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  • Ken Ilgunas

The National Park Service in the Anthropocene

“The imperfect is our only paradise.” – Wallace Stevens

A few years ago, I was hiking on a trail in Death Valley National Park, thinking about a book I’d just finished called After Nature by Jedediah Purdy.

Purdy’s book is mostly historical. It looks at four different phases of the “environmental imagination” in American history: 1) Providential, 2) Romantic, 3) Utilitarian, and 4) Ecological. From one phase to another, Americans’ thoughts and feelings about nature evolved. During the romantic period, for example, we attached symbolic and aesthetic importance on unspoiled natural features, such as mountains and waterfalls. The romantic environmental imagination influenced the movement that created the National Park Service.

The fifth phase (our phase) might be called “Anthropocentric,” a term used to describe how everything has been affected by humankind, from the climate, to species extinction, to the very architecture of our omnipresent industry.

Here in Death Valley, I was thinking about the world with Purdy’s thesis in mind: that we need to advance to this new stage of environmental thinking and adapt our imaginations, aesthetic preferences, and policies to it. If we’re going to have an anthropocentric environmental imagination, we need to re-imagine what’s beautiful, what needs to be learned, and what we ought to be visiting.

How shall we imagine our national parks (our present and future national parks) in light of these questions?

Our parks, since the beginning of the National Park Service, have been designated and designed for viewing based on romantic notions of nature that were prevalent through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Almost all of our parks celebrate and preserve and showcase mostly-undisturbed natural beauty.) As Purdy would argue, we ought not discard the values of our old environmental imaginations, as these values and cravings (such as a romantic idealization of wilderness) are still alive in us. But what sort of new parks should we be designating in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries? Should we keep trying to buy up scenic land to celebrate more beauty? Or do we need to develop a new ecological imagination and visit new areas accordingly?

One idea I thought up is to designate parks in areas of awesome human destruction, like the chain of removed mountaintops in West Virginia and Kentucky. Although this area is scattered across the Appalachian Mountains, it roughly covers 1.5 million acres, which would make it among the biggest national parks in the Lower-48.

At Mountaintop Removal National Park, visitors could visit a park that focuses not on pristine beauty, but on human-made destruction, which no doubt would be beautiful in its own way. Maybe it’s not beautiful, exactly, but it’s something that evokes awe. Waterfalls and mountains do not have a monopoly on awe, after all. The meticulously-planted Big Ag rows of hay can evoke awe. Same with a marvel of engineering, like a dam, refinery, city, or pipeline. Personally, I was awed by the vastness and complexity of the Alberta Tar Sand pits and the Port Arthur refineries in Texas. I don’t think feeling awe for these places is tacit approval of them; rather, I think it’s just acknowledgment of rare amazingness and of the fact that these places are a part of our world that can’t be wished away. In Mountaintop Removal National Park, we could learn about our destructive past, see the gradual rehabilitation of the land, and come to regard all aspects of nature (not just the pristine places) as nature.

I was surprised to see so many visitors at Death Valley. (In 2018, Death Valley was the fifteenth most-visited national park, with 1.6 million visitors, placing it in the top-fourth of national parks.) That’s amazing because Death Valley is a place that annually gets two inches of rain, that is deadly-hot for good portions of the year, and that has natural features that do not fit within our common perceptions of natural beauty. How many people would drive through Death Valley if it was just a road going through nameless BLM land? Not many. Give it a cool name and designate it as a national park and people will come. You could do the same with a lot of other areas in the country that we typically wouldn’t seek out.

I have no idea if a Mountaintop Removal National Park, or a Tar Sands National Park, or a Love Canal National Monument is even remotely economically feasible. (Who owns that land and how much would it cost?) But it’s not a ridiculous idea. Every year, thousands of people visit Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear meltdown in modern-day Ukraine. (Don’t tell me people don’t want to see ugliness. At Chernobyl, people are visiting a place where there are higher than normal levels of radiation.) Over a million tourists visit Auschwitz every year. Pompeii, Wounded Knee, and hundreds of battlefields are flooded by tourists every year, and especially in the cases of Wounded Knee, Little Big Horn, and other Native American historic sites, they’ve probably done great good in educating folks about the struggles of Native Americans and the injustices they’ve faced.

