The term “National Park” means different things to different people. In some countries, the prevailing image might be a massive lodge, built in the grand style of the 1930s, nestled along the shore of a majestic lake. But in other countries, national parks are merely lines on a map with a decrepit-looking guard station housing a few under-paid and over-worked rangers.
Irrespective of locale, the term signifies — to me, at least — the best of what a country has to offer in terms of its physical beauty. Having recently returned to the US after spending several years in Thailand, this thought was with me as I sought to see the best the American national park system.
Washington has long been known for being blessed with an overabundance of scenic landscapes and seascapes — so it’s no surprise that the state is home to three national parks.
Olympic National Park — which is the only national park in the contiguous US to contain both marine and glacial environments — is a mere 90 minutes from my house. This proximity is important because the only downside to the ONP is that it rains a lot. To minimize the chances of getting soaked in the backcountry, the key is to block off time to visit in August, when the chances of long, hot days and cool, star-studded nights are the greatest.
This year, the stars were aligning for a trip to ONP the week before Labor Day, which corresponded with the last week of summer vacation for my 13-year-old son. We set out early one Wednesday morning, making a brief stop at the Wilderness Information Center to pick up a backcountry permit.
(Speaking of which, I’ve been very fortunate to have kids who are as interested in learning about our world — and protecting it — as I am. Check out the video below for an interview that my daughter, an emerging Diane Sawyer if ever there was one, conducted with me about my job.)
A 30-minute winding drive up to Hurricane Ridge (an elevation gain of around 5,000 feet) and another 30-minute drive along a ridge road took us to the trailhead at Obstruction Point. Our destination was a place called the Grand Valley, defined by three alpine lakes of decreasing size. We hiked there and then spent three days exploring the area’s passes, swimming in its lakes and enjoying meals around a campfire while watching the scenery come alive. It astounds me that so few people take advantage of our national parks — even during the period that we selected to camp, it felt as though we had the valley to ourselves. The experience that I shared with my son really reminded me that the National Park Service not only has some amazing places to manage but also does a stellar job, with limited resources, of helping visitors really enjoy them.
The Park Service is responsible for hundreds of miles of trails in the Olympics that traverse difficult terrain and are covered under feet of snow for much of the year. The Park Service builds and maintains simple yet elegant footbridges to get hikers across raging mountain streams. They demarcate and employ a systematic approach to managing campsites that balances privacy and convenience, and they undertake science-based approaches to restoring habitat that’s been beaten down over years of heavy use.
When I think back on my time in Southeast Asia — including the last three years in Thailand and another eight in various other countries — it’s easier to judge the enormity of the NPS’s work. No matter where you are, creating parks requires vision and a significant amount of political will, often in the face of powerful interests seeking to exploit natural resources for short-term economic gain. Recruiting, training and deploying staff to patrol and manage parks often takes financial and technical resources that are hard to come by.
Developing and implementing management plans that turn “paper parks” into proper protected areas takes years of hard work and support from government, the private sector, local communities, academics and supportive NGOs. And all of this requires committed leadership and a population that supports the use of public finances for these tasks.
Various countries in Southeast Asia are at different points along this pathway — but in fact, the pathway never really ends. Recently, the Thai government announced that it is considering building a hydro-electric dam in the middle of Mae Wong National Park, which is located along Thailand’s western border with Myanmar. The reservoir associated with the dam would compromise lowland forest and savannah habitat that’s critically important and in relatively short supply for the area’s endangered elephant and tiger populations.
A generation ago, this dam would have enjoyed a much easier path to construction: appreciation for the country’s national parks was formerly quite limited. However, as the economy has grown and both political and environmental awareness has increased, there’s been an attendant increase in visitation to the country’s exceptional parks. It is this growing constituency of conservationists that is key to the future, not only in Thailand, but in China, Indonesia, Australia and throughout the Pacific.
The Mae Wong dam story is unfolding at the same time as Olympic National Park decommissions the Elwha Dam, which was built in 1910 to generate electricity for the City of Port Angeles. This is the first step in the eventual restoration of more than 70 miles of salmon habitat and represents another coup for the NPS, which has established a track record of success that is still the envy of many other countries’ park systems. I’m back in the US now but still working to further the conservation impacts of our Asia Pacific programs. Now more than ever, we have a lot to learn from each other — and sometimes the best place to find new inspiration is to head directly out into the wilderness. Thankfully, it’s close at hand.