The Capacity for Wonder: Preserving National Parks

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Brookings Institution Press, Dec 1, 2010 - Political Science - 296 pages
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The national parks of North America are great public treasures, visited by 300 million people each year. Set aside to be kept in relatively natural condition, these remarkable places of forests, rivers, mountains, and wildlife still inspire our "capacity for wonder." Today, however, the parks are threatened by increasingly difficult problems from both inside and outside their borders. This book, enriched with personal anecdotes of the author's trips throughout the parks of North America, examines changes in the park services of the United States and Canada over the past fifteen years. William Lowry describes the many challenges facing the parks—such as rising crime, tourism, and overcrowding, pollution, eroding funding for environmental research, and the contentious debate over preservation versus use—and the abilities of the agencies to deal with them. The Capacity for Wonder provides a revealing comparison of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Canadian Parks Service (CPS). The author explains that, while the services are similar in many ways, the priorities of these two agencies have changed dramatically in recent years. Lowry shows how increasing conflicts over agency goals and decreasing institutional support have make the NPS vulnerable to interagency disputes, reluctant to take any risks in its operations, and extremely responsive to political pressures. As a result, U.S. national parks are now managed mainly to serve political purposes. Lowry illustrates how in the 1980s politicians pushed the NPS to expand private uses of national parks through development, timber harvesting, grazing, and mining, while environmental groups push the NPS in the other direction. Over the same period, the CPS enjoyed a clarification of goals and increased institutional supports. As a result, the CPS has been able to decentralize its structure, empower its employees, and renew its commitment to preservation. Lowry considers several proposals to change the institutions governing the parks. His own recommendations are more in line with proposals to revitalize public agencies than with those that suggest replacing them with private enterprise, state agencies, or endowment boards. Lowry concludes that preserving nature should be the primary, explicit goal of the park services, and he calls for a stronger commitment to that goal in the United States.

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Page xiii - Dutch sailors' eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

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About the author (2010)

William R. Lowry is assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

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