Our national parks are in danger.
Whether from buildings encroaching on our magnificent horizons or companies tearing into nearby natural resources, our nation’s greatest treasures are at risk of becoming broken, tainted, and ultimately destroyed.
Activist and author Alfred Runte, M.A. ’71, is working to make sure the worst doesn’t happen. But it’s an uphill battle.
“Our parks aren’t protected by the Constitution,” Runte said. “They are protected by law, but Congress can and frequently does change its mind on the parks. As beautiful as they are, they are not considered critical to the American economy.”
Much of Runte’s research, which began at Illinois State, has focused on the history of the national parks. He found they were originally preserved in response to their natural beauty, and because the land was deemed worthless for accepted economic pursuits.
“People in the nineteenth century were thinking about land in terms of natural resources. In some parks, important natural resources were discovered after the fact, but at the time people thought the parks weren’t valuable for anything but scenery, which allowed the first parks to be established,” Runte notes.Parks like Redwood National Park in northern California were treasured for their lumber by settlers. More than 90 percent of the redwoods in the area had been cut down before an effort began to preserve them as a scenic resource. Nor was Redwood National Park the first casualty. In 1913, Congress transferred the Hetch Hetchy Valley, located in Yosemite National Park, to the city of San Francisco for a dam and reservoir.
“Even the Grand Canyon was proposed for damming in the 60s, but that was fought off by the Sierra Club,” Runte said. “How long can you keep fighting the argument that the needs of a growing population trump the desire for a vacant landscape?”
Runte’s passion for the national parks goes back to his childhood. Born and raised in Binghamton, New York, Runte and his family spent weekends and summer vacations outdoors, walking on the family farm or visiting the Catskill Mountains.
The sudden death of Runte’s father in 1958 left his mother, Erika, a single mom. All her life she had wanted to see the West. The next summer, with her sons Alfred and August in tow, she drove the family 10,000 miles in six weeks, visiting Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Devils Tower, Yellowstone, the Teton Mountains, Crater Lake, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the site of her father’s homestead in South Dakota. With August and Alfred “navigating,” the family camped the entire way.
“Mom wanted us to do something special as a family, knowing that August and I would soon be grown. Only in retrospect did she realize exactly what she had done—made conservationists of us both. It was when we arrived at Grand Teton National Park that I realized how special the parks really were, part of an even bigger idea including an entire system of parks spread across the land. I realized that as Americans we are fortunate to have something so wonderful,” Runte said.
The trip was life changing. August studied forestry, while he took an interest in the parks from a historical point of view. After receiving his B.A. from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1969, Runte completed a master’s degree at Illinois State.
“My coming to ISU was accidental,” Runte admits. “Just three days before my draft physical, I broke my ankle and could go to graduate school. ISU was the only place I had seriously applied. I was in for a wonderful surprise. When I came here in September 1969, I found the faculty in the History Department to be outstanding. All encouraged my interest in environmental history, pointing me to the splendid sources in Milner Library dating back to the days of John Wesley Powell. It was in fact the centennial of Powell’s path-breaking trip down the Colorado River, and I was thrilled to be at the school where Powell had started his career as a geologist and explorer.”
Runte’s thesis laid the groundwork for his doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published in 1979 as National Parks: The American Experience. Completely revised and updated, the book has appeared in its fourth edition. Widely praised as the definitive study of the history of our national parks, the book helped grow his reputation as an authority on the parks. It also helped him secure a one-year, $30,000 grant to complete research on an environmental history of Yosemite National Park, where he had spent four summers as a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service in the early 1980s.
Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness, was another critical success and was published at a time when the park was in danger of becoming commercialized. Runte’s book gained national attention, garnering invitations for him to appear on Nightline (ABC News) and 48 Hours (CBS).
His fight now extends beyond the U.S. borders, as natural beauty is being destroyed worldwide. Runte spoke on parks and protected areas in 2004 in Brazil, which is home to one of the world’s greatest rainforests, but it is being cut down at an alarming rate.
The vista from the Grand Canyon, opposite page, is just one scene that inspired Runte during a boyhood journey to several national parks. The view is from the park’s North Rim. Grand Teton National Park, page 8 and 9, remains a favorite place for tourists. Once protected and treasured, Runte fears such beautiful landscape will not exist for future generations.
“A love of nature is universal. Every major country in the world has national parks,” Runte said. “When I went to Brazil I was reminded of the ‘worthless lands thesis,’ and that my own government didn’t save all of the Florida Everglades and the prairies either. I said to the audience, ‘Don’t preserve your rainforests because we tell you to. Do it for your own cultural pride. Learn from our mistakes.’”
