Let’s Close the National Parks Redux

NPS officials fear the the looming sequestration will irrevocably damage parks like Zion as millions look visit this coming summer.

NPS officials fear the the looming sequestration will irrevocably damage parks like Zion as millions look visit this coming summer.

“The crisis is now in sight. Homeopathic measures will no longer suffice; thirty cents here and a dollar-seventy-five there will no longer keep the national park system in operation.”

Western historian and champion of public lands Bernard Devoto penned those words in his 1953 essay entitled “Let’s Close the National Parks.” After spending a summer visiting the West’s national parks, the firebrand Devoto was incensed over the state of the West’s parks, and the government’s, specifically Congress’s, failure to adequately fund them.

Millions of Americans were deluging their national parks, overwhelming the meager facilities. Campgrounds were too few, roads unpaved, and staffing wholly inadequate.  So, in the face of Congress’ failure to adequately fund the National Parks, and public lands more broadly, DeVoto launched his missive demanding that if Congress refused to act that they should close the national parks.

Devoto’s essay tapped in to a groundswell of growing public frustration over government inaction. Visitation continued to grow throughout the park system, forcing Congress to finally act with the passage of


Closed for a want of funding? Badlands National Park

Mission 66, a ten-year program that pumped millions of dollars into the National Parks.

Granted, Mission 66 came with a mixed success, but Devoto’s underlining message in 1953 what that it is the government’s responsibility to proper fund and manage our national parks. Anything less, and we might as well board them up. A lesson, it seems, that has been forgotten as Congress and the President appear to be on the verge of enacting draconian cuts to the federal budget that promise to devastate the already grossly underfunded National Parks.

This past month the group The Coalition of National Park Retirees leaked a memo from National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis that warned park superintendents of the looming sequestration. In order to meet the 5% cuts that would come from Congress’ inaction on funding the federal government, Jarvis ordered an immediate hiring freeze, eliminate all “less-essential” costs, including “travel, non-mandatory training, overtime, purchases of supplies, materials and equipment and contracts.” Park service employees will also face continued furloughs in order to meet the budgetary cut.

While such cuts, or to use the current parlance, austerity measures, will allow the over four hundred units under the care of the National Park Service to remain open, unlike during the government shutdown in 1995, they will most certainly wreak havoc during the height of summer season. Campgrounds, boat ramps, bathrooms, roads, and trails will all suffer. Countless wildlife studies will simply cease to operate. And local economies reliant on tourist dollars and federal jobs will take hit at the very moment when people rely on them the most.

The National Parks, like all public lands, are chronically underfunded normally. The National Park Conservation Association notes that since 2002 the NPS’s discretionary budget has decreased by $3 billion. The list of backlogged maintenance needs would nearly swallow the entire NPS budget. Additionally, the lack of hiring of permanent employees has left many smaller parks and monuments so understaffed as to be nonfunctioning. For example, cultural resource positions are so rare as to be listed as an endangered species in most parks, while Homeland Security funds have created a glut in the number of law enforcement officers in parks as diverse as Yosemite to the Black Canyon. The point being, that the National Parks do not get enough funding as it is, and what little they do receive is often marked for specific uses which may not be of highest priority.

Unlike like Devoto, I am not calling for the closure of the National Parks. However, the current crisis does call for action by those of us who love our public lands, and have for the past decade watch in horror as the federal government has sat back and let out nation’s park slowly degrade.

What would Roosevelt and Muir say about the Parks today?

What would Roosevelt and Muir say about the Parks today?

With such sentiments in mind, it is worth revisiting the final paragraph of Devoto’s 1953 essay.

