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Thirty years ago, when I began contemplating the idea of moving from New York City to Norfolk, I made list of pros and cons. I knew I’d miss a lot of what the Big Apple has to offer, but I realized that there would be benefits as well—chief among them that I’d be within a morning’s drive of Shenandoah National Park, a destination I’d loved ever since I first visited it in 1985.
While Shenandoah offers neither the majesty of Yosemite nor the surreal vistas of the Grand Canyon, to me it is emblematic of our National Park system.
The value of the system as a whole cannot be overstated. It is a testament to the vision of leaders who understood the inestimable importance of protecting large swaths of natural beauty against those who would develop every square mile of America’s landscape if they could.
Throughout our history, needless to say, those forces of greed have been formidable, as Ken Burns illustrates in his wonderful documentary about the park system’s history. Indeed, ever since 1872, when President Grant signed a bill designating Yellowstone as the first National Park, there has been an ongoing tug-of-war over the future of these lands.
I’m not thinking at the moment about extremists who would eliminate the National Park Service altogether, and turn the lands over to private developers. The parks, taken as a whole, have become part of our national identity—a point of pride and source of pleasure for millions of Americans across the political spectrum. No, the key conflicts have been subtler than that. These are not true wilderness areas, after all, which are off limits, for all intents and purposes, to all but the most intrepid adventurers. Inherent in the National Parks concept is the recognition of the need for some degree of development in order to make these lands accessible to virtually everyone.
Shenandoah has long been a model of that balancing act. When the park was established during the Great Depression, it was linked to the construction of the Skyline Drive—a beautiful roadway if ever there was one. Moreover, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps—made up of young men who desperately needed a way to earn money—went to work building the park’s infrastructure: overlooks and picnic grounds along the Drive, as well as campgrounds, hiking trails, fire roads and sewage systems. Additionally, the Corps planted nearly 150,000 trees, according to the park’s official website.
Thanks to these efforts, visitors today can enjoy a wide variety of experiences in the park in accordance with their desires and abilities. I’ve had the good fortune of sampling most of them over the years. I’ve stayed in primitive cabins, managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and I’ve spent many wonderful weekends at the magnificent Skyland and Big Meadows lodges, which offer comfortable motel-like rooms and full-service restaurants.
There are trails for every level of capability as well. The 10-mile White Oak Canyon circuit, for example, while never treacherous, will give any experienced hiker a vigorously satisfying workout and reward him or her with the beauty of six waterfalls. But there’s an abundance of less strenuous and time-consuming options as well, from the Dark Hollow Falls trail to the gentle slope leading from the Upper Hawksbill trailhead to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain. The lovely Limberlost trail, meanwhile—which feels like something out of a fairytale–is the gentlest of all, designed as it is to be accessible for people with disabilities. One other favorite of mine is the Corbin Cabin Trail, which leads to a primitive log cabin once occupied by mountain folk before the park was established. It is my go-to hike when I want complete solitude, since it is one of the paths less traveled—although I did once come face to face with a black bear there, about 20 feet down the trail from where I stopped after I heard a rustling sound. After a brief standoff—the bear just stood there, glaring at me—I bid it good morning and slowly back away. It threw a bit of a scare into me, but in retrospect I’m thankful for the encounter.
ALL OF THESE MEMORIES tug at my heartstrings whenever I reflect on them. And for this reason, two news stories I read recently infuriated me.
The first was an item in The New York Daily News, published on September 27. According to the article, written by Maria Burks, President Trump’s Fiscal 2020 budget proposal “eviscerates the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a key funding source created decades ago to help protect and enhance our parks and public lands. Simultaneously, the administration proposed drastic changes to the Bureau of Land Management, a companion bureau to the National Park Service …whose work is often critical to protection of the parks.” Burks called these two proposals “a shameful abdication of protection for our national treasures,” and I couldn’t agree more.
The second story was an October 18 Associated Press report noting that the Interior Department is reviewing recommendations to modernize campgrounds at national parks. The recommendations come from an advisory committee that has been looking at ways for private businesses to operate on public lands.
“Redesigning some campgrounds, and adding running water, tent and cabin rentals, food trucks, extended family sites and Wi-Fi at select parks also could boost revenue and encourage more people to stay overnight,” the report recommendations stated.
The idea of food trucks is bad enough. Part of the appeal of camping, after all, is cooking your own camp food—and there are already camp stores in the park that sell provisions.
What the hell?
It’s all well and good to offer full-service lodging and accessible trails, as I said earlier. It’s a whole other thing to pander to people who can’t bear to be unplugged for a few hours. Indeed, one of the joys of being in the park is the inability to get cell service, never mind Internet connections. Virtually all of us are addicted to our devices, to one degree or another. It’s a blessing to have places to go where we simply can’t use them.
Pardon me if I sound snobbish, but there are enough idiots in the park already. Years ago I stopped at a picnic area with my kids and watched in disdain as a woman, with children in tow, fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to a doe—underneath a sign that said, “Please do not feed the deer.” I pointed to the sign, but she just rolled her eyes and continued her display of disrespect.
Some years later, while researching an article on the park, I talked with a ranger who told me about some of the more bizarre notes placed in a suggestion box. “Why do all the trails go up hill?” one read. Another complained that there were “too many trees” at the overlooks.
The last thing we need to do is encourage such morons. If they don’t want to experience nature in all of its quiet glory, let them go to Disneyland.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned proposals represent yet another reason to evict Trump from office next November. His hostility toward the National Parks underscores the fact that he is the enemy of everything beautiful about this country. If it were completely up to him, he would either turn Shenandoah and other parks over to condo developers, or buy it himself and change the name of Skyland Lodge to Trumpland, replete with a casino and signs with his name in neon lights atop the mountain summits.
In the interim—while he’s still in office—the proposals are a reminder as well, for those of us who love the parks, to step up our stewardship by visiting them, caring for them and expressing our devotion to our legislators.
The parks are, as the great writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner once wrote, “the best idea we’ve had.” It is imperative that we preserve them for future generations.