The good about the Badlands
It never occurred to me until recently that the National Parks Service (NPS) has enemies, or faces opposition at times. It has always seemed to me a benign thing. Parks exist because... parks. We like them. We enjoy them. We think of them as part of the benefits of the American life. And parks services exist to protect and facilitate the enjoyment of the land.
However, like all things, I've learned it's a lot more complicated than that. Between polarized political debates during an election year, the much-anticipated celebration of 100 years of the NPS, and my latest summer vacation that included various degrees of excitement for a national monument, a national park, a national forest, and a state park, I've taken a peculiar interest in the NPS, federally owned land, and the many differences between the kinds of units under the jurisdiction of the NPS.
I can't say I have drawn any conclusions about these thoughts, but I have made one decision regarding how to celebrate the NPS's 100-year anniversary. Rather than giving my love over to the NPS itself, I'm choosing to celebrate my love of land. Specifically, the Badlands. They are actually very, very good lands.
I've been sitting on photos from our stint through Badlands National Park in South Dakota for a month or so now, mostly because I have felt overwhelmed by the task of having to process photos that couldn't possibly be as good as my memory of the place.
We spent a single day (not nearly enough!) driving through the Badlands, and it started at the very break of dawn.
For once during our drive, we were perfectly alone. We piled out of the RV at about 5:00 a.m., still wearing pajamas and weary from a short night's sleep, and soaked in our first views.
Local advice was to drive through the Badlands at either sunset or sunrise because that's when the colors of the sediment would be most alive. Indeed, the direct, harsh, side-flowing light of dawn gave way to dramatic colors. The shadows were deep and the highlights glowed orange.
Our Badlands tour began at the west end of the park and ended in the east. The scenic highway was about 60 miles long and we stopped often along the way.
Between rock formations lay vast prairies.
The land changed so much as the day brightened. Nearer to the end of our drive, the landscape looked like Mars, or at least how Mars looks in my imagination! Some of the photos I took look like they're straight out of an old Star Trek episode.
I surprised myself when, by the end of our trip, I favored the Badlands to the Rocky Mountains--we had just been there a few days prior. I think this is because the Badlands were attainable in comparison. The Rocky Mountains, though beautiful, were just out of my reach of reality. I almost couldn't believe them; they were so extreme and dangerous and a size I could not comprehend. They were also cluttered with traffic, with pull-offs crawling with other American vacationers. A moment alone was impossible. Amidst one of the densest areas of nature in the country, I was hyper aware of man-made rules, laws, and admittance fees for which we paid and did not feel rewarded. We were one of thousands in the park.
Over time, what does that kind of foot traffic do to the land, and to the legislature that governs the parks? What does the future of the NPS look like in the face of overpopulated parks?
This is a good clue as to why I am wary of getting too excited about 100 years of the National Park Service. A list published by the NPS, updated in June 2016, shows that there are more than 400 units under its umbrella. 59 of those are national parks; others are historical sites, recreation areas, wildlife reserves, trails, etc. It includes places like Mount Rushmore, which was ironically planted in a national forest to celebrate American history via tourism. It was literally built to draw crowds, and this is managed by NPS. (You should see the massive parking ramp inserted on a hillside in the mountains just so more and more people could visit Rushmore at once.)
NPS's list seems to keep growing, as does the governance of the units by necessity. Travel amenities are multiplying, such as porta potties and railings and parking lots and gift shops.
For year 101, can we take a step back from glorifying the establishment of parks and just love the land itself?