Nature’s Respite in the Alleghenies

Our particular American moment doesn’t exactly inspire peace of mind. As numb as I’ve become to some things, the levels of corruption and callousness on display in Washington are still mind-boggling, and seeing what’s happening to our natural inheritance and civil rights—such as young children being kidnapped and caged by the government—is downright draining.

I learn what’s happening by plugging into (legitimate) media, and it’s how I steel my resolve to vote, vote, vote against the bastards doing this to our country. But it’s terrible for mental health, and there’s no shame in occasionally pulling back. For me, nature has truly become that avenue of retreat, and all the better if I can escape the reach of 4G coverage.

C. and I were to attend a wedding in Detroit (more on that city, perhaps, in a future post), but were lured in by the opportunity to refresh our spirits with an en route camping trip. We settled on Allegany State Park in western New York, which we had visited in the past (but never in the summer). It was as lovely as we had hoped, and more; for a brief time we were accompanied only by the forested mountains and other people looking to get away from whatever troubles or tedium ailed them.

As we left the park and continued our trip, a television at McDonald’s showed footage of a Guatemalan mother dropping to her knees and sobbing as her four-year-old daughter (separated for nearly a month) toddled toward her. It was a stark reminder of what humanity’s most vulnerable people are being subjected to, but I now felt better able to absorb the shock and turn it toward resolve.

For everyone alarmed by creeping fascism, do yourselves a favor: Visit the places where human tragedy has the littlest impact. For now, I’m happy to share some of my own experiences. I hope you enjoy the natural history and the pictures.


In the last ice age, most of what is now known as Upstate New York was covered by massive continental glaciers. Where these ice sheets advanced, they smoothed out the contours of areas like the Allegheny Plateau, but portions of the plateau, generally further south, remained untouched by the glaciers. There, the valley and hill topography remains more rugged.

The vast majority of the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau is south of New York state, save a small portion along the Pennsylvania border, mostly in southern Cattaraugus County. There, in 1921, the New York Legislature approved the creation of Allegany State Park—now a 65,000 acre near-wilderness surrounded by Allegheny National Forest to the south, and by the Allegheny River and the Allegany Indian Reservation (Seneca Nation) to the north.

Over the years, the state of New York labored mightily—entire communities and townships were dissolved, residents evicted, and lakes formed on dammed streams—to create a conservation and recreation area the equal of most national parks. Two built-up areas (Red House and Quaker) with cabin lodging, campgrounds, and recreational and commercial facilities are surrounded by rugged hills and forests. Three main paved roads connect the developed areas with each other and to the park’s entrances; elsewhere, only rough gravel roads and trails reach most areas.

The park’s Tudor-style administration building

Forest

The Allegheny Highlands Forest in the park is primarily composed of beech, maple, oak, hemlock, and white pine. Allegany State Park boasts more than a dozen tracts of old growth forest—meaning it has never been harvested for timber, and that it has maintained maturity through natural cycles for thousands of years—one of which is nearly 1,000 acres.

A twisted, splintered tree (cause unknown)

Blowdowns allow ferns and grasses to add green to the forest floor

Hemlocks grow abundantly on hillsides and near streams

Ferns crowd near a mature hemlock in a section of old growth forest

Meadow and clearing

Across the park, the forest cover is absent in a number of places. Grassy lawns are mowed near the developed areas for recreational purposes; elsewhere, more natural clearings feature native grasses and wildflowers. One of our favorite discoveries, though, was the butterfly meadow, an interpretive exhibit managed as a compromise between the park’s recreational and conservational impulses.

A short new interpretive trail allows visitors to learn about the park’s wetlands

A similar interpretive trail winds through a butterfly meadow, planted with native grasses and flowers

Mountain

The portion of the unglaciated plateau in Allegany State Park does not reach particularly notable elevations (the park’s high point is less than 2,400 feet, making it less lofty than other areas of the unglaciated plateau), but the terrain is often steep, with deep ravines and stunning vistas.

