Every weekend, thousands of us load up the cars with our packs and tents and hit the road, leaving all the cares of our modern existence behind. You can almost see the cliché animation, the little red car putting out of the honking city of trash lined streets and businessmen with brows drawn with v’s. The car winds up a paved mountain road and into a world of pointy pine trees with fish launching from the clear stream and birds smiling in the sunshine.
We run to these wild places to pretend it’s all back to normal, pretend we never harnessed oil, iron-ore or gunpowder, pretend that iPhone, which you couldn’t wait to get (but actually makes you vulnerable to work every waking moment), didn’t exist. We go to see places John Muir saw the same way and feel good that all is not lost.
The truth is, those modern realities are impossible to escape. For as much pride and ego we have as a species, we are still slow to understand the extent at which we can fuck things up.
Here in California, home to among the best and most diverse national parks, we also have the ones with the worst air quality. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks received the razzie for worst park, being unfortunately sandwiched between Los Angeles and the Central Valley. Turns out the smog in the car parked at the campsite and the burgers sizzling on the grill contribute hugely to California’s abysmal scores. In other parts of the country, coal-fired power plants account as the primary culprit.
National Park Wilderness designation is the highest form of land protection in the US but the air and views aren’t welcomed to that protection. In North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is lined with fracking wells and heavy machinery, exploiting the resource rich Bakken Formation. Sure the parkland is protected, but everything outside those boudaries is not and any activity on these adjacent lands befalls on the park. The EPA does have “regional haze rules” which mandates states improve 150 national parks and wildernesses’ air quality to "normal" levels by 2064. The fact that California is constantly burning as a result of climate change makes those ambitions even more difficult to achieve.
Our parks and protected wildernesses are places where many of us take a deep breath an feel normal again, where rivers course and rocks fall where they will, where animals struggle and thrive across wide habitats with a chance for both. These places of insane beauty and potential adventure should serve as an inspiration to conserve and restore, but should not deceive us that these parts of the world are safe or spared from our behavior back home. Yosemite is more akin to Central Park, a beautiful place in the middle of a shit hole.
As we go about our normal lives, when the tent’s in the closet, let’s be mindful of our actions. If you don’t give a shit what happens to LA, if you think we’re too far-gone, do it for King’s Canyon. It’s our counties most remote park, it has one road, no facilities whatsoever and it’s air is filthy. Federal protection means zilch in that case. Let’s give it a chance and ask our elected officials to do the same.