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U.S. national parks change with the times

National parks will never be the same. Some things your parents and their parents did are no longer permitted; some places they visited are forever changed, and other places no longer exist.

It was once common for Yellowstone National Park visitors to feed bears.At least in some cases, this is good news.
         
Though the world’s first national park — Yellowstone — was designated in 1872, it wasn’t until 1916 that the National Park Service was created.

The National Park Service Act of 1916 directed the National Park Service to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the 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.”
         
Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts, said new policies and services implemented at national parks reflect the ideals of the times. “Some park decisions may seem a bit unusual to the current generation, but they were perfectly reasonable at the time.” 
 
For example:

  • Until the early 1970s, visitors to Yellowstone National Park would gather at Park Service-sanctioned “feeding grounds” — complete with arena-style seating — to watch well-habituated black and grizzly bears feed on garbage. Today, of course, the thought of viewing the thriving bear population in a contrived setting is appalling. But then, it merely accommodated the desires of the park’s “modern” visitors.
  • Remember when no gift shop would be considered complete without logo-embellished ashtrays, snow globes and teaspoons on the shelves? Remember rubber tomahawks? Today’s retail outlet is more likely to reflect its natural setting and local culture. At Mount Rushmore National Memorial, an entire section is devoted to jewelry made of Black Hills gold. A new store in Yellowstone is devoted to educating visitors about environmental issues, and virtually every product offered in the store has been created using some element of sustainability.
  • Even though it is widely considered the best place in the continental U.S. to see animals in the wild, Yellowstone once housed a type of zoo, with bison and other wildlife confined to a small island on Yellowstone Lake. An early concessioner charged a fee to take visitors by boat to see the penned animals.
  • It is no longer necessary to be prosperous to visit a national park. In the early days of national park tourism, only the wealthy could afford the price of the train ticket and lodging. Today, the availability of public and private RV campgrounds broaden visitors’ options.
  • After World War II, Americans had a simultaneous love affair with travel and their cars. And the National Park Service acknowledged Americans’ dual priorities by developing a series of lodges and visitor facilities that were created for a car-centric society. Called Mission 66 and lasting from 1956 through 1966, the $1 billion building boom included lodges such as Canyon Lodge in Yellowstone and numerous visitor centers. All of the facilities had ample parking and facilities for visitors’ comfort. While the buildings are certainly historic, some visitors maintain that the defining architectural features of huge parking lots, cavernous public spaces and sloped rooflines have not aged well.
  • In the last few years, national park buildings have made tremendous strides in the area of alternative energy. The Zion Lodge in Zion National Park is powered partly by the wind. More than one-third of the daily energy needs of the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort in Death Valley is provided by a massive solar photovoltaic system. This system has an estimated life of 25 years, economically harvesting the sun’s energy for the park’s visitors and employees.
  • Snowplanes were once a mode of winter transportation in Yellowstone National Park. The planes had a two-person cab on three long metal skis. An airplane propeller on the back of the plane blew the vehicle down snow-covered roads, but the planes never left the ground. In 1949, 35 visitors entered the park in snowplanes from the gateway community of West Yellowstone. By 1955, snowcoaches began carrying winter visitors to the park, and in 1963, the first travelers entered the park on snowmobiles. Snowplanes were eventually discontinued, but snowmobiles — vastly improved from the original noisy and polluting machines — as well as snowcoaches still ferry visitors during the park’s winter season.

“If you look closely you can find reflections of each generation’s values and concerns in the Park Service policies,” said Hartvigsen. “We cannot imagine feeding wildlife, but it was a sanctioned activity until the ‘70s. ... It will be interesting to see what the next generation of park managers decides to change and what they find strange about the way parks have been managed during the first decade of the new millennium.”

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