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Culture & Religion

What’s Lost If We Sell Our National Parks?

Nearly a half-century after Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire, the book reminds us of the necessity of our national park system. 
View of Delicate Arch sandstone rock formation at Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah, 1960s. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Getty Images)

Old Moon-Eye once belonged to Roy Scobie, but a decade before Edward Abbey spied his unshod tracks on a path near a river the horse had escaped. Abbey, working as a park ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument in the nineteen-fifties, became obsessed with returning Moon-Eye to his owner. Considering how much time he had on his hands—on five days a week barely any visitors happened through the parkland—one hot summer day he set out to find him. 

Find him he did. Woven into a juniper tree, Moon-Eye waited until Abbey was six feet away before breaking through the branches and brush to charge at the ranger. As Abbey put it:

Dry wood snapped and popped, dust filled the air, and as I dove for the ground I had a glimpse of a lunatic horse expanding suddenly, growing bigger than all the world and soaring over me on wings that flapped like a bat’s and nearly tore the tree out of the earth. 

Within seconds Moon-Eye is fifty feet down the trail, glaring back at the dusty human picking himself up from the brush. Desert Solitaire is Abbey’s cynical and gorgeous contribution to environmental literature, a record of his seasons spent mostly in solitude with strange rocks and reptiles and stubborn steeds. After a lassoing attempt fails he gives up on Moon-Eye, hoping the horse will come to his senses and follow him back to camp on his own will. 

Moon-Eye doesn’t follow. Despite Abbey’s promises of regular nutrition, the horse knows what freedom tastes like. He trots off in the opposite direction. 

Mankind hasn’t survived because of nature, but in spite of it. Little guaranteed success for our kind. In the 200,000 years since evolution shaped of apes a bipedal thinker the possibility of comfort has been extremely short. Yet we’ve become so disassociated with our past that we now imagine luxury to be a birthright. Nature, like Moon-Eye, doesn’t agree. 

To our credit, America’s National Park System is a sanctioned reminder that lets nature be nature, so that we can enjoy it—and sometimes fear it—on its own grounds. This is healthy not only for our collective sanity but our economy as well. In 2011 park visitors received $4 of value for every $1 spent. In 2016 there were 331 million visits to the nation’s 417 parks, generating $34.9 billion. 

Abbey knew well the connection humans need to cultivate with the planet. On his first morning in his new role, he writes, 

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. 

He dreams of a “hard and brutal mysticism” that would strip him bare and merge him with the desert, yet he’s acutely aware of the monied interests lurking around the parks. “After a million years of neglect,” he chides, “Industrial Tourism” has come to the Arches, with the danger of turning the “national parks into national parking lots.” 

As the asphalt was laid down tourists did indeed arrive in droves, but at what cost? According to Abbey, the integrity of the landscape and the work it takes to transverse unforgiving ground. Laying down pavement to accommodate the young (let them wait, he said) and the old (they had their chance and blew it, he countered) and the lazy, for which his words are many, is not worth tearing up what evolution had rendered as complete. 

Of course nothing is ever complete, a fact Abbey recognizes in moments of Zen lucidity. A half-century ago his concerns were different than ours today, even if the root cause remains the same. As he phrases it,

They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human. 

What is true is the land itself, more holy to Abbey than anything occurring in churches. For this cranky and insightful park ranger the sacred is untouched by human hands, or at least interacted with only with hands and feet, not vehicles burning fossil fuels. What these cars are whipping through needs to be enjoyed patiently. 

Abbey was no hermit. He returned to New York conflicted after his seasons in the desert. He knew society is also necessary for our sanity, yet that is no excuse for developing the parks. He’d certainly have words for an administration trying to sell off national parkland to oil and gas corporations. In fact, two of twenty-seven national monuments that might be up for sale (or at least much less regulated) are in Utah: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, just south of Arches.

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At least twice a year I drive from Los Angles to Las Vegas to visit my father. At the state line sits the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, located just outside of Primm in the Mojave Desert. It’s impossible to miss, as if the desert was covered in a thick sheet of aluminum foil. While an eyesore it is the world’s largest thermal power station. 

Though not yet fully operational the 4,000-acre plant is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 400,000 tons annually. Unfortunately the project is not without problems: it burns natural gas every morning to get going; last year a fire caused by a tracking problem caused some to speculate on its future. In the long run the plant might not survive. 

Yet problems encountered with solar and wind power should not be used as an excuse to continue digging into every available inch of land for fossil fuels. As Clive Hamilton recently argued, sticking our head in the metaphorical sand to avoid the dangers of climate change is foolish. We can pretend Moon-Eye will follow us back to camp, but that’s not how nature operates. 

Today it’s not parking lots but drilling rigs we need to fear, though Abbey’s advice remains pertinent forty-nine years after the publication of Desert Solitaire. We’re left to wonder if his advice will ever be taken or merely be blown away like dust in the wind he loved so much:

There will be other readers, I hope, who share my basic assumption that wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and that it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains. 

Derek’s next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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