As for those mistakes, there is no better example than Niagara Falls, according to Runte. The falls have been diverted, commercialized, and ruined beyond all recognition of the pristine area that greeted early tourists.
“Niagara Falls was a hard lesson Americans learned. As we began moving West, we knew that we couldn’t let another Niagara Falls happen,” Runte said. “When Europeans arrived after Niagara Falls was settled, they pointed out that though we had heralded our natural beauty as our heritage and culture, we had still destroyed this place. And that rang true for most Americans.” But Runte fears that lesson is becoming lost.
“The more diverse a culture becomes, the more values shift. We need to make sure that new generations see the value in these places too. Otherwise who will support places like Yellowstone 100 years from now? People already use some parks a lot less than they did. They may do extreme sports like kayaking and mountain climbing, but they no longer take the contemplative walk through nature.”
That’s why Runte was eager to work with filmmaker Ken Burns on his Emmy Award-winning PBS series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The series details the history of the parks from the mid-1800s to the present day, telling the human story of the parks and what they mean to the American experience.
“It was gratifying after 30 years of writing and research to see someone of Ken Burns’ stature look at the parks and realize that they are really important, and indeed, he needed six episodes and 12 hours to cover their history. I hope someday he does 12 hours more.”
Completing the existing series required consideration of the nation’s railroads, which were the primary means of access when many of the parks were first created. Railroad companies advocated for the parks at their inception, often building their first hotels, roads, and trails.
The close tie between national parks and railroads has led Runte to advocate for the railways as a way to preserve the beauty of the land and share the parks with future generations. He has consequently authored Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation and Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks.
“Trains respect the scenery. They follow the landscape. They don’t try to break the river. They don’t blow up a mountain, they tunnel through,” said Runte, who is convinced the battle for our national parks cannot be won solely through railroad restoration or green technologies.
He instead hopes for a change in public attitudes. Rather than viewing the parks as individual tracts of land—islands of beauty, as it were—they need to be seen as part of the entire landscape, where the loss of beauty is just as serious.
“It could be that 100 years from now the only areas that qualify as national parks will be in Alaska,” Runte warns. “We could start losing the national parks not only as a landscape but as an ecosystem. At Illinois State, I learned a greater respect for America the beautiful. The prairies and plains of this country are glorious, too. We need all of our landscapes, not just the national parks, to protect the nature that stirs our souls.”
Is “green energy” really “green”?
Faced with a growing population, shrinking resources, and increased pollution, change is necessary, scientists remind us. However, while some say that green energy and technologies are the solution, historian Al Runte disagrees.
“The term ‘green energy’ is a euphemism. For example, some claim that a wind farm is green because it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, but because wind is an intermittent power source, companies need to keep their backup systems running near full capacity. Those do produce carbon dioxide. And what happens when you install that wind turbine? You have to blade the land, build a service road, create a house-sized concrete pad for the turbine to rest in. Energy was used to make the blades, and a truck and trailer were used to get it there,” Runte notes. “If the turbine breaks you have to repeat the process.” Perhaps worst of all, birds, bats, and raptors fly into the turbines, which are something they don’t recognize. It may be green energy, but it can be deadly for wildlife. “Forty years ago, the environmental movement was honest about these so-called side effects. Today, environmentalists are also ignoring limits.”
Runte suggests that some places make sense for a wind farm, such as Illinois, where the wind blows a lot—but not if it destroys the ability of the land to produce and offset carbon absorption.
Automobile companies also mine the euphemism, insisting they are “green.” “When the government says that a car manufacturer must meet a 35 mpg standard, it is not every vehicle. Companies can average it out among the entire fleet to meet the regulation. One person owning a Chevy Volt enables another to drive a big SUV,” Runte said. “A lot of people don’t realize this. That’s the power of the euphemism. It’s meant to keep us from thinking, from being critical about exceeding limits.”
Rather than rely completely on new “green” technologies to even out energy usage, the solution may simply be to use less. “But tell that to a public now sold on the idea that green energy means more jobs.”
The point in all of this is what we are doing to our grand landscapes. “Do we want to look west and see only a solar plant or a wind farm?” Runte asks. In other words, what does it mean to have a national horizon—the assurance of unspoiled open space? “Never have we been without that,” Runte notes. “Will green energy save us, or again just make us complacent about the loss of natural beauty? How much can
we change the land before we cease to be ourselves?”