View north out of park, across Allegheny River Valley (taken on a previous trip)

View of Red House Lake and interior of park, from Old Stone Tower (taken on a previous trip)

Rock

Southwestern New York is known for formations called “rock cities,” which are fascinating geologic formations resulting (in these cases) from quart conglomerate protrusions. While the most famous rock cities lie outside of the park, we had visited Thunder Rocks on a previous visit. This time, our longest hike took us through the “Bear Caves,” a minor rock city on the shoulder of Mount Seneca near the Quaker Area.

Water

While surrounded on three sides by the Allegheny River (and its reservoir to the west), most water within the park flows down narrow valleys in the form of small brooks and runs. Waterfalls are surprisingly rare, although most streams drop quickly in elevation. In two places, larger creeks were dammed to create reservoirs. While artificial lakes are often less scenic than their naturally occurring counterparts, Red House and Quaker lakes reflect the natural beauty of their surroundings.

In wetter seasons, this rock face is known as Bridal Falls for the delicate veil of water that cascades off the steep slope

Recently drained and refilled, a normally open-water corner of Red House Lake was instead showing some lush aquatic grasses

Up Close and Personal

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Posted in Environmentalism, History, Nature, Photo Journey, Place, Rural, Science, Traveling, Upstate New York | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Book Review: Streamwalker’s Journey

About 2.5 years ago, I reviewed my dad’s bookBeautiful Like a Mayfly (or ‘BLAM’), calling it “beautiful, honest, frequently poetic writing” that “made me reflect fondly on time spent with my family exploring the wild places of the world.” While BLAM, unsurprisingly given its title, explored fly fishing as just one important facet of my father’s relationship with the natural world, his latest prose offering, titled Streamwalker’s Journey: Fishing the Triple Divide, is almost entirely dedicated to his life on the water.

To say that Walt Franklin (the Rivertop Rambler) is into fly fishing is somewhat akin to saying that the Pope goes to church, or that Brazilians like soccer. It’s often said that everyone has their nerdy obsession, and it’s safe to say the rhythmic art of casting an artificial fly into a sparkling riffle sometimes goes beyond the level of a passion for my dad. He’s been known to drive from Upstate New York to Montana—by himself!—nearly getting mauled in his tent by a desperate momma grizzly, all to soak his waders in America’s most renowned fly waters.

But Streamwalker’s Journey is closer to home for him, and he speaks about his local waters—mostly in Upstate NY and northern Pennsylvania, and rarely much further afield than Virginia’s Blue Ridge—with a sense of intimate familiarity. Each chapter is a mini quest of sorts, intended to both advance the loose overall narrative and stand on its own, if a reader chooses to read it as such. For example, two separate chapters follow the fisherman as he exhaustively documents every step of beloved Pennsylvania trout streams, from mouth (bottom) to source (stream’s beginning).

Sound a bit task-oriented to be appealing? Don’t worry—Franklin generously intersperses his stream notes with salient observations about the natural world, humanity, and history. One of my favorite moments comes in a chapter about fishing the Pecos River in New Mexico, one of the few book settings outside the greater northeastern U.S. There, deep in the wilderness, my dad met and chatted with a Hispanic fly fisherman who shared an insider’s tip on what fly pattern might work best to entice the local trout.

Weeks later, back at home in New York, my dad blogged about his experience on the Pecos, only to have the other angler himself reach out after encountering the post via a Google search. They’ve maintained a correspondence since then. Something like fly fishing (heck, or sports, or music, or food!) can bridge a lot of gaps between people, and offer some close common ground between an older white guy from rural New York and a young Latino from diverse Santa Fe.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s been impressed by the ecological pan-humanist spirit expressed throughout Streamwalker’s Journey. A handful of trolls reviewing on Amazon have resorted to ad hominem attacks based not on the book’s literary merits, but on their defensive perception that the work is overtly political—and “leftist” to boot. Politically conservative outdoors types truly need not fear; Franklin has no interest in mixing politics (the profane) with fishing (for him, the sacred). It’s a sad day when a writer who merely comments ruefully on the presence of bigotry and destruction in the world is considered offensively political.

Digression aside, I’ve always found my dad’s writing to be pretty optimistic. Even for folks who aren’t explicitly interested in fly fishing, Streamwalker’s Journey is a highly recommended read. Just as his non-fishing son often accompanied him on fishing outings, walking and playing along the stream banks, readers who love the outdoors will see their own reverence for the natural world’s beauty reflected in Franklin’s writing, almost as clearly as a clean mountain stream reflects the grace of a cast fly.

