San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fight over national parks echoes U.S. park growing pains

By John McPhaul | Special to The Tico Times

Conservationists in Costa Rica alarmed by the government’s attempt to segregate land at Rincón de La Vieja National Park, in northwestern Guanacaste province, and gold panners destroying sections of Corcovado National Park, in the Osa Peninsula, might take solace in knowing that the United States – the inventor of the national park concept – had similar problems when it established the national pa   rks in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The national parks’ growing pains are detailed in the PBS documentary series “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea,” by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan.

National parks in the U.S. had their genesis in a land grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864, to set aside 60 square miles of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains encompassing Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, giving the land over to the care of the State of California.

Animated by concern that the North’s industrial and commercial development, exemplified by a carnival atmosphere and commercial exploitation of Niagara Falls, would define the young country’s future development of its vast frontier, with the stroke of a pen Lincoln planted the seeds of the at-the-time uniquely U.S. democratic idea that the public at large ought to enjoy the same access to wilderness recreation as had been afforded only to the wealthy.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, in the U.S.  Courtesy of Yellowstone National Park Facebook

Innkeeper James Mason Hutchins challenged the law by saying part of the valley was his and taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices ruled against him, establishing an important precedent in favor of conservation.

Hutchins though continued to flout the law, erecting buildings in the valley until he was definitively booted out of the park in 1875, though the State of California compensated him for the land he claimed.

Yellowstone, in Wyoming, was the first national park established by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1st, 1872. But initially it fell victim to commercialization as surrogates of the Northern Pacific Railroad, banded under the Yellowstone Park Improvement Company, attempted to turn the park into a circus, erecting buildings, and in one case, diverting a hot springs to provide heat for one of the buildings.

“The project of the worthy speculators who are after the people’s pleasure ground appears to be flourishing. Here and there a feeble voice of protest is raised against the steal, but with a powerful lobby to back them and no opposition from the Interior Department, the grabbers have little to fear,” wrote the naturalist George Bird Grinnell. “The park is presently all our own. How would the reader like it to become a second Niagara, a place to go only to be fleeced?”

In his campaign to save Yellowstone from the exploiters, Grinnell had an ally in Army Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan who sparked a debate in Congress over the contracts to the concessioners and introduced a bill to expand the park.

Most Congressmen were unimpressed by Sheridan’s entreaties.

“I should be very glad to see it surveyed and sold, leaving it to private enterprise,” said Kansas Sen. John Engle, the same sentiment of certain Costa Rican businessmen about their national parks.

The bill to expand the park failed and Congress stripped Yellowstone of all funding. Sheridan took matters into his own hands, though, and sent the cavalry to take possession of the “people’s park.” The cavalry was to stay in the park for another 30 years. 

Glacier Point turns into ‘a carnival’

After an extended absence from Yosemite Valley, the conservationist John Muir returned to find “a carnival” with tourists mugging for photos on Glacier Point, a favorite spot for Muir to contemplate in silence the majesty of the valley, and wheat planted in the delicate valley floor meadows.

“Like anything else worthwhile, however, well guarded has always been under attack by gain seekers and mischief makers of ever degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately selfishly commercial,” Muir said.

So alarmed by the pasturing of sheep in high country meadows that would destroy the watershed leading to the valley, in 1890, Muir – with the help of his newly formed Sierra Club – successfully lobbied for the creation of Yosemite National Park in the high country.

The Army was also recruited to patrol the other three parks that were created – the high country of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon – to guard against the incessant pressures from poachers, loggers, cattle and sheep herders.

No law was on the books to formally prevent the predations until a group of conservationists, led by the aspiring politician Theodore Roosevelt, authored and lobbied for passage of the Wildlife Preservation Bill in 1900.

It wasn’t until Roosevelt became president and was lobbied personally by John Muir during the president’s historic visit to Yosemite Valley that the valley itself and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees were incorporated into the national park in 1905.

It was during that trip to the West, during a speech on the Grand Canyon, that Roosevelt turned the phrase that would define the mission of the National Parks: “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

It wasn’t until 1916 that a government agency, the U.S. National Park Service, was established to administer the country’s growing number of national parks.

Prolonged battles

The solid institutionalism enjoyed by U.S. parks were hard-won after a prolonged battle between conservationists and vested interests, an effort that percolates even today between those who see mass tourism in national parks as commercial exploitation and those who view it as fundamental to the parks’ democratic mission.

Rincón de la Vieja National Park

Rincón de la Vieja National Park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.   Courtesy of WikiCommons

Costa Rica’s national parks are scarcely 40 years old, and although poaching, gold panning and limited illegal logging have all been problems in Corcovado National Park, the national park idea generally has been a success.

The parks have earned their keep by forming the backbone of a tourism industry that provides Costa Rica with its principle source of foreign exchange income.

But Costa Rica’s parks appear to be at a crossroads. Conservationists fear that the desire of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to segregate 1,000 hectares of Rincón de la Vieja and the failure to adequately protect Corcovado National Park – the jewel of the park system – from gold panners, reflects an institutional shortsightedness that shakes the very foundation of the park system.

The segregation of volcanic land is particularly worrisome, given that the violation of the park’s mission would come from official hands and set a precedent for the removal of protection from parkland that could be repeated for other commercial purposes in other parks.

It appears that Costa Rican conservationists are faced with staging the same kind of battle to save the parks as that of their U.S. counterparts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Leading the battle is Álvaro Ugalde, who 40 years ago, along with Mario Boza, founded the Costa Rican National Park Service, patterned after the U.S. system to establish parks in perpetuity – or so they thought.

Ugalde attributes the parks’ current difficulties to the fact that average Costa Ricans, especially those living in the environs of the parks, do not identify with them and view the parks as something removed from their day-to-day concerns.

“If I had hair,” said the bald Ugalde, “I’d pull it out for having built the parks from the top down instead of from the bottom up.”

Ugalde promised to challenge the segregation in the country’s Supreme Court if it is passed by the legislature.

Costa Rican conservationists’ current difficulties seem to echo Teddy Roosevelt’s words spoken more than a century ago in appraisal of his countrymen’s appreciation of the wonders bestowed upon them by nature:  “Surely our people do not understand even yet the rich heritage that is theirs.”

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