Why Defend National Parks?
By Philip Hyde Circa 1951
Landscape Photography Blogger Note: Philip Hyde wrote this unpublished 1951 magazine article while the controversy was heating up over two proposed dams in Dinosaur National Monument. In 1951, Richard Leonard, who was on the board of both the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, as well as David Brower, another board member who would soon after become the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club and the father of modern environmentalism, sent Philip Hyde on assignment to Dinosaur National Monument. It was the first time a photographer ever went on assignment for an environmental cause. The resulting book published in 1955, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country And Its Magic Rivers, edited by Wallace Stegner, was also the first book ever published for an environmental cause. Article edited by David Leland Hyde in November 2011. To read more about Philip Hyde’s travels to Dinosaur in his own words, see the blog post, “On The Road To Dinosaur.”
In a few wild places on the surface of the Earth, nature has reached a climax. The United States of America has been gifted with a bountiful supply of these places of peak expression. While many were actively trying to convert these places to some kind of material gain, a few were finding out that these places had an intangible resource, a spiritual benefit that made itself felt in these natural areas. Fortunately, the inspirational character of wild places is becoming more recognized, even as exploitative uses are also on the rise.
Now more than ever, it is time for a new emphasis on intrinsic values and non-commercial use of our national parks. We have argued for preservation on principle, but the principle is little understood. People need a clearer sense of the importance of wilderness preservation. Dinosaur National Monument is a good example of how the dam builders offer people only one use of the national park system, a use that displaces most other uses. In our materially minded society, the “what can I get out of it” approach commands powerful attention. Irrigation water and electric power are strong selling points for building dams and limiting the scope of uses in Dinosaur National Monument and other units of the national park system. Conservation organizations all over the country oppose dam construction in Dinosaur National Monument. Why? What alternative uses do they propose?
To find the answer to this question, we must begin by taking a closer look at Dinosaur National Monument itself. This leads us to ask more questions: Why is Dinosaur a national monument? Why is the area set aside and its natural resources out of the reach of exploitation? The answers to these questions transcend solely material considerations. The canyons of Dinosaur National Monument were protected because they offer a benefit of greater value than can be obtained from the physical properties of the land. The labyrinthine canyons offer a place of inspiration where the integrity of nature is still intact, unaltered by the materialistic drives and desires of humans. It is a place where people can go to contemplate the works of a power greater than themselves, where they can transcend the destructive aspects of ego and lose some of their self-conscious thoughts.
That such an opportunity is a tonic to those who avail themselves of it is not sentimental wishful thinking, but has been demonstrated and proven. Preservation of an area because it provides such an opportunity is justified in and of itself alone, without any of the many other alternative uses to the industrial extraction of the natural resources.
In such a wild place as Dinosaur, where nature is at climax, the physical uses are transitory like elsewhere, but their transitory nature puts into perspective the sacrifice of other values necessary to obtain a fleeting benefit. The minerals are mined and permanently disappear when there are no more minerals. Even a great dam can become a monument to expediency by filling with mud in a region of erosion where rivers carry a heavy burden of silt. The advance of science may bypass the most foresighted means of exploiting nature, as when atomic power generates electricity, but will no place be left untouched? Will we cut down the last tree? Shoot the last mountain lion? Stone the last canyon swallow? Dam the last river and flood the last canyon? Is it not time to defend and stand by the official recognition of the spiritual benefits of setting aside at least some sacred ground where people can find much needed solace and renewal?
For an introduction as to why the battle over Dinosaur was pivotal to the conservation movement, how the Dinosaur campaign transformed the Sierra Club and brought conservation into the limelight, transforming it into modern environmentalism, see the blog posts, “The Battle Over Dinosaur: Birth Of Modern Environmentalism 1,” and other blog posts in the same series. The Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series popularized the coffee table photography book. To read more about this ground-breaking book series, see the blog post, “Sierra Club Books: Exhibit Format Series 1.”