You might go [to a place of beauty] to find another green world—a place to renew your hope for all mankind. If you do that, my advice would be to stay open-minded. Nature doesn’t care to work with us or to conform its ways to fit our personal needs. Be prepared for small surprises and the need for adaptation. (pg. 78)

[Struggle and stress] keeps me casting and pushing on in places like Cedar Run, to learn more and to share what’s left of beauty, however minuscule the contribution. That’s what keeps me looking for that happy place where I can fish and shake off most of life’s calamities, other than the willow boughs that seem to snag every third back-cast in an open area along the run. Today, that “happy place,” if you will, seemed here and now. (pg. 171)

You can purchase Streamwalker’s Journey on Amazon (a bargain at $13.95!).

Posted in Analysis, Book Review, Environmentalism, Family, Nature, Place, Rural, Science | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Rivertop Ramblings and Watershed Wanderings

I’ve started reading Streamwalker’s Journey: Fishing the Triple Divide,* which has gotten me thinking about the ecological concept of watersheds (not for the first time). Watersheds offer us a way of thinking regionally that is separate from human constructions of political boundaries, or even the more fluid cultural boundaries by which we sort ourselves. For example, an urbanite such as myself, seeking respite from the work week and the noise and bustle of his life, can enjoy two lovely hikes along streams that belong to the same watershed, despite being hundreds of miles apart.

Early flowers in Virginia’s Blue Ridge

In the central reaches of Shenandoah National Park, the peaks of the Blue Ridge rise to greater, more dramatic heights than anywhere else in northern Virginia. There, the western slopes drain into the Shenandoah Valley, and from there to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay; to the east, streams find their way to the bay via other river systems in the Piedmont.

As they exit the mountains, these streams carve steep gorges and valleys as they tumble toward lower elevations. White Oak Canyon’s Robinson River is a classic mountain stream in this regard, beginning on a saddle of the Blue Ridge’s eastern shoulder, between Hawksbill Mountain and Stony Man Mountain (the park’s two highest peaks).

The final (lowest-elevation) falls in Shenandoah NP’s White Oak Canyon

The first (and tallest) falls, viewed from a rock outcrop

The Robinson boasts six waterfalls in relatively short succession, with the first (measuring from the top) being the highest, at 86 feet. On a sunny late winter day, C. and I parked at the rustic lot on the edge of the park—at the foot of the mountains—and hiked upstream. For the first mile and a half, the trail is fairly gentle, albeit rocky, but it starts to switchback dramatically after the lowest waterfall. It then climbs nearly 1,000 feet in the next 1.5 miles, eventually rewarding tired hikers with a dramatic view from a promontory that overlooks the highest falls. In its higher reaches, the trail has been engineered somewhat to help hikers reach the top of tall rock faces and advance further up the canyon, but these features are sensitively designed to appear almost natural amidst their surroundings.

 

 

A carefully placed stone staircase angles up the side of a rock face.

Far to the north of the Blue Ridge, in a different region of Appalachia, there’s a triple watershed divide. For those who aren’t fluent in hydro-geographical terms, that means that three watersheds—the Allegheny River (Ohio/Mississippi rivers), Genesee River (Lake Ontario/St. Laurence River), and Pine Creek (Susquehanna River/Chesapeake Bay)—all emerge from the same hilltop in Potter County, Pennsylvania.

In a northern Pennsylvania forest, lush moss carpets a fresh spring runoff year-round.

Just south of the triple divide, Buckseller Run flows into the infant Pine Creek from the west through a narrow hollow. A lightly used trail runs through the valley, which is part of Pennsylvania’s Susquehannock State Forest. C. and I enjoyed the time walking with my parents on an almost too-perfectly sunny day. The sides of the hollow are so steep that deep snow remained on the south slope (i.e., north-facing) while the opposite side, facing south, was bare. Hemlocks cluster on the slopes near the stream banks and lush green moss carpets the ground around numerous springs.