In Germany, there’s Landschaftspark, a park that includes the ruins of a twentieth-century ironworks, where they’re interpreting the industrial past and watching nature take over. Could we turn some abandoned Ohio rustbelt town into a park? Or what about the old grain elevators and silos of Buffalo, New York, which I’ve seen, and which are visually arresting? These places are darkly beautiful and they could tell a rarely told story about our industrial past.

Ideas for national parks for the Anthropocene

Silo City National Park – Buffalo, NY

I took a boat ride down the Buffalo River and saw these amazing silos, which tell the history of early industrialism in America. The place has been called Silo City, and while I believe there are ways to actually get in and see the silos, it's not a park and it's all relatively unknown.

Tar Sands National Park – Alberta, Canada

The Tar Sands make up about 54,000 square miles of land. I took a flight over the devastation in 2012.

National park of a slavery plantation – South Carolina

I'm heading into sensitive territory here, but it seems reasonable to acquire old plantation land for the purpose of telling an important story. I lived in the South for many years, and I was always troubled by the fact that there is very little public acknowledgment of our slave-holding past. I googled for "biggest slave owner" and it seems it was Joshua John Ward, who owned the Brookgreen Plantation in South Carolina. Such a place would be suitable for a national park. Credit: Wikipedia.

Dust Bowl National Park – Great Plains

This could tell a story of what happens when we mistreat the land. It's also a story of collective action through government-supported relief and shelterbelt projects.

Love Canal National Monument – Niagara Falls, NY

I grew up near Love Canal. It is bizarre and disturbing and interesting to look at. There ought to at least be an interpretive center here, plus walking tours around the ghost town. Credit: The Buffalo News.

Mountaintop Removal National Park – Appalachian Mts.

Credit: Desmog Blog.

Soil Erosion National Park – Iowa

This refreshingly honest and non-promotional display at an Iowa rest stop shows how much topsoil has disappeared in the last 170 years. Perhaps Soil Erosion National Park can be our first entirely underground park, where we can walk alongside depleted soil levels and aquifers, and beneath the roots of corn and soy. Credit: Wikipedia.

Passenger Pigeon National Park – Eastern U.S.

This park will commemorate all the animals in North America that have gone extinct or become endangered since European settlement. If I let my mind wander, I might even suggest that we could have a park like the suggested Pleistocene Park in Siberia, where scientists intend to genetically reinvent (or de-extinct) the woolly mammoth and give it habitat. There are efforts to do as much with the passenger pigeon. Credit: Wikipedia.

Refineryville National Park – Port Arthur, Texas (title borrowed from Andrew Blackwell’s Visit Sunny Chernobyl)

I took this photo in the refinery area of Port Arthur, Texas. Should we ever have access to abandoned industrialized spaces, they could serve as places for contemplation and rewilding.

Stampede Bus National Historic Site – Healy, Alaska

I've written about formally designating and protecting the Stampede Bus site, from Into the Wild, in my tiny book, The McCandless Mecca. This monument can tell a story of not just McCandless, but the bus: which, for about 3/4ths of a century, has alternatingly served the mining industry, hunters, dreamers, and now pilgrims. It can tell the McCandless story, or something bigger. It might be wiser for this to be swallowed by nearby Denali National Park or to become an Alaska state park, but I feel it's very deserving of protecting and monumentalizing. Credit: Josh Spice.

Take me seriously, but not too seriously. The above ideas come from the top of my head, and have been proposed with little research or serious thought about feasibility. But it doesn’t hurt to think playfully about the idea and I encourage more ideas. I’m sure there are many, many more. (Just google for sites of U.S. environmental disasters.) Plus, I’m sure there are much snappier names that can be given to lure people, just as Death Valley does. (And obviously some of these are very impossible since they’re still in use.)

Our world will soon have over 10 billion people. There are fewer and fewer places of unsettled, majestic beauty we can set aside. Our most profound human creation — climate change — affects everything. For the twenty-first century and beyond, we need to continue to fight to reverse our past mistakes, but, for our own well-being, we also need to come to terms with what we have, and that may mean finding enjoyment, stimulation, and even beauty in places we never thought we would.


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