the people

Fran P. Mainella describes how the United States manages its ‘purple mountain majesties’ for ecotourism, ecological conservation and sustainable development

A journey through Colorado’s rustic landscape in the late 19th century was enough to inspire poet Katharine Lee Bates to write the now famous hymn, ‘America the Beautiful’.

She was struck, as I and countless others have been, by the majesty of the Rocky Mountains’ towering front range. From snow-mantled peaks, to forested slopes, to sun-kissed alpine wetlands, the beauty and ecological diversity of our mountains are crown jewels of America’s natural heritage.

As the principal land management agency in the United States, the Department of the Interior is entrusted with protecting thousands of natural treasures from Hawaii to Maine, including 385 sites in the National Park System, dozens of wild and scenic rivers, more than 500 national wildlife refuges, and 2,000 other natural recreational areas.

Interior manages 183 million hectares of public lands, or more than 1 out of every 5 hectares in the United States, and records half a billion visits a year, creating economic engines for communities across the country. These lands contain spectacular biological and natural diversity, with examples of virtually every kind of ecosystem in North America. Eight of the ten most visited US National Parks contain mountain ecosystems.

As steward of this vast public domain, the Department is charged with preserving these lands for the enjoyment of people and for their ecological values. They play critical roles in sustaining natural systems, wildlife and local communities. Interior has more than a century of experience in making environmental stewardship compatible with economic vitality.

As we celebrate the International Year of Ecotourism and the International Year of Mountains, I would like to share a few observations about the United States’ contributions to ecological conservation, nature tourism and sustainable development in mountain ecosystems.

Promoting conservation
In its broadest sense, ecotourism actively promotes the conservation of the Earth’s unique biodiversity by developing tourism practices that protect land, water and wildlife. From this perspective, the concept of National Parks – of setting aside large natural areas to conserve them for future generations to visit and enjoy – was a major milestone in history.

The US National Park System emerged in response to growing support for protecting some of the natural beauty of the American West. In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s most fertile thinkers, spoke eloquently on the importance of America’s wild and remote places. By the late 1860s, the ‘transcendental’ view of nature that Thoreau and his peers had popularized inspired a generation of conservationists who pushed for the protection of natural systems, leading to the establishment of Yellowstone.

The 1872 law establishing Yellowstone National Park ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’ provided for the preservation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities and wonders in the Park ‘in their natural condition’. The world’s first National Park, Yellowstone, contains a diversity of mountain ecosystems unmatched in the United States.

This historic legislation set in motion the primary National Park Service missions of resource preservation and recreational use – a dual mandate, requiring a balance of interests. By 1915, 35 parks had been established, including diverse mountain ecosystems such as Yosemite and Sequoia in California, and Mount Rainier in Washington. A large body of laws and regulations also evolved to provide the National Park Service with the necessary authorities to carry out its dual missions.

By the end of the 19th century, the American conservation movement had swelled into a crusade for the scientific management of all public lands and waters. The movement promulgated the concept that evolved a century later into what is now known as ‘sustainable development' – the management of public lands to provide for the development of their timber, mineral, grazing and water resources, without damaging their ecological health.

The movement blossomed under President Theodore Roosevelt, a passionate outdoorsman and hunter who fervently believed in the conservation of our natural resources and the enjoyment of those resources. He put the weight of his presidency behind conserving public lands, waters and wildlife, establishing the National Wildlife Refuge System and the US Forest Service and designating 18 areas of public lands as parks and monuments.

Increasing pressures
Conserving these public lands while providing for visitors was easier in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With the growth of population and expansion of the US economy, however, pressures have increased correspondingly on America’s undeveloped land, water resources and wildlife.

But Interior’s major land management agencies – the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation – continue to meet the challenges of today’s world. They are working with a wide circle of public and private partners and using science-based decision-making and the latest natural resource monitoring and analytical tools, including satellite imagery, Global Positioning Systems, Geographic Information Systems and Information Technology.
‘Our forefathers looked after animals and fish... there wasn’t any dynamite, they didn’t pollute the rivers, but cared for their rivers and forests’

Cecilio, Mountain Voices

The US Geological Survey, the department’s chief science agency, works with each of the land management bureaus to carry out a vast array of ecological studies that help Interior land managers fulfil their mission to preserve and protect the nation’s natural heritage for future generations.

Several major initiatives to advance the conservation of natural resources on Interior lands are noteworthy. The National Park Service’s Natural Resource Challenge, for example, is accelerating biological resource inventories, expanding scientific research through collaborative programmes, improving resource monitoring, and increasing the protection of wildlife and its habitat.