“No such sums will be appropriated. Therefore only one course seems possible. The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened. They have the largest staffs in the system but neither those staffs nor the budgets allotted them are large enough to maintain the areas at a proper level of safety, attractiveness, comfort, or efficiency. They are unable to do the job in full and so it had better not be attempted at all. If these staffs—and their respective budgets—were distributed among other areas, perhaps the Service could meet the demands now put on it. If not, additional areas could be temporarily closed and sealed, held in trust for a more enlightened future—say Zion, Big Bend, Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Everglades, and Gettysburg. Meanwhile letters from constituents unable to visit Old Faithful, Half Dome, the Great White Throne, and Bright Angel Trail would bring a nationally disgraceful situation to the really serious attention of the Congress which is responsible for it.”

by Michael W. Childers

A Discussion of a Queered Geography of the American West

Ideanna Carrasco surveys the Incinerator and the West Desert

Westminster student Ideanna Carrasco surveys the Incinerator and the West Desert

Last fall I took 20 students on a camping trip in Utah’s west desert in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area. We hiked through dry canyons and set up camp on the edge of a burn that had blackened nearly all of the vegetation and turned the desert soil to dust. A colleague described it as “camping on the moon.” But the burritos were warm, the stars were bright, and the campsite opened to unbroken views of the salt flats and the ranges West of Salt Lake City.

There is an old (and contested) truism in Geography that “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”[1] It’s hard to remember that anything is close in the open, seemingly empty spaces of the American West where gas stations are few and far between, where “the vast loneliness of sky and earth” surround the campfire.

At our campsite in the Cedar Mountains, it would have been easy to feel alone, to get lost in the clear night and the bright Milky Way. But the lights from the Aragonite Hazardous Waste Incinerator just down the slope brought us back to earth. A line drawn on a map told us that we were in wilderness, on a mountain that was, at least legally, “untrammeled by man,” a place where we could escape the rest of the world. Half a mile away, the incinerator burned paint, chemicals and other hazardous wastes brought in from across the country. Places that are close to each other tend to be more related.

One of these places is a testament to our desire to leave parts of the natural landscape, the other a reminder of the danger we pose to ourselves and just one part of a toxic legacy. But these two places share a border and have more in common than it would first appear. Their value depends upon their place, their isolation. The incinerator is set apart, tied to cities, towns and factories by rail-lines and set in the middle of wide expanses of desert.

Before we left for the trip we asked students to read Alex Johnson’s Orion article How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time. Johnson challenges us to “give a round of applause to the delicious complexity. Let us call this complexity the queer, and let us use it as a verb. Let us queer our ecology. Cranes can be ancient, but they can also be modern. Might their posterity extend past ours?” On the surface, Johnson is talking about sexuality; pushing us to see that the living world provides examples not only of monogamy, but examples of homosexual geese, transgendered deer, and, (as one student put it) “squirrel three-ways.” “What then is natural?” Johnson asks? “All of it. None of it.”

To queer ecology is to reassess our assumptions about the order of the natural world, to take our dualisms less seriously. Looking at the incineration plant, it occurred to me that queering our ecology we might also require us to queer our geography. Too often we establish bright lines between the pristine and the ruined, between the untrammelled and the abused. Yet, Aragonite Incineration Plant will border the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area and we might find the lights in the desert beautiful. What might it mean to queer Tobler’s law. Such a conversation might mean queering the relationship between the incinerator and the Wilderness. It might consider that the two are not so different, that their proximity is not abnormal. A discussion of a queered geography of the American West asks us to understand these two places as necessary components of the same natural and cultural landscape, entwined in the history of the West and our own place in nature. “Nature is mysterious, and our part in the pageant is shrouded in mystery as well.” Johnson reminds us. “This means contradiction and paradox and irony.” It means that there will always be an exception. We might recognize the dangerous paradox of proximity and distance. We might wonder at it.

by Brent Olson

1. Tobler, W. 1969. A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region. Paper prepared for the meeting of the International Geographical Union, Commission on Quantitative Methods, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August.

Brent Olson is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Westminster College, in Salt Lake City.

The Last Camel

by Michael W. Childers

I am searching for a camel. I know that sounds a bit strange, but let me explain.

