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Bookcover for Cheap Hotels and a Hotplate by Michael D. Yates

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Scenic Attractions, History and Economics

Michael D. Yates’ Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist's Travelogue is an interesting tour guide combining attractions, history, economics, and politics all into one. It is a fascinating read for anyone wanting to work on the road and gain inspiration, as well as for people who want to learn more about different parts of the United States. -- Renee Estey

The Environment: Act Five, Whither the National Parks?

Between early May and late August, we visited Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest/ Painted Desert, Rocky Mountains, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, Olympic National Park, Walnut Creek, Tuzigoot, Sunset Crater Volcano, Wupatki, Bandelier, and the Colorado National Monument.

All are national treasures; each one has scenery as dramatic as most people will ever see: natural bridges and arches, waterfalls, fantastic canyons, buttes, monoliths, hoodoos, and astonishing rapids. We were in these parks dozens of times.

Seldom were we disappointed; almost always we were exhilarated. It is impossible to see the Balanced and Delicate Arch in Arches, Grand View in Canyonlands, the sand beaches and lush foliage in the Narrows in Zion, the thousand-year-old trees in Rainier’s Grove of the Patriarchs, or the eight-hundred-year-old petrified lava flows at Sunset Crater and not be mindful of the vast indifference of nature and our insignificant part in it.

The human world, with its relentless injustices and inequalities, is put in sharp relief and made all the more intolerable. In the face of such beauty, it is surely an unforgivable crime for any society to let its people live in misery.

Products of Social Structure

But if the parks are beautiful, they are also the products of the social structures that created them. Yellowstone was our first national park, established in 1872.

Michael D. Yates
Michael D. Yates

Already when George Catlin was waxing eloquent about establishing “a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes,” white settlers and the government had begun brutal campaigns to remove the natives from their land.

The history of the national parks is marked by systematic and, for the most part, successful efforts to remove indigenous people from them. In Yellowstone, for example, many Indians traversed what is today the park to hunt, but a cornerstone rule in the national parks is that there cannot be any hunting.

In some cases the “treaties” entered into by the U.S. government guaranteed the Indian nations traditional hunting rights, but these agreements were routinely broken. (I put treaties in quotes because these treaties were ordinarily faits accomplish made after white settlers had entered and taken possession of land and the government stood ready to ratify this theft by force if necessary.)

Only one group of Indians lived in Yellowstone, the Sheepeater Shoshone, who managed to survive in this harsh wilderness, with its killing winters, by hunting and eating the mountain sheep native to the region.

The tribe was physically removed from the park in 1879 (in that year fifty-two members of the tribe, mainly women and children, were hunted down and subdued by the U.S. Army after a three-month search.)

This process of removal from areas designated national parks was repeated again and again. Indians might be tolerated for a while in the parks, either because they were too numerous to remove at once or because they could be utilized commercially, as hunting guides or performers for the rising number of tourists, but not because the parks had been their land.


Interestingly, the first rationalization for national parks was that they would serve as “monuments,” signifying the grandness of the new nation, just like the human-made monuments of European countries denoted their majesty.

They would mark the United States as a great nation, one whose very terrain was more magnificent than that of any other country in the world. That they were not human-made meant that God himself must have singled out this new nation as something special, one which, by its very nature (literally speaking), was Olympian.

However, in a country founded upon the transcendence of commerce, it was not long before monetary interests came to the forefront. Ironically, later rationalizations for the parks were rooted in the notion of communal property, that is, the national parks would belong to all of the people.

But at the same time, the communal holding of land and the absence of any concept of private property in many Indian groups were condemned as unnatural, as communistic, and a sign of the Indians’ primitive thinking. Many leaders argued that only when the Indians were forced to accept private ownership could they become productive citizens of the United States.

Spurred on mainly by the burgeoning railroads, the government acquired, by bogus treaty or by force, more land for the national parks. Constant conflicts occurred between the government and other commercial interests, such as timber and mining companies, and these were resolved in various ways.

These commercial interests were not always satisfied, but neither were they ignored. For example, George W. Bush is not opposed to the mining of uranium on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Soon a variety of tourist attractions, run by private commercial interests, sprang up and began to make considerable sums of money.
National Park Reform

We have given a lot of thought to national park reform. I offer some recommendations, with an acknowledgement to Edward Abbey, who has similar proposals in Desert Solitaire:

  • Sharply reduce the money spent on road construction. As soon as a park has been established, private interests, keen on the arrival of waves of money-bearing motorized tourists, began petitioning Congress for funding and a frenzy of construction begins.

    As this process continues, traffic mounts and visitors are stalled for hours in traffic jams. Highways encourage the use of super-sized SUVs and RVs, which slow down traffic further, damage the roads (requiring more repairs), and make accidents more likely.
  • Stop building parking lots and paving trails. At Grand Canyon, a visitor can almost drive a car to the rim by the El Tovar Hotel (named after one of the Spanish imperialists, Coronado’s men, who came north aiming at conquest and were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon).

    Visitors walk from their vehicles or the hotel to an overlook, take a few pictures, and head back to the snack shop for ice cream. Parking lots and paved trails ruin much of the experience of seeing a natural wonder.

    On one such trail, built for persons with disabilities and from which there are no views of the canyon, workers have actually spray-painted rocks to look like the red earth of the canyon. At one visitor’s center, signs give distances to various buildings in feet so as not to discourage the millions of sightseers who are too unfit to move on foot.
  • Build more trails, maintain existing trails, and encourage exploration. Rangers should lead more excursions into the parks, and they should be teaching us to survive in the wilderness: how to climb, find water, pitch tents, find and prepare food, use a compass, deal with bears and other dangerous animals, ford streams, walk on ice and snow, treat bug and snake bites, identify the things seen on the trails, and dozens of other activities. The rangers should have better job protection and pay.

  • Eliminate the park hotels. The parks ought to be publicly operated, not run by profit-seeking corporations. Expensive private accommodations should be converted into cheap publicly owned hostels and more hostels built, with bunk beds and basic supplies provided.

    Campgrounds, with water for showers and drinking, should be expanded, and more should be built. Inexpensive nutritious foods should be available for sale, and tents should be available for rent.
  • Working people, people of color, and young people should be actively encouraged to visit. Thousands of “scholarships” should be granted, maybe through a lottery, so that people without means can see their parks.

    They are supposed to be for everyone, but that is not the case. Their remote locations and commercial focus make them all but inaccessible to people without time and money. The proportion of park visitors who are people of color (except for Asian tourists) is very much less than the proportion of the population comprised of blacks, Hispanics, and Indians. 

    It is possible to hike an entire day in Rocky Mountain National Park or Arches or even Yellowstone and not see a single person of color. And given the expenses associated with a park visit (gas, entrance fee, camping or motel fees, etc.), poor people are unlikely to ever come to a national park.

    Remember the activities I sold at the Lake Hotel. Their prices in 2006 are as follow: coach rides: $9.46; “authentic” Western cookouts: $53.04, extra if combined with a horse ride; guided fishing tours: $148.40 for two hours; several types of bus tours of the park: $26.50 to $58.24, and a photo “safari”:$57.20.

    A family trip to Yellowstone for even a few days will cost a lot. This means that as economic inequality worsens in the United States, the parks will become retreats for those in the top quintile of the income distributed.
  • Prohibit, wherever feasible, automobile traffic in the parks. Have a few large lots at the entrances and shuttles and bikes readily available. This is done now during the summer and fall at Zion National Park, and it works well.
  • Forbid concessionaire activities, except perhaps for some cooperative ventures with small local enterprises to supplement the rangers. Examples are rafting, pack trips, and the like.


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