lying south of the equator.

Size Matters
The final chapter of Parks is devoted entirely to Alaska. Twice the size of Texas, Alaska contains frontier barely marred by man. Here, we have the opportunity to get the parks game right, by creating parks large enough to contain entire ecosystems, including migration routes of large mammals. Our largest parks are in Alaska. Denali National Park and Preserve weighs in at a massive 6 million acres. Big for sure, but it is dwarfed by Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve which encompasses over 13 million acres. That's a whopping one quarter of the acreage of all of America's national parks combined. Alaska is huge.

      "No other nation on Earth so quickly wasted its birthright; no other, in time, made such an effort to save what was left."

Though parks management has floundered in the past, and had its share of missteps, hopefully as a nation we've learned from them. Although we seem to be on the right track, creating parks large enough to preserve the natural world and lifestyles of its fauna, only time and politics will tell. Noted writer/environmentalist Wallace Stegner observed of our preservation efforts, "No other nation on Earth so quickly wasted its birthright; no other, in time, made such an effort to save what was left." Hopefully, our effort won't prove itself too little too late.

Mt. Rainier Glacier Travel Guide: Adventures on The High Traverse Routes
edited by Dee Molenaar and Stanley Friedman
Stanley Maps, 1998
$24.95, 22 pp

Climb every mountain / Search high and low / Follow every byway / Every path you know.-Rodgers and Hammerstein

Mt. Rainier, due to its close proximity to major urban areas (Seattle and Portland), is a popular training ground for trekkers with higher sights in mind. Sporting twenty-seven glaciers, Mt. Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48.

The massive volcano was first circumnavigated in 1967 by a climbing party organized by Hal Foss. Called the "High-Level Orbit," there are three routes climbers can follow. The route of 1967 circumnavigated the mountain in a counter-clockwise fashion, but in June 1969 - inspired by the Foss party - an expedition led by Bill Boulton successfully completed the High-Level Orbit in a clockwise direction which inspired the first guided "orbit" in 1990 by Rainier Mountaineering. That expedition traversed the slopes counter-clockwise on skis, following the original route for the most part, with some variances. The third route - also clockwise - wasn't established until May 1997, when climbing outfit Mt. Rainier Alpine Guides (led by Eric Simonson and Paul Baugher) sponsored a climbing "tour" of the high traverse. Mt. Rainier Glacier Travel Guide: Adventures on The High Traverse Routes is a mostly technical guide which focuses on the latter three expeditions.

The guide is made of a nearly indestructible waterproof paper/poly blend for use in the wet outdoors. The routes are color coded on an easily readable topographical map of the mountain (1:30,000 scale) that unfolds to 40" x 48", with photographs and route details in their correlating margins. While this guide provides a good overview of what to expect while traversing Mt. Rainier, the editors warn it's no substitue for training and experience. Earth's atmosphere is warming, and with it, weather patterns are changing while glaciers are shrinking. What were reliable routes last season may today be just meandering lines on a map, with no guarantee of clear passage. Therefore, regardless of what Rodgers and Hammerstein say, climb at your own risk.

Mt. Rainier Climbing Guide: Profiling 2 Routes
by Brian Sperry
Stanley Maps, 1997
$15.95, 7 pp

In 1899, Mount Rainier became America's fourth national park. Rising to a height of 14,411 feet, the mountain is the second tallest peak in the contiguous United States, but the largest in terms of vertical gain from base to summit.

The first recorded climb of Rainier was accomplished in 1884 along the Liberty Ridge Route. A 50 degree glacial climb, you can go up, but you can't go down, as descending on the route is extremely dangerous and discouraged. Instead, climbers use the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route with its gentler 30 degree slopes for their ascent.

Mt. Rainier Climbing Guide: Profiling 2 Routes, by Brian Sperry, contains detailed descriptions of both the Liberty Ridge and Emmons-Winthrop Glacier routes. Like its sister publication Mt. Rainier Glacier Travel Guide: Adventures on The High Traverse Routes, edited by Dee Molenaar and Stanley Friedman (Stanley Maps, $24.95), it's made of a paper/polymer material that is water and tear resistant, and includes a 1:24,000 scale topographical map, an invaluable aid for the thousands of climbers who attempt Rainier's slopes each year.

While extreme mountaineering isn't for everybody, for those it is, the author presses caution:

    WARNING! Persons ascending Mt. Rainier risk sickness, injury and/or death. Climbing and hiking on Mt. Rainier can and has resulted in fatalities. The routes described and shown in this guide are only general indications of where a likely route may be . . . users of this guide are solely responsible for their own safety and the safety of those in their party.
Also contains a list of recommended equipment for a successful summit climb, along with information on obtaining the proper permits for it. To date, the mountain has claimed over fifty climbers attempting the summit. Mount Rainier is an immense land mass dominating the Cascade Range, and in turn creates its own weather. It can be clear and sunny for thousands of square miles around the mountain's base, while its slopes are engulfed in a blizzard. Even in summer. For these reasons, measure the risk, and if after doing so all the right boxes check for a successful ascent, carry on. But always pack prepared for an extended stay on the glaciers.

posted 05/23/24