Camels once roamed the Southwest, having been released into the wild by their previous owners, often the U.S. Army, or simply having escaped from a poorly constructed corral. Small bands of the beasts wandered from northern Mexico and the Baja to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. That was, until the early twentieth century, when the last camel disappeared.

Camel Corps on the move

I am looking for that camel.

A little background first. Following the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States found itself in control of a vast new territory, what we today call the American Southwest.

The discovery of gold in the California Sierra along with the on-going sectional conflict over slavery placed the Southwest at the center of the increasingly vicious debate over the nation’s future.

Espousing America’s Manifest Destiny to expand and conquer the continent, numerous men sought to tie the West to the East by developing a reliable transportation route.

Among those people was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who would become the president of the Confederacy a decade later. A strong proponent of slavery and Manifest Destiny, as Secretary of War Davis advocated the opening of a southwestern transcontinental route from Texas into the gold fields of California.

To do so, he came to support the idea of bringing camels from Northern Africa.

He sent a military unit to the Mediterranean, where they purchased thirty-tree camels before sailing back to Texas. The camels were then moved to Camp Verde, in the Arizona Territory, where they were boarded until 1861.

In 1861, President Lincoln commissioned Edward Fitzgerald Beale to survey a viable route through the Southwest. Beale’s expedition included many of the camels brought from northern Africa and Turkey, and opened up the route from Texas to Los Angeles, the same one that Route 66 would later follow.

The Civil War and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 brought an end to the use of the military’s use camels. Many of the military’s stock were sold off to carnivals, released, or were simply shot as many of those who dealt with the animals despised the beast’s surly disposition and, well, unique odor.

This is where my search comes in. Where did these animals go? And what were their impacts before fading away into history?

Throughout the late nineteenth century, travelers spoke of seeing camels throughout the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts—the most infamous being the Red Ghost.

The tale of the Red Ghost typically begins one morning in 1883 on an isolated ranch near the southeastern edge of the Arizona Territory.

One morning, the two men rode out check on their scattered livestock, leaving behind their wives, two sisters, and few children. The women managed the daily life of the ranch, including collecting water from the nearby spring.

Such was the case that morning with one of the sisters trudging to spring bucket in hand, while the other remained in the house. Suddenly, chaos erupted near the ranch’s corral. Racing to the door of house, one sister witnessed what she would later describe at “El Diablo.”

Sitting astride a red beast, taller than horse, sat a mummified man. The beast, enraged at the barking of the ranch’s dogs tore through the corral, racing towards the spring. In fear for her life, the woman slammed the door to blood curdling screams of her sister outside.

Upon their return, the men found the body of the second sister trampled to death and the first sister still hidden in the house screaming about the beast.

Several days later, two prospectors awoke to a rider astride an enormous red “horse” tearing through their camp.

Sightings of the Red Ghost continued for years. A small band of hunters who attempted to shoot the apparition, but missed, found the head of a long dead man that had bounced off the animal as it fled.

Later, a lone cowboy happened upon the Ghost. And, being a cattleman, he roped the camel. But rather than pulling on the lariat to get away and tightening the rope, the Ghost charged the started roper, who proceeded to fall off his horse and drop the lariat as the camel, still with a saddle astride its back, tore past him off into the brush.

The Red Ghost’s reign of terror came to an end a number of years later, when a rancher awoke to the find the camel grazing in his garden, and shot the beast. The lariat had dug deep into the animal’s flesh, and while no body remained strapped to the camel, the saddle was still there.

But story of the Last Camel did not end with the Red Ghost’s death.

In 1913, the crew of a Santa Fe Railroad train swore they had seen a camel near Wickenburg, Arizona.

David Hulton, of Ajo, Arizona, swore he saw a small herd of camels near a watering hole in Cabeza National Wildlife Refuge in 1924.

