A paradise for moderns

Posted: Jul 12, 2002 12:00 AM
Modern life in America. Man is king. When he meets an animal, he's top dog. When he buys land, he can do with it what he will. And if he wants to experience beauty, he can see it or hear it with the flick of a switch. It's a great way to live. But there's something missing: the grandeur of forces bigger than yourself. When you live your whole life in the driver's seat, it makes sense to spend some time in the back seat, and let nature be in charge. That's when savvy families visit America's great national parks, like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. At Yellowstone, wildlife rules, and the wise man respects its right to rule. Cars stop for buffalo herds. Hey, cars stop for the sole stray buffalo. (They can weigh 2,000 pounds.) Back home, four-legged creatures fear man; in the park, man should be fearful of grizzlies, black bears, buffalo and moose, and keep a respectful distance. You have to be aware of your surroundings because the terrain is dangerous. The land is alive. It's seething. Geysers burst, mud pots bubble and fumaroles hiss. As for the beauty, you didn't turn it on. And you can't turn it off. It's late afternoon, and there's a grizzly foraging at the roadside. At dusk, elk herds descend toward the valley. In early morning, wolves frolic by a stream. Behind Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Tetons shine. At the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, the rocks change color with the light as two waterfalls cascade. Too bad most visitors don't get the most out of the park. According to spokeswoman Marsha Karle, some 3 percent of visitors leave the main roads and visitor areas. The majority catches Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and that might be it. But even if they don't get to see a black bear scurrying by Echo Rock from the back of a horse, and even if they never see two big-horn sheep as they hike to the top of Bunsen Peak, those who stick to the main roads will see their share of geyser action, waterfalls, buffalo grazing and serene elk herds soaking up the afternoon sun. It's early in the season, and a buck's sprouting horns are soft -- "in velvet," it's called. There always are and always will be tourists who aren't clear on the concept. They don't really understand that the animals are wild, and therefore dangerous. "People look at bison and think cattle, but they're not," Karle noted. Last month, a man from Texas encountered a buffalo grazing about a foot from a walkway by the Old Faithful Inn. David Havlik decided to keep walking, passed within three feet of the buffalo, and found out what it feels like to be gored in the thigh. He probably won't do that again. Even though you've traveled by car, lathered with sunscreen and bug spray, and sleept in a cabin with a roof and running water, Yellowstone gives the modern visitor a taste of what this land must have been like before the industrial age. In this age when television beams pictures from across the globe, the beauty here can only evoke wonder. As Karle put it, "I truly think it's a miracle that these places still exist." That's why it is surprising how many Americans have never visited this breathtaking natural treasure. But it costs money. Washington is working on the national parks budget, right now. Readers should urge their congressional representatives to boost spending. President Bush, who as a candidate promised to erase the system's appalling maintenance backlog, has proposed increasing the park's $2.4 billion annual budget by $107 million. That's not enough; Americans for National Parks calls for an additional $172 million. Congress can and should find a way to fund these treasures adequately. Increased funding should include money to research whether increasing visitor fees could help pay for the park without pricing out families who come to enjoy America the Beautiful.