A few years ago, to celebrate my half century (aka 50th birthday), I took a little jaunt on the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory. Somewhat satisfied (and astonished) at our completion of 229km (complete with full backpacks), we moved onto the final celebrations – a family pilgrimage to the heart of Australia: Uluru and Katja Tjuta.
This long-awaited destination was not the culmination I had naively believed it would be. Despite the indescribable brilliance of the rising of the July full moon over Uluru, the experience was shattered with the glare of vehicle headlights, blaring music and a party atmosphere in the carpark we were crammed in with countless others. Fair enough, I told myself – this is a special place, and the hordes of people had to be constrained in some way.
However, by dawn the next morning my patience was ground to dust, as red as the dust at my feet. Desiring to watch the sun stream its first glorious rays of the day on our World Heritage-listed icon, we attempted to ‘fit’ into the designated location in the pre-dawn. Desperately we fled, seeking to find a quiet place away from the hordes of camera-clasping, video-clutching, ear-plugged tourists crammed together in the barricaded area – all pushing for a spot at the front.
After driving frantically to find an ‘ecologically and culturally appropriate’ place in which we could experience this magic sight unhindered, we finally found a spot to ourselves by the side of the road. Just as the sun rays met the Rock and the magnificent spectrum of colours appeared, up pulled other vehicles, complete with music pumping.
The resounding stillness of the land was shattered. Our moment was gone, our singular communion with nature lost. I longed for the Larapinta Trail and that feeling of being an integral part – if only a minute speck – in a land so vast, so steeped in time that it was beyond mental comprehension (mine at least).
Although this experience confirmed my ‘recreational snobbery’, my recreational preferences are also shared by some very well-known and learned people. Additionally, I have also since learnt that there are actual philosophical terms for my preference: Contemplative Recreation, as opposed to Nature the Product – Nature ™, Nature © – or Consumptive Recreation.
Recently, Professor John Lemons wrote a stirring article titled Splendid No More in which he clearly articulated the loss of the spirit of wilderness preservation in America’s national parks.
Lemons states that the vision of the “national park idea” in the United States is “fraught with ambiguity”, the National Park Service is “continually embroiled in contentious policy issues” despite having a primary duty to protect parks, and there is an ever-increasing clamour for increased visitation, access and development.
In the US, national parks not only include some of the most beautiful places on earth, but also contain swathes of infrastructure (roads, sewerage, water, power) and thousands of buildings. Some parks, such as Yosemite and Grand Canyon, attract annual visitors exceeding four million, which creates massive daily traffic jams at entry points and car parks. More than 500 commercial concessions are granted, which gross US$1 billion annually. Additionally, the majority of the development has occurred in the most scenic and significant conservation areas of the parks. Lemons poignantly highlights that for all the infrastructure in place that allows visitor access to Yosemite Falls, many spend approximately five minutes at the falls, taking photos.
Lemons also expounds on the term “industrial tourism”, a phenomenon bemoaned by author Edward Abbey in 1968, when he witnessed the denigration of conservation values for the sake of development and unacceptable levels of tourists. Efforts to reduce access in high-use areas has been met with angry outcries. Conservation is regarded as a threat to private interests and public access, rather than a protective measure for nature’s beauty and diversity. However, as Lemons succinctly states: “If national parks are to remain the pinnacle of a nation’s beauty, natural resources and cultural heritage, then they simply cannot be viewed and treated as typical recreation areas.”
Given the recent push by the state governments in Australia for ‘the opening up of locked away land’ (ie active promotion of activities such as shooting, grazing, logging, driving, riding, biking, building and extracting in national parks) what lies around the corner for our treasured landscapes? Until recent times, policy in Australia had been somewhat, but rather steadily building upon the original concept of conservation – of our landscapes, ecosystems, fauna and flora – protecting them from site-changing exploitation, development and construction.
Of the 31 different values of wilderness areas listed by Nelson and Vucetich in The International Encyclopaedia of Ethics (2013), the Intrinsic Value Argument is listed as No.31. That is, these areas are to be valued for their own inherent values, quite separate from how they serve any other end. It appears that this encyclopaedian listing of 31 values is at risk of being taken at face value in Australia, and conservation relegated to the last listing. Consequently, after many hard-fought historic battles, justification for conserving and preserving is now firmly back on the agenda.