Five years later, a traveler reported sight a solitary camel near Banning, California, and tales of camel sightings near the Salton Sea continued through 1941.

Another of the expedition’s camels, its skeleton anyway, ended up in the Smithsonian.

Site of the old LA Zoo, now a part of Griffith Park, where Topsy the Camel spent her final days.

But it turns out that the last camel resided, of all places, the Los Angeles Zoo.

One of the zoo’s camels, known as Topsy, is believed to be the last survivor of a herd of camels that made the trek across the Southwest in 1861. Topsy lived a long life and died in 1934.

Now, I know what you are thinking. The math simply does not add up. But Los Angeles Times reported in an article on Topy’s death in 1934, “While the average life of a camel is said to be 30 or 40 years, if Topsy really was a member of the Arizona herd she would have been in the late seventies. Caretakers say this would be possible as the camel has been given excellent care.”

Was Topsy really the last camel? I am not convinced. However, I do not have proof otherwise. Part of me likes to think that a lone camel still roams the deserts of the Southwest. Perhaps I am just being romantic, yet my search continues.

Spaced Out: From Space Exploration to Space Tourism in the American West

by Ryan Edgington

In October 2012, the world watched in awe as the Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner skydived from 24-miles above terra firma as part of Red Bull Stratos. For all intents and purposes he leapt to earth from space. The vistas of the planet from Baumgartner’s capsule alone made the official video nothing short of spectacular.


Two things, one obvious and another probably little noticed by other viewers, drew me to this Evel Knievel to the nth level stunt. First, he parachuted to earth, an experience that since World War II had gone from purely military endeavor to something also done as leisure. Certainly his leap of faith was laborious and made money for a lot of people (including the energy drink brand Red Bull, which backed the Stratos program). But as I see it, Baumgartner is at the vanguard of a burgeoning, albeit hardly egalitarian, space tourism industry. Space tourism is big talk in the American West. Oklahoma, California, and Colorado all have planned privately or publicly funded spaceports that cater to high-end tourism. New Mexico’s Spaceport America, a stone’s throw west of White Sands Missile Range and about 60 miles north of Las Cruces, is perhaps the most famous. In 2009 Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic planned to house its headquarters there.


Second, Baumgartner plummeted to earth near the alien sighting capital of the world, Roswell, New Mexico, where Stratos had headquarters for the jump. Space tourism reminded me of the deep ties that space exploration has held in the American West. When we think of American space exploration we think of Houston, Texas, Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. But early on the West was at the heart of it all. For Example, Edwards Air Force Base (formerly Muroc Army Airfield), located on the high desert of California, housed post-World War II test pilots that tested high altitude and high-speed airplane prototypes (Chuck Yeager was a part of this “weird ribald aerial tarpaper mad-monk squadron,” as Tom Wolfe called them). In the 1970s, Edwards also played a central role in Space Shuttle testing.

New Mexico holds a special place in the history of space technologies. Beginning in 1930, physicist and inventor Robert H. Goddard initiated the earliest rocket research in New Mexico after leaving the less than inviting community and climate of New England. As World War II ended German and American scientists led by German engineer Wernher Von Braun came to Fort Bliss and White Sands Proving Ground in south-central New Mexico to initiate the American V-2 rocket program. White Sands would test several rocket prototypes including the Viking, Athena, and Pershing. In 1949, U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, paid lip service to an earth satellite vehicle as future military tool based in part on the secret research at White Sands.

As part of high altitude research conducted during the V-2 program, engineers and scientists also hurtled metal slugs into space and took photos of the earth from high altitudes. Both experiments are important ancestral events to Baumgartner’s flight (you really cannot have his capsule without the slugs nor the compelling images of the video from his capsule without early experiments with high altitude rocket photography). In 1963, engineers and scientists at the White Sands Test Facility researched propulsion system prototypes for the already underway Apollo program (WSTF remains active). In March 1982, the Space Shuttle Columbia landed at the White Sands Space Harbor.

