For those living in the U.S., this has been the summer of closed borders. In light of international coronavirus travel restrictions, Americans in record numbers are finding balm in road trips and the open-air splendor of their own national parks. Yet aside from welcome social distancing modifications that regulate crowding on trails and overlooks, what are they finding when they get there? The precious public resources upon which these fragile ecosystems depend—implemented by wise federal legislators—have eroded over the last four years. Once upon a time our leaders recognized the protection of the parks as a sacred duty. But these lands have found no like-minded steward in Donald J. Trump.
Can you kill a national park? No, but you can hobble its majesty. You can pollute its waters, diminish its borders, choke its passageways, and let the haze settle over it so that the trees and animals and people can’t breathe. You can allow hunters to eradicate its endangered species, oil companies to drill in its sands, coal companies to release factory-induced methane into its air, and a border fence to destroy sacred Native American sites. You can cut new roads through virgin forest.
Most of all: you can allow our very own Department of the Interior, along with other federal agencies, to lead this desecration.
America The Beautiful
A collection of images, brochures, maps, and ephemera assembled by photographer Brian Kelley, titled Parks and issued by the New York publisher Standards Manual, comes at a time when almost every legislative environmental rollback from the Trump administration affects this precious and irreplaceable public resource. The book sheds light on a grave situation in a novel way: through the graphic-design history of the National Park Service. An introductory essay by Lyz-Nagan Powell in the otherwise text-free compendium relates how the unusual marriage of art and nature helped sell the 104-year-old park system to Americans.
From the outset, politicians understood that they could not accomplish the creation of our uniquely democratic national parks, so different in concept from traditional European monuments, without help. As with all federal lands, the government was obliged to weigh the often competing interests of citizens. In 1871, Congress and the railroad barons jointly funded a geological survey of the Yellowstone area. Participants included the artist Thomas Moran, whose romanticized paintings of the region’s burnished crags, smoky clouds, and white rocks sent Americans who had never seen such natural treasures into raptures.
A year later, Yellowstone became the first national park created by federal legislation, under Ulysses S. Grant. Thirty-five years after that, Teddy Roosevelt’s camping trip to Yosemite with John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist who had written about the wonders of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, inspired him to create the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gave presidents the power to nationalize wild lands. With a push from the writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner, Dinosaur Canyon, in Utah, was named a National Monument in 1915. And in 1916, under Woodrow Wilson, the soon-to-be first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, commissioned a National Parks Portfolio—again with railroad backing—that gave further visibility to these magnificent treasures. (Getting a trophy selfie with a giant sequoia quickly became akin to getting one with a tiger.)
By 1933, the campaigns that protected such historic sites as the Lincoln Memorial had been so successful that Franklin D. Roosevelt officially conjoined them into a National Park System. The popularity of these public spaces would not wane. Ansel Adams’s photographs contributed to the 1940 creation of Kings Canyon National Park, also in the Sierra Nevadas. Today there are more than 400 sites in the system.
The Standards Manual book deftly tracks the evolution of the parks with images ranging in subject from dramatic shots of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser, to idealized Hollywood-driven scenes of the Grand Canyon, to midcentury abstractions of Death Valley and Yosemite. In 1977 designer Massimo Vignelli brought the parks graphics into the modernist, more cost-effective Unigrid system. Its foldable utility made mass production easier, and allowed it to be used by both self-guiding park visitors and teachers in classrooms. (A few elements of the Vignelli system linger in today’s National Park Service maps.)
Crimes Against Nature
Alas, natural beauty and its representation in art no longer hold the power to convince. Ninety-six percent of the national parks were already suffering from the effects of air pollution and climate change when Donald Trump took office. But it was under the watch of his appointee, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke—who left office under a cloud of ethical missteps—and now his successor, Dave Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for clients such as oil field service company Halliburton and the Independent Petroleum Association, that further rollbacks are inexorably underway.
According to a New York Times study aggregating the most recent environmental data from Harvard and Columbia universities, 68 rules pertaining to the protection of America’s national parks have been reversed since Trump became president, and an additional 32 rollbacks are in progress. The National Park Conservation Association, a watchdog group, reports that just recently, the National Park Service itself, also under pressure from the administration, reversed prohibitions on the hunting of bears and wolves for sport as well as the use of electric bikes in parks. And the National Register of Historic Places has held up protections for Moab National Park’s ancient rock art, leaving the carvings vulnerable to graffiti.
These are not the only federal agencies impacting the Parks. The Bureau of Land Management’s recent Environmental Impact Statement proposes the construction of a mining road that will cut though Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic Park and Preserve, threatening caribou migration. It has also finalized plans for the reduction of lands in Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. This comes after a sale of more than 30,000 acres of oil and gas leases near the Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles Utah and Colorado.
Can you kill a national park? No, but you can hobble its majesty.
In recent months the Environmental Protection Agency has also supervised the rollback of Obama-era Clean Water and Methane rules, and has proposed rollbacks on Texas and Utah’s existing regulations for haze reduction that target polluters; the agency has already rolled back emissions controls on mercury, ethanol, and carbon. The Council on Environmental Quality, a White-House advisory group, released a draft of regulations to gut the National Environmental Policy Act, which protects against oil and gas drilling on public lands without thorough review. The Department of the Interior issued regulations weakening the Endangered Species Act. Construction crews are well into blasting sacred Native American sites and ancient cactuses in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to make way for Trump’s border wall with Mexico. And just this week, the Department of the Interior finalized a plan to open up part of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to vulnerable species including polar bears, to oil and gas development.
These rollbacks ignore years of science-driven data and park staff expertise. And battling each one is an expensive and tortuous legal commitment.
As of today, almost all of the national parks have reopened following coronavirus closures, offering a lifeline to Americans across the country. Perhaps their renewed use will convince skeptics and, importantly, the many federal agencies that influence their longevity that this storied national patrimony is worth protecting. Parks can’t possibly be the finger in the dike, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But by showcasing the art that promoted our national parks, it raises awareness of just what is at risk.
Patricia Zohn is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL