Wilderness Medical Society
Reviewed by Nancy Pietroski, PharmD, FAWM, WEMT, CTH
August 25, 2019 was the 103rd anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS). If you have had the good fortune to visit one of “units” in the park system recently, this might be a very good time to reflect on the origins, expanse, and challenges facing the NPS today as elucidated by Dr. Gil Lusk.
Dr. Lusk’s history with the NPS will inspire envy in anyone who cares deeply about preserving our natural resources and has longed to sport with pride the official Smokey Bear insignia. Dr. Lusk joined the NPS in 1962 as an NPS student trainee in St. Augustine, Florida, rising through the ranks over a 35-year period, crisscrossing the US through one glorious park after another, eventually managing the international Glacier and Big Bend National Parks. Since its inception in 1916 by an act of Congress, as of 2018, the NPS has grown and continues to grow, to over 400 parks, monuments, memorials, seashores and other areas, 23 national scenic and historic trails, 60 wild and scenic rivers—84 million acres in all, with a maintenance backlog of 12 billion dollars. There are 19,000 NPS employees but over 200,000 volunteers; the latter have grown 2% per year since 1990 as official employee numbers are falling. In 2017, visitation to the parks was a staggering 331 million people, 5 million more than the population of the US at that time, with international visitors growing in number.
Dr. Lusk distinguishes between National Parks and National Monuments; the latter are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, in the Department of the Interior. BLM permits logging, hunting, and grazing in Monument lands, which means they are not protected, unlike the NPS’s management of the parks. While being sold as more productive to local economies, this does not consider that environmental resources are eventually depleted, but travel and tourism dollars will endure if these resources are protected. The public may not be aware of this difference, as evidenced by low numbers of attendance at public meetings on park issues. Dr. Lusk relates the long-standing tension between the National Park Service and the US Forest Service, which should have similar goals, but are often at odds—even Smokey has spurred sparks of controversy.
Ken Burns calls the National Parks “America’s Best Idea.” What does Dr. Lusk say? He minces no words in this passionate, thought-provoking, encyclopedic tome. Reading it is not for the faint of heart; at times, it can be as challenging as climbing Half Dome, but the reader is rewarded with a commanding view of the NPS by the end. Dr. Lusk asks a not so sanguine query of our citizens: “America has put its trust in the National Park Service to protect and sustain our National Treasures…[it] needs to recommit itself, strengthen its ability to withstand undue political pressures and achieve great support from the millions of people who use and respect their National Treasures. Risk at every corner, certainly. Worth fighting for? Well, is it?”