That space tourism has come to New Mexico thus is of little surprise. In fact the idea had come much earlier than Branson’s 2009 announcement. In the early 1990s, engineer Burton Lee of Stanford University, with several colleagues, garnered funding through a NASA congressional earmark (via New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici) to plan the Southwest Regional Spaceport. The whole sordid history of funding and legislation can be found in Lee’s 2007 PowerPoint presentation found here. In late 2008 the FAA gave Spaceport America a launch license and in January 2009 New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson heralded the agreement with Branson’s Virgin Galactic saying “this groundbreaking ceremony is an important step toward our goal of being at the forefront of a vibrant, new commercial space industry.”

So Richard Branson had planted his space flag in the deserts of southern New Mexico with the help of New Mexico politicians, Congress, local boosters, and a history of space research to prime the pump.  But a story all too familiar to western historians seems to be playing itself out. The benefits of this leisure and industrial program seem only to benefit a small wealthy slice of the public, a public with either ancillary or zero ties to the everyday realities of most New Mexicans. Indeed, in 2010 Virgin Galactic marked the price for a two hour round trip at $200,000.

While his company has started paying rent, Branson has threatened to abandon Spaceport America unless the New Mexico state legislature offers liability exemptions to Virgin Galactic suppliers. Considering the amount of money the state has poured into the program (two-thirds of estimated $209-212 million cost) this may be shocking to most New Mexicans. But lets not act surprised. Branson is looking at Abu Dhabi as an alternative launch site (Oklahomans may recall a similar song and dance).

Spaceport America Runway Dedication

In some senses, New Mexico offers a wonderful environmental climate for such endeavors including year-round sun, high altitude, and little precipitation (clearly the positive reception from Santa Fe does not hurt either). Baumgartner did not pick New Mexico by mere whimsy and seeing New Mexico from 24-miles up is a thrill. He also shows that for a sliver of the population space tourism is possible. But in a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country, which has also experienced abominable social and environmental exploitation as the result of extractive natural resource industries and Cold War military agencies (read here, here, and here), Spaceport America seems like nothing more than a big empty terminal with a runway to nowhere.

Ryan Edgington is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental history at Mcalester College and a native New Mexican

Christmas in the Mile High City

By B. Erin Cole

Holiday lights decorate Denver's City and County Building and Civic Center Park in this photo taken in 1940.

Holiday lights decorate Denver’s City and County Building and Civic Center Park in this photo taken in 1940. Picture from Denver Public Library Western History Collection

Denver has been decorating its Civic Center for the holidays since 1919. That year’s display was meant to commemorate the end of World War I as well as instigate holiday cheer: a display of pine boughs mounted on the park’s Greek Theater spelled out “WORLD PEACE” while the park’s usual white lights were replaced with red and green bulbs. The next year, a large Christmas tree was put up in the middle of the park. After the City and County Building was constructed in 1932, the holiday display got larger — in 1950, the city put up an estimated 40,000 lights around the Civic Center.

Today, the light display is limited to just the City and County Building. The thousands of bulbs and spotlights which took city employees hours to set up and maintain have been replaced with color-changing LED lights that are easier to use and more energy efficient. However, changing the lights hasn’t lessened the occasional controversy over the city’s holiday display: the presence of a nativity scene (along with Santa, elves, nutcrackers, and any other Christmas-related symbol you could think of) at the base of the City and County Building and the words “Merry Christmas” at the top represent, for some, an endorsement of religion on the part of the City and County of Denver. Decades of court cases have failed to resolve the issue.

The lights at the City and County Building go on after Thanksgiving, and stay on until the end of the National Western Stock Show in late January — an extended “holiday season” that gives a nod to Denver’s Western heritage. Some Denverites also deliberately keep up their decorations until after the Stock Show, following the city’s lead (I know I am!).

