Thursday, November 05, 2009


PBS has recently been broadcasting a long documentary series called National Parks: America's Best Idea. I haven't seen it, but apparently one of the co-producers, a fellow named Dayton Duncan, took it upon himself to visit every one of the nation's 58 national parks as a lifelong project. This effort was chronicled in an article headlined Collect 'Em All, published in the July-August edition of the Sierra Club's magazine.

"Collect 'Em All"?

In response, Utne Reader published a good critique by its senior environmental editor, Keith Goetzman. "Park bagging," the act of collecting visits to every park, requires a lot of gasoline and a lot of vacation time, he points out, which makes it an elite and environmentally-unfriendly pursuit.

But his last point is his best one: "The “collect ’em all” mentality goes against a better, nobler impulse, which is to get to know the land intimately," he writes.

When Jess and I worked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, we encountered hundreds of "peak baggers" trying to collect all 46 of the state's 4000-foot mountains. Most of them were total douchebags, although, for the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that I myself climbed the 46 peaks through the course of high school. But back then, I also thought that Ayn Rand was a good writer, so there you go.

Grand Canyon National Park, from Wikimedia Commons.

Anyhow, I have lots of stories about New Hampshire peak baggers. Like the crowd of 20 people that showed up at Zealand Falls Hut one bitterly cold and windy Saturday in January, dead-set on finishing a 20-mile loop to "bag" Guyot and Bondcliff mountains with their huge newfoundland dog, Brutus.

Brutus, they told me, was going to be the first dog to "bag" the 46 peaks in the winter season. This was very important to them. I responded that there were 60 mile an hour winds above treeline, which meant that their planned itinerary would leave them exposed to negative-50 degree windchills for several miles on the ridge. "Don't be stupid," to paraphrase.

They opted to be stupid, of course. They were too late coming back to stop by the hut again, but I heard later through the grapevine that they'd had a miserable trip, and they'd come quite close to leaving a big dog's frozen corpse on the ridge.

Safety and common sense aside, what's really problematic about the baggers' attitude is how it reduces these places - mountain peaks or national parks - to petty consumption items, things to be ticked off on a list, like beanie babies.

This is entirely antithetical to environmentalism, which requires a nuanced and thoughtful understanding of the natural resources and landscapes that surround us.

The National Parks themselves are fetish objects for most environmentalists. Sure, I like them too. Their spectacular landscapes really do inspire a lot of people, including a lot of legendary environmental thinkers like John Muir.

But the National Parks are a lousy place to understand our modern society's real relationship with nature. They don't really offer any lessons about where we get our electricity, or our drinking water, or the raw materials that the Chinese use to forge our consumer goods. Instead, the National Parks offer us an unrealistic vision of the way environmentalists wish things were - a pretty backdrop without any people in it. At their worst (as when the federal army forcefully exiled native tribes like the Blackfoot from parks like Yellowstone and Glacier), the parks themselves could be thought of as costly consumption items tailor-made for "environmentalists."

Organizations like the Nature Conservancy are focused on acquiring land for the cause of environmentalism; hikers acquire mountain climbs; RVers acquire National Park passport stamps. But an environmentalist ethic that's focused on acquisition is an ethic that can not and will not address the fundamental environmental crises of our times.


Anonymous said...


I'm Dr. Turbo's mom, AKA Turbomom. I am a 4000 footer peak bagger (as is Dr. Turbo.) He has finished all 48 (yes, it is 48 not 46) twice--once doing them all in winter. I have 3 left to do. I have found peaceful isolation on the mountains and have climbed some I would not have known about if I weren't doing the 4000 footers.

Please stay in Maine.

Johanna said...

You know, the whole 46ers thing gets a lot of people hiking - and continuing to hike - who would not otherwise. And it's nice to have a bit of focus. I myself am quite enamored of my Lake Superior shoreline map, and scheme on ways to get to places I haven't been yet because I would like to see it *all*.

I think, though, more than anything - this valuation of one person's use of wilderness as being more "noble" than another is a bit problematic. I run into this a lot - somehow, backcountry travel is "better" than staying in RV campgrounds, and camping outside parks is of course way better than within because somehow it is more noble not to go the beaten path route. That stuff bugs the shit out of me. If everyone did what I like - backcountry camping, outside parks - we'd be facing a lot more environmental impact and safety concerns. Parks serve a great purpose: they showcase particular ecozones, they make wilderness accessible (and somewhat safer for those without specialized training), they concentrate use, and they contribute a tremendous amount to public valuation of protected areas. That last point is key.

The nature conservancies I've run into lately have made wilderness *less* accessible, by going all "no camping" etc. - somehow, this more "pure" version of wilderness is off limits to human use. But then, I live in Canada, where we expect a lot of access to crown land.

One of the models I look toward is Gwaii Haanas NP in Canada - the explicit recognition that park status *allows* protection from resource extraction in a way that would not be possible otherwise...

Dan said...

Well said. The environmental movement will never get anywhere as long as it keeps this idea that nature is somewhere 'out there', and not around us at every moment. Nature _is_ culture for all practical purposes. (And since shopping is our main form of cultural expression, shopping for peaks is a perfectly consistent activity.)

Greg N said...


I have been catching up on your blog, and while I agree most of the time with your viewpoints, I have to take issue with the NH Peakbagging. I agree, while working on the list slowly, I have met many people who drive hundreds of miles to tick boxes off a list, but I think it is dangerous to paint all of us with the same brush.

I was never engaged with nature while growing up in Southern Maine (and graduating from Bonny Eagle too). But when I started hiking in college, I have become much more environmentally active. You must admit, the hiking in Southern Maine can be a bit on the small side (Bradbury is not exactly the Presidential Range). So I think as you begin hiking more, you look for challenges, more views, more interesting scenery, and that will quickly lead you to New Hampshire.

The NH48 list can be dangerous, and has led to overuse of lots of trails. But on the flipside, it is a nice place to go to when you are looking for a hike to do, it is a motivator to get outside, enjoy nature, and the more people who do that, the more people will be engaged in protecting these areas. You have to admit, alot of the AMC's money comes from "peakbaggers".

That being said, the National Park situation to me is complete different. While I only drive about 45 minutes to get to the White Mountains, crossing off National Parks would be spewing ridiculous amounts of carbon into the atmostphere if I traveled to Alaska, Hawaii and so on.

Great blog, keep up the great work.

Dan said...

I think your general attitude towards highpointing is off as well. No reason that people who bag peaks can't have a "nuanced and thoughtful understanding of the natural resources and landscapes that surround us."

It's not up to you to decide how to best enjoy the outdoors.

I'd also note that just because you met some morons who climbed in dangerous conditions, does not mean all people who climb highpoints are also morons.