Buckseller Run, with the snow-clad southern slope to the left and the more sun-exposed north slope to the right

Buckseller Run and a tributary

Later that afternoon, before dinner, C. and I toured my uncle’s property, including the lovely hemlock grove I became reacquainted with this past Christmas Eve. This remote property in New York’s Southern Tier is high in the northwest corner of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Such a connection between the two places I call home provides me with a sense of natural continuity that serves as an anchor of sorts, ensuring that I’ll never feel too distant from my family, my childhood, and my place in the world.

* I don’t generally plug links to purchase things, but Streamwalker’s Journal is the latest offering from the Rivertop Rambler, better known around these parts as “dad.” As usual, it’s a work that blends passion and respect for nature with the sometimes humorous, sometimes introspective observations of a dyed-in-the-wool fly fishing nut.

Moss crowns a boulder in Pennsylvania’s Susquehannock State Forest

A White Oak Canyon waterfall in Virginia’s Shenandoah NP

A view east from the upper White Oak Canyon

A quiet hemlock grove on a remote Greenwood, NY property

Posted in Environmentalism, Introspective, Nature, Place, Rural, Science, Traveling, Upstate New York, Virginia | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Fredericksburg, VA and the Power of History

It’s been a while since I’ve done a city or town day trip travelogue. On a beautiful Saturday in late January, C. and I took the hour-plus drive south/southwest from Arlington to the small city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, one of the state’s oldest towns, turned exurban enclave.

Taking Interstate 95 from the immediate Washington, DC area further into Virginia, one both literally and figuratively drives into the South—with all its fascinating contradictions. Much of 95 is lined with either modern suburban communities or military facilities, two symbols of the “New South,” but a truly massive Confederate battle flag flies high near Exit 133 for Falmouth and Fredericksburg. Exiting the freeway just past the flag, a busy road runs through run-down trailer parks and abandoned gas stations. Many signs proclaim President Trump’s promise to make America “great” again.

Crossing the Rappahannock River into the City of Fredericksburg, the Trump signs disappear but there’s a massive, well-groomed Confederate cemetery near the middle of town. One of the area’s many Civil War battle sites is adjacent to a nearby neighborhood, and revisionist Civil War trinket shops market gifts based on an alternative history in which Dixie stands proudly victorious.

But Fredericksburg and its nearby counties, Stafford and Spotsylvania, are no stand-ins for the sets of Dukes of Hazzard or Deliverance. Throughout much of the area, educational attainment stands far above the figure for the United States, and most measures of racial and ethnic diversity compare favorably as well. Household incomes and home values are high, and poverty generally low. Fredericksburg itself is fairly politically liberal and more southern Spotsylvania is similarly conservative, while Stafford (with DC suburbs in its north) is a Republican-leaning but more closely matched county.


Fredericksburg’s downtown manages to simultaneously cater to the city’s historic blue-collar millworker population, the Mary Washington University community, wealthy conservative suburbanites, and the city’s own growing professional community. It’s a mixed bag of businesses, and the condition of buildings reflects that diversity in much the same way. About all that most have in common is their advanced age (and those that weren’t old tended to be unsightly or nondescript office buildings).

Historic commercial buildings line many of downtown Fredericksburg’s streets.

Old meets new (and less than inspiring) in downtown Fredericksburg.

We started our day with brunch at a spot that wouldn’t be out of place in Washington’s most hipsterfied neighborhoods. The farm-to-table sausage gravy and brisket burgers were fantastic, as was the coffee and the organic fresh-squeezed juice. After departing with overly full stomachs, we wandered the downtown streets and strolled along the tidal Rappahannock River just below the fall line. Years ago, the city’s economy was powered, in part, by the mills that straddled the river where it exited the Piedmont and tumbled over low rapids.

A large flock of geese and gulls enjoys a sandbar on the Rappahannock River.

(Mary) Washington Monument

Near downtown, Washington Street showcases the city’s high-end historic housing stock. The street is named for Mary (George’s mom) Washington who, shortly before her death, resided adjacent to the Kenmore Plantation owned by her daughter (George’s sister) and son-in-law. Today, the wide boulevard is lined with stately houses; an extensive and beautifully maintained recreational park and the Mary Washington memorial complex sit nearby. (Mary posthumously claimed naming rights for the city’s university, part of Virginia’s public higher education system and, historically, the women’s campus of the University of Virginia.)