B. Erin Cole is a PhD Candidate at the University of New Mexico

The Latest Chapter of the Vail Arsons

Vail Arson Photo 600 dpi

Another chapter in the 1998 Vail Arsons, which saw the destruction of twelve buildings on the nation’s largest ski resort by members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), has come to an end.

This past Thursday, 39-year old Rebecca Jeanette Rubin turned herself into federal authorities after a decade on the lam in Canada.

A former member of the small band known as “The Family,” Rubin was involved in twenty arsons across six western states, including Colorado, Oregon, and California.

Based out of Oregon, The Family’s initial targets included a USFS pickup truck, the BLM wild horse corrals near Burns, Oregon, the U.S. Forest Industries offices in Medford, Oregon, luxury homes under construction in both Phoenix and Longmont, Colorado, and the arson of the office of Toby Bradshaw a leading researching in genetic engineered trees at the University of Washington.

The total costs of the group’s five-year rampage, stretching from 1996 until 2001, ranged somewhere between $40 and $50 million.

Yet, it was the setting on fire of Vail Ski Resort’s lavish Two Elks Lodge, which overlooked the ski resort’s Back Bowls and proposed Category III expansion that brought widespread notoriety to the group.

Prior to the arsons, few Westerners had ever heard of the ELF. Radicalism had played a role in the region’s environmental battles. And while spiking a tree or chaining oneself to bulldozer was often decried as act of extremism, arson remained an act most activists refused to undertake.

Frustrated over their perceived failure to halt the continued destruction of the environment, and their disenfranchisement from a political system that fostered development over preservation, Rubin and her fellow conspirators believed violence was their only option.

“When I saw that political and economic systems themselves were the problem,” former member of The Family Chelsea Gerlach told a reporter in 2007, “working within these systems began to feel not only ineffective but almost unethical.”

But the decision to use arson proved folly, often casting the targets of their anger as victims and painting all environmental organizations as “eco-terrorists”, a highly problematic term based more upon politics than reality.

Rubin’s surrender most likely will not garner much attention beyond a few short news articles, but it should give us pause when thinking about the continued contentious debates over the West’s environment and the costs of disenfranchisement.

by Michael W. Childers

In Case You Missed It … Street Art on the Navajo Nation

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It turns out that abandoned structures, roadside craft stands, and propane tanks make great platforms for street art. All it requires is reimagining the landscape as part of the picture. For the past several years, Jetsonorama has been tagging Flagstaff, Tuba City, Kayenta, and places on the highways in between with transitory contemplative and laughing images of his neighbors. The High Country News and Brooklyn Street Art have featured the artist’s images, but there is nothing quite like seeing them for yourself. They are reminders of the warmth of Navajo community and declare that people live here.

by Leisl Carr Childers

The American West in Three Dimensions

WHA Presentation Audience in 3D Glasses – Photo by Michael Amundson

At the annual Western History Association conference this past October in Denver, Colorado, I was reminded of the depth of history in the American West. Weirdly, that reminder came through the images of a little-known early twentieth century photographer of the region named Clyde McCoy, whose unsolved murder is the stuff of film noir. In a panel entitled “An Artists Eye: Photographs and Paintings of the Twentieth Century American West,” Michael Amundson discussed his discovery of McCoy’s photographs at a garage sale and his research into the photographer’s life and work. Amundson spent the better part of a year digitizing and restoring McCoy’s images of the American West’s most iconic landscapes, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks. McCoy had taken his images using cutting-edge 3-D photography and Amundson had faithfully digitized and restored the images in 3-D, using similarly cutting-edge technology. Amundson provided his audience with paper 3-D glasses to view the photographs and the audience put them on, eagerly viewing the images. They were stunning. Seeing the American West in multiple dimensions was breathtaking and invigorating, almost as if I was a part of the photograph itself. This is a sentiment that I took to heart as I left the conference—I should wear those 3-D glasses a little more often.

by Leisl Carr Childers