Interior land management agencies also carry out extensive research on the visitor capacity of parks, refuges and other natural areas to determine the number and type of visitors these sites can accommodate while maintaining the biological and natural integrity of the areas. Related projects gather information on the quality of visitor experiences in the parks.

The data gathered through natural resource research and related visitor research are integrated into strategic planning and guide managers as they develop operational plans for individual parks, refuges and recreational units and make critical decisions that can affect the future of these natural areas.

Interior managed lands that have special ecological characteristics are provided with special protection. Many are designated as wilderness areas, others as nature preserves. Typically, these areas are closed to vehicle traffic, and new road building and recreational activities on these landscapes are restricted to hiking, exploring, bird watching, nature photography and other pursuits that limit potential human impacts.

Recently, a number of the most rugged and remarkable landscapes in the American West, including many mountain ecosystems, have been placed in a National Landscape Conservation System. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, this system ensures that the public can experience the solitude and splendour of these undeveloped lands and that future generations will be able to enjoy these great open spaces.

While these initiatives focus on the public lands under Interior’s stewardship, our land managers no longer have the luxury of focusing solely on conditions inside their respective parks. Public lands can no longer be successfully managed according to standardized boundary lines – without regard to watersheds, animal migration routes, vistas and other ecologically based concerns.

It is increasingly important, therefore, that the Department of the Interior enlist private landowners and local communities to work on projects that foster innovation and create incentives to restore and protect natural areas. Under President Bush’s fiscal year 2002 budget, Interior is proposing a competitive programme that promotes citizen stewardship. Called the Cooperative Conservation Initiative, the programme will encourage cost-shared projects that vary from small-scale revegetation for erosion control to ecosystem-scale watershed protection efforts.

Presidential initiatives
Similar incentives are also provided under two presidential initiatives begun in 2002 – the Landowner Incentive and Private Stewardship programmes. These initiatives provide technical and financial help to states and private landowners who are interested in conserving wildlife habitat while continuing to engage in traditional land-use practices.

For conservation to be successful, we must involve the people who live on, work on and love the land. Citizen participation in the stewardship of natural resources helps people take conservation into their own hands by undertaking projects at the local level. Most Americans, especially those who depend on the land for their livelihood, are ready and willing to step up to the challenge of what Interior Secretary Gale Norton calls the New Environmentalism.

That brings us to another important goal of ecotourism – to support the economic and social development of people living close to these natural areas. This includes ensuring that local communities have a voice in the management of our lands.

The outdoor recreation sites managed by Interior agencies support thousands of local communities that benefit from nature tourism by providing a wide range of services to visitors who enjoy backpacking, fishing, climbing, river rafting, cross-country skiing, biking, use of some motorized vehicles and bird watching.

These are among the most thriving businesses in America’s mountain communities. These ‘gateway’ communities – and the support groups they form to help conserve the ecosystems – play an important role in creating economic security and environmental stewardship.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize the importance of education in building public appreciation and support for conserving biodiversity. An impressive example of this type of outreach on the national and international level took place at the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in February of this year.

As the global spotlight focused on the Olympics, it also shined on the scenic beauty and economic dynamism of Utah and America’s Intermountain West. State and federal land conservation agencies in Utah worked in exceptionally close collaboration as a major part of the effort to welcome the world to Utah.

They formed the America’s Public Lands Partnership that developed a wide range of initiatives to carry out its mission of informing visitors about parks, refuges and recreational areas and the importance of their conservation. The partnership used an integrated approach to talk about these lands as an integrated whole, rather than by agency jurisdiction.

The message conveyed to Olympic visitors a cornerstone of the American democratic ideal – the values and history that underlie the conservation and use of America’s precious natural resources ‘for the people’.

The management of public lands is critically important for their conservation and, in turn, for the economic vitality of the communities that depend on them for their livelihood. The support, cooperation and engagement of citizens in this effort is equally vital if we are to maintain the ‘purple mountain majesties’ that have inspired so many Americans and visitors from around the world

Fran P. Mainella is Director, US National Park Service.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Saving the common land | Aiming high | Mighty, but fragile | Walking the talk | Regreening the slopes | For the people | High priorities | Natural beauty | Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg | Along a steep pathway | The height of trouble | Disneyland or diversity? | Path to discovery | On top of the issue | Peak condition | Swimming upstream | Cloudy future

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Biodiversity 2000
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and biodiversity
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and landuse

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report