Washington Street is a divided boulevard with occasional monuments in the median.

The Kenmore Plantation house remains on a large lot on Washington Street.

To their credit, many area residents—black and white, white- and blue-collar, fat and slim—don’t seem fully content to live a couch potato lifestyle. There are miles of roadside bike trails and a great multi-use path that runs through much of the city along a historic canal. During our visit, the Mary Washington park complex was packed, dozens of residents sat quietly or conversed while their furry friends romped in a dog park, and a diverse group of anglers cast their bait into a small lake (as part of Virginia’s Urban Fisheries program).

A canal allowed boats to skirt the Rappahannock rapids; today, it’s paralleled by a wide walking and biking trail.

In and around Fredericksburg, though, the Civil War hangs almost over everything. We stopped at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and strolled along the Sunken Road, a historic pathway that doubled as a military trench for the Confederate defenders of Marye’s Heights. Wave after wave of Union soldiers were mowed down by rifles and artillery fire, many of their bodies just decaying into the ground where working class housing and university apartments now stand.

The Sunken Road gave Confederate defenders a natural trench to defend the heights (at photo right).

Over three-quarters of the Union dead buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery are unknown soldiers.

Open hostilities in America’s great conflict ended more than 150 years ago, but recent history has only reinforced that it’s far from truly resolved. The battle flag flying high above the freeway—and advertising Fredericksburg in a way that many area residents seem far from okay with—shows the power of proxy battles over what it means to be American. Meanwhile, much of Fredericksburg seems to be content with just living life in the 21st century.

Brompton, originally known as Marye’s House, was a Confederate command center used to defend the heights. Today, in a sign that many institutions of the Old South have been repurposed for modern pursuits, it houses the president of Mary Washington University.

Posted in Community, Demographics, History, Narrative posts, Politics, Traveling, Urban, Virginia | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The Return of the Whiskey Walk

After a 2016 holiday season that deviated from the norm (for some compelling reasons), some semblance of the normal Franklin Christmas routine returned in 2017. The Whiskey Walk (see 2015 and 2014 recaps) proceeded according to tradition, albeit with an unusual chill in the air: during the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve, a patch of seasonal weather gave way to a bitter cold front, bringing gusty winds and snowfall after dark.

With the Rivertop Rambler at my side, our hike began on the paved road angling southwest up the hollow. After half a mile or so, we forked left up a private hunt club lane—once a public road owned by the Town of Greenwood, but now maintained only minimally to allow the passage of heavy-duty pickup trucks up the steep hillside. Long-time readers will recall that the landowners are kind enough to provide a little directional help in the form of ironically placed road signs.

On Christmas Eve, stay straight at the fork.

Main turns left and stays just below the crest of the hill.

On top of the hill, the abandoned car’s woodland setting became uncomfortably cool. The sweat from our steep climb began to chill our bones as the wind picked up and clouds built to the west. Some flasked bourbon and beer would help. (Oh wait, the beer is cold?)

Setting up the bar

We left the car bar after downing some drinks with my uncle, proceeding east along an old farm lane that was likely part of the same public roadway as the hunt club road. This portion was once traveled by enough vehicles to merit being lined on both sides by the classic stone fences often found in the rocky Allegheny highlands. While the fence on the south side of the lane has been dismantled, with the stones seemingly becoming one with the natural surroundings, the north side boasts a remarkably intact fenceline.

The field north of the fenceline is a small, isolated property. Since the closure of the public road, the parcel is inaccessible via any public right-of-way.

At the end of this fenceline, our route turned south onto my uncle’s property, away from the relatively sheltered patch of woods on the hilltop. There, the terrain begins to slope down to the southeast and an even more bitter cold wind sheered up the grassy field.

View to the southeast

There’s a beautiful hemlock grove across a field of thick grass and goldenrod not yet pressed down by heavy snow. The stand was only ever lightly lumbered by my grandfather, more than 40 years ago. In addition to the deep green hemlocks, it includes a variety of maples, oaks, and birches, as well as ironwood, beech, and spruce. The mix of trees is probably the closest thing you’ll find to the area’s original forest mix, and its quiet, somber beauty felt primeval in the light snow and cold.

