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Friday, August 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

We've forgotten how to love our national parks

Special to The Times

Lest Americans be lulled into believing that every problem with the national parks is financial, it is time we faced the deeper problem, and no, George Bush does not come close.

To be sure, the president is no Teddy Roosevelt, but neither was Bill Clinton. Deeper even than politics is the cultural problem of forgetting how to love our national parks.

Sure, we still "like" them, and millions visit them, but consider the difference between like and love.

Touring the parks in 1959, our mother instructed my brother and me to observe the landscape, insisting that we navigate while she drove. We learned geography, and a love of country, that have stayed with us to this day.

Now landscape is a novelty, through a tinted window, as Americans love more their SUVs. The latest models come with a DVD monitor intended to "quiet" the kids. Ask them instead to navigate? How quaint that sounds in the computer age.

Fortunately, there are still teachers like Karen Hardy at Assumption-St. Bridget School. For years, her fifth-grade unit on the national parks has been the talk of North Seattle. Every spring, Hardy invites me to lecture in her class. Her students, combined with the rest of the fifth grade, listen with rapt attention. Next, all report on a favorite park, and take a field trip, parent chaperones happily in tow.

Then, how could any of this be a problem? Because that is not how most Americans today see the parks — as training grounds for citizenship. As a rule, Americans have moved on to disparaging their institutions, including the national parks.

Consider the turnabout in universities, which largely have not replaced the post-World War II generation of professors who were renowned for supporting parks. Now, that sense of mission is passé. Students, on entering college, are advised to pick a major that will pay the most.

Thus is the prejudice against public service — any public service — mindlessly reaffirmed. Worse, in the national parks, the first people fired (generally not rehired) are the seasonal rangers, whose idealism is always strongest. When, finally, only the permanent staff is in charge, few are left for speaking up. And fewer of the permanent staff dare, since the parks are besieged by powerful interests. Seasonal rangers better accept the risk of keeping the public fully and honestly informed.

In the 1950s, consider who spilled the beans on illegal logging in Olympic National Park. Not surprisingly, three seasonal rangers, each a committed educator: Grant Sharpe (University of Washington), Carsten Lien (UW) and Paul Shepard (Yale University and Knox College).

University support for the national parks used to be far stronger than it is today. Now, universities are just as likely to refer to parks as a trivial pursuit, simply not worth a "real" scholar's time.

Not maintenance backlogs, but rather those prejudices remain the salient issue.

The maintenance backlog is real, but just as real is that the backlog was often created by imprudent policies. Where is it written, for example, that the National Park Service is obligated to provide for SUVs, snowmobiles and motor homes?

Adding to the problem of development will not solve any backlogs; meanwhile, we need to address those backlogs of the heart. People loving something tend not to destroy it. Especially, if Americans were seriously in love with the national parks, more parents would want their children to make careers there.

Referring to the national parks as America's "outdoor universities," the Berkeley zoologist Joseph Grinnell urged exactly that. His students should get a foot in the door — take any job — for the privilege of becoming a naturalist. A great university, believing in the natural sciences, would want its students to feel passionately about the land.

The money for maintenance we have. After rebuilding Iraq, no job in the parks is too big. We hesitate because we want to — because we prefer the argument for political ends. We like being able to say, whether as scholars or politicians, that the other side has it wrong.

This is why the solution gets back to no sides, and teachers like Karen Hardy. No student of hers will ever forget what the national parks truly mean. The meaning is nonpartisan, and always has been. There is nothing about parks that is left or right.

Our maintenance backlog is this — too much bickering and too little passion. Until our passion is restored, the parks will be troubled, and as much to the point, so will we.

Alfred Runte is a Seattle historian and the author of "National Parks: The American Experience," among other books on the national parks. He is an invited speaker at the Fourth Brazilian Congress on parks and protected areas in October.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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