Late afternoon light fades more quickly in the beautiful, gloomy silence of a hemlock grove.

A small trickle drains a marshy corner of an overgrown field, dropping quickly amidst the hemlocks into a dramatically narrow ravine. From here, that water will travel at least 400 miles and drop a couple thousand feet in elevation to the Chesapeake Bay, closer to where I currently reside. Home to home, I guess.

I’ve always liked finding this kind of connection between my past and present, my history and my (almost) daily existence. The Whiskey Walk is a great one to revisit year after year, bridging the gaps of time and place. Its route travels a highly representative cross-section of my hometown’s natural and human history, and cuts across several important threads of my own family’s traditions and history with the land.

From Bridging the Gap to my readers, Happy New Year 2018!

Posted in Community, Family, History, Narrative posts, Nature, Photo Journey, Place, Relationships, Rural, Upstate New York | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Equity and Our National Parks

In late October 2017, the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior announced it was considering an entry fee increase for 18* of the most popular national parks. This fee increase—from $25 or $30 for a seven-day pass to $70—would ostensibly ease the huge maintenance backlog at certain units of the National Park Service (NPS). Many critics of the administration observed that the proposal would further reduce public access to public land, and that the effect would be particularly harsh on the poor.

Is this charge deserved? As I see it, it’s complicated. While I’m generally highly skeptical of this administration’s motives—especially (as with most Republican administrations) regarding conservation and public lands—I don’t see this dramatically changing the picture for America’s poor who wish to visit NPS sites. Overall, it’s an imperfect tool that would be entirely unnecessary if our public lands were properly funded (more on that later).


It’s absolutely unfair for the poor to be left out while the upper and middle classes continue to enjoy public lands, but many national parks are already de facto off-limits zones to America’s poor. Outdoor travel destinations are often just window-shopping destinations to people without money. Given the significant overall expense of traveling to certain parks, the difference between a $30 admission and a $70 admission isn’t likely to be the deciding factor.

Take Glacier National Park, one of the units proposed for a fee increase. There aren’t many people who live within easy driving distance of this magnificent park in northwestern Montana. But if a family traveling from further away can’t afford $70 to enter the park for seven days, they’d probably find it difficult to afford spending the night. Much the same, gas money would almost certainly be a stretch. Rates are often even higher on weekends, and people who struggle financially may not enjoy employment benefits like paid time off.

Public transportation, which often helps the poor access resources in more urbanized areas, usually isn’t available to the signature national park landscapes. One-way flights to Kalispell, the closest commercial airport to Glacier, range from $600-$1,500 from major Eastern airports, and aren’t much cheaper from Western airports. (And, of course, one must return home after visiting.)

Let’s assume that someone is able to scrape together the aforementioned costs, plus the increased entry fee. Upon arrival at some national parks, it costs additional money to take full advantage of its attractions. C. and I recently hiked Old Rag Mountain (Shenandoah National Park), considered one of the most challenging hikes in the Mid-Atlantic region. Although we visited on a fee-free weekend, nearly every other hiker we saw was white or Asian. To some extent, everyone possessed specialized clothing or equipment for hiking on challenging terrain. The supplies needed to safely complete a challenging hike are expensive, and boating, rock-climbing, skiing, or even camping are pricier still.

View from Old Rag Mountain summit, Shenandoah National Park

Again, it’s not fair for the poor to bear the burden, but fewer visitors to certain parks might actually be a good thing. The NPS’ mission includes both conservation and access, but too much of the latter can act to the detriment of the former. America’s national parks are more popular than ever (especially across the portfolio of signature attractions), and some of the most popular parks are already considering draconian measures to curb over-attendance. This summer, after waiting 20 minutes traffic to enter Rocky Mountain National Park at 6:30 a.m., we found a mostly full 1,000-car parking lot further down the road—people waiting to board an endless series of shuttles to some of the park’s more popular trailheads. Other parks have it even worse. It’s hard to overstate the degree of pressure this kind of attendance puts on delicate, irreplaceable landscapes and ecosystems.

Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park

Is there a better way forward?

Can the NPS balance its ideals of conservation and access, steer clear of policies that negatively impact equity, and even expand access to more sites? While our current national politics would likely preclude such an alternative vision, the future may be more hopeful for conservation.

First, Congress and the administration should sufficiently fund the NPS to fully allow it to act as a responsible steward of America’s natural and historical resources. This funding should allow the agency to work through its maintenance backlog, expand conservation efforts, and establish an endowment to improve its infrastructure and add to its portfolio in the future. This would eliminate the need to claim (sincerely or otherwise) that fee increases are essential for maintenance and conservation.

The truly equitable national parks that I’ve visited—where I see diverse crowds of people from all walks of life enjoying the outdoors—are minor NPS units in metropolitan Washington, DC. These parks are cheap or free to enter, easy to access, and amenable to a casual picnic or stroll. Given enough funding, the NPS should partner with nonprofits or other charitable organizations to make it genuinely easier for poor people (especially families) to visit all parks. Such an alliance could help pool resources for transportation or lodging, and teach people of modest means about their natural and historical heritage.

It’s important to remember that these fee increases impact only 18 National Park Service units out of 400-plus (and counting). In their place—and once we’ve acknowledged that an egalitarian system of national parks requires a greater effort than we’ve yet put forth—a lottery system could be applied to all NPS units where attendance exceeds the landscape’s resilience. Such a lottery would be need-blind, and would more fairly distribute demand toward lesser-known jewels of the National Park System.


I’m going to end on a fairly practical but optimistic note, and point out that the cost for an annual pass to all NPS units will remain at $80—just $10 more than the proposed entry fee to one of these high-profile parks. Rather than pay $70 to enter Shenandoah (or Rocky Mountain, or Glacier) for a week, some families may opt to save a little extra and waive further entry fees at any park for an entire calendar year.

* Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks use the same entry fee.
Posted in Analysis, Asks a Question, Economics, Environmentalism, Inequality, Nature, Politics, Poverty, Social Justice, Traveling | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Unspoiled Once More

High population growth that manifests as retail, industrial, or residential sprawl can place a variety of pressures on the natural world. Habitats disappear; pollution sickens people, plants, animals, and bodies of water; and the porous earth is paved over, worsening the risk for flooding.

Vacationing in July, C. and I enjoyed some time in Colorado’s booming Front Range Urban Corridor. The area is anchored by Denver, one of America’s fastest-growing major cities. Denver—with its high-rise downtown and many dense, walkable neighborhoods—is actually growing a bit faster than many of its suburbs. But the suburban periphery is also expanding rapidly in places. Whether this sprawl pushes into the prairie or the Front Range foothills, it’s encroaching fast into wildlife habitats and areas with other environmental risks.


In some parts of the country, though, human habitation and economic activity are in retreat, allowing some semblance of the natural order to return. How do natural ecosystems—nature’s balancing influence—return when small towns and farms stagnate or decline and suburban sprawl is just a distant frontier? In my lifetime, I’ve watched many of the hillsides that surround my tiny hometown of Greenwood, NY progress from field and meadow through various stages of reforestation. There, a remote, hilly agricultural region has endured organic economic decline, but the natural order can return in a multitude of situations, for various reasons.

The aftermath of environmental devastation: the High Alleghenies of northeastern West Virginia

Back in January, C. and I went on a short honeymoon trip to this area. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was ravaged by coal mining, coke production, and clear-cut lumbering. East of Tucker County’s Canaan Valley lies the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, a high-elevation plateau that rises above 4,000 feet in places. Portions of the Sods are defined by sphagnum bogs, stunted trees, and heath barrens—patterns of vegetation more typical of the Canadian Shield and high-elevation areas in New England or northern New York.

But the Dolly Sods wasn’t always like this. In the days when the region was America’s frontier, the plateau was covered with the densest known forest of red spruce and eastern hemlock; some trees reportedly rivaled giant sequoias in width. By the early 20th century, though, clear-cutting had decimated the tree cover and allowed wind and rain to carry away almost all of the rich topsoil. Wildfires then scorched the region to the point of desertification, with virtually all natural life destroyed. Then, to add insult to injury, the military used the area to test artillery and munitions during World War II. To this day, signs at trailheads warn hikers of the risk of unexploded ordnance.

But something funny happened in the meantime: the area became lush and wild once again. As C. and I hiked the Rorhbaugh Plains trail with my brother-in-law, the dense cove forests of oak, maple, spruce, and hemlock felt both thick and ageless. Beneath the canopy, impenetrable rhododendron and laurel brakes pressed inward on the trail, creating a (false) sense that no human could ever alter this forest from its current state.

Spruce/hemlock cove forests feature mossy floors, bogs, and rich loam.

Ferny, grassy meadows are interspersed in portions of the forest. The edges are usually remarkably distinct.

Thick groves of rhododendron are nearly ubiquitous.

We hiked for nearly three miles through varying types of thick forest. Then, suddenly, the trees and vegetation opened dramatically at the edge of a cliff and the Alleghenies’ dramatic, rugged terrain spread out before us.

View of Red Creek Canyon

The rocky ground near the edge of the cliffs supports only lichens and stunted “flag” trees.

A classic flag tree with branches only on one side

The ecological recovery of the Dolly Sods certainly isn’t complete, though. In the northern part of the plateau (a trip for another day!), the soil was permanently damaged such that full-sized trees are unable to grow. Instead, the slopes are covered with “heath barrens,” landscapes of sphagnum bogs, stunted trees, blueberry and cranberry shrubs, and mosses and lichens—a boreal ecosystem not normally found so far south. Even here, though, nature has returned to the best of its ability, creating an unusual, delicate ecosystem from the ruins left by humanity. Establishment as a federally designated wilderness area, prohibiting human-built structures and non-foot traffic, will help guide the continued recovery.

View east from the edge of the Dolly Sods plateau

Social-engineered Wilderness: Shenandoah National Park

Further east, in the northern Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, thousands of residents once lived on subsistence farms or in remote villages—”almost completely cut off from the current of American life.” In response to the desire to create a Western-style national park near the major cities of the East, the state of Virginia condemned more than 3,000 individual tracts of land to donate to the federal government. The end game was the creation of a spectacular park and a scenic road to let visitors enjoy the heady air of the summits, an accomplishment that now benefits 1.5 million visitors each year.

View of Old Rag Mountain, an eastern out-thrust from the Blue Ridge, from Hawksbill Mountain (4,050 feet), the highest point in Shenandoah National Park. The Piedmont is beyond.

Stony Man Mountain (4,011 feet) is just shy of the park’s tallest, but has the most dramatic views to the west. Here, cliffs fall away to deep valleys with the fertile Shenandoah River Valley beyond. The Alleghenies can be seen at the far horizon.

Stony Man Mountain, looking northwest

This park protects 200,000 acres of Appalachian highlands and mountain valleys. Forty percent has been designated as “wilderness” under the Wilderness Act, meaning it represents an untrammeled natural community where humans are relatively insignificant outsiders. Such areas have no roads, no human habitations or constructs, and no significant sources of pollution. While cars are restricted to Skyline Drive, 500 miles of trails connect all portions of the park.

The Mill Prong Trail leads east from Skyline Drive, into the headwaters of the Rapidan River and eventually to the Rapidan Camp (see below).

Here, the trail to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain (left) diverges from the Appalachian Trail. The Shenandoah salamander’s habitat is limited to only Hawksbill and Stony Mountain mountains.

A sea of ferns near the summit of Stony Man Mountain

A small waterfall along the Mill Prong Trail, near Rapidan Camp

Dark Hollow Falls is a 70-foot cascade, part of an even taller series of consecutive falls

Big Meadows, near the midpoint of Skyline Drive, is the largest treeless area in the park.

It’s a stunning accomplishment of preservation, less than two hours from the nation’s capital and its massive, sprawling expanse of suburban development. To the relatively powerless smallholders whose lives were uprooted for a higher cause, the majesty of Shenandoah National Park would likely be small consolation. Speaking to the overall balance, though, it would be hard to argue against the current status quo for this magnificent park.

Of course, the history of prior habitation in Shenandoah National Park isn’t just limited to the poor and powerless: Herbert Hoover built his presidential retreat along the headwaters of the Rapidan River, but its original purpose was abandoned when Franklin Roosevelt moved the retreat to Camp David.

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