The University of Illinois News Bureau asked me to blog the 2016 version of PS 224. Here are links to the three posts:
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Herbert Hoover. I had the opportunity in college to do some research in the Hoover archives as part of a senior thesis. Though his presidency was not a success, there is much to admire in the rest of his life, both public and private.
When I moved to the Midwest, I was able to visit his birthplace in West Branch, Iowa. It’s a national historic site, managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The site preserves about a dozen historic buildings to give you a sense of what it was like for Hoover to grow up here. Next door you’ll find his presidential library, managed by the National Archives and Records Administration. Taken together, these two sites are an Iowa gem, well worth a visit – and convenient, just off Interstate 80, east of Iowa City.
Though I like the site, it tends to present President Hoover’s self-image more than his actual history. Following Hoover’s self-image, the National Park Service here interprets its subject as the ultimate American success story — orphaned at age ten, a boy from small-town Iowa succeeds through education, hard work, and faith. After becoming a millionaire by age 40, the story goes, he turns to public service and eventually reaches the presidency.
There’s a lot of truth in that story. Even so, a critical perspective requires that we look more fully at the political setting of this national historic site and the stories it tells. The site’s history begins just after Hoover was elected President in 1928. People began to visit West Branch, and Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry Hoover, wanted to provide something to celebrate her husband’s achievements. After exploring several options, the Hoover family bought his birth home in 1935 and began to restore it. They worked with a private group in which Herbert’s son Allan played an important role. That group operated the site as a memorial and public park, following the family’s wishes for the site, until Congress made it a national historic site in 1972.
Herbert Hoover was involved in planning this site over these years. That legacy shapes park planning today. For example, two of the five “fundamental resources and values” reflect Herbert Hoover’s own decisions, the gravesite location and its vista over the birthplace cottage. President Hoover chose that vista to show “that anyone can start from a simple life and achieve great things”
Interpretation throughout the site emphasizes Hoover’s view of himself and his personal history. Hoover believed strongly that America provided great opportunities for the self-made man. A central theme found in several locations is Hoover’s statement that,
“My country owes me nothing. It gave me, as it gives every boy and girl, a chance . . . In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbounded hope.”
The NPS continues that theme. It invites visitors to “discover how family, faith, education, and hard work opened a world of opportunity—even the presidency—to a man of simple beginnings.” It claims that “Hoover exemplified the ideal of individualism and the self-made man. His expertise as a mining engineer made him a millionaire by age 40. Having been raised in the Quaker traditions of being humane and generous to others, Hoover embarked on a course of public service for the rest of his life.”
Hoover certainly came a long way, but his was not exactly the rags-to-riches story of a man who accomplishes everything on his own. While he was not born to wealth like Theodore Roosevelt, neither was not born in a frontier cabin like Abraham Lincoln. For that matter, he also was not born to freedmen in the Reconstruction South. He was born to successful parents in a very small single-family home in a growing community of about 500 people.
His father, Jesse Hoover, owned a blacksmith business. That business outperformed competing smithies in town, a a uccess that the NPS attributes to “Jesse’s friendliness, honesty, and strong work ethic.” As his income grew, Jesse Hoover sold his blacksmith shop and bought a more lucrative farm implements business. This earned enough money to move the family to a much larger house up the hill, the boyhood home that “Bertie” Hoover remembers.
The family’s financial success was short-lived. Jesse Hoover died when Bertie was six, and his mother died four years later. Their three children were divided among relatives. However, Bertie was fortunate to live in a supportive community of Quakers in which his mother Hulda Hoover had been a religious leader. Several relatives, and even his schoolteacher, offered to take him. After a year with local relatives, Hoover’s family decided to send him to Oregon to live with a successful uncle, Dr. Henry John Minthorn.
Though he was an orphan, Bertie had financial resources. His mother had saved $850 from Jesse’s insurance policy for Bert to go to college. That was a sizeable sum in the 1890s, equivalent to perhaps $20,000 today. A recruiter for the brand-new Stanford University contacted Dr. Milton and successfully recruited his ward. First-year tuition at Stanford was free. With his mother’s nest egg as a base, Hoover worked to cover his other costs.
Hoover earned a geology degree and went to work immediately as a mining engineer in California’s gold mines. His work later took him to Australia, China, and Europe, where he worked as a consultant. While working at his consulting firm in London, Hoover helped Americans return to Europe when the Great War broke out in 1914. After this success, people invited him to organize relief for Belgium, a neutral country that had become a major battleground when the Germans invaded. Reflecting his Quaker beliefs in service to community, Hoover answered the call.
His relief work was a great success, expanding throughout Europe. He even provided food relief to both sides in the Russian Civil War. These successes catapulted Hoover into the public eye. Though some wanted him to run for president in 1920, he ended up serving both Harding and Coolidge as Secretary of Commerce. Success in that role made him a successful presidential candidate in 1928.
That story certainly provides the material for Hoover’s view of his own success. He did indeed rise from a small town to the presidency through hard work, education, and faith. Even so, that self-image downplays the helping hands he received. His father was a successful small businessman, as were others in his family. That family came to the rescue when his parents died. His inheritance helped him through college, as did the generosity of Jane and Leland Stanford in building their university.
The town of West Branch also provided Hoover with a lot of social capital. It had been settled mostly by the Society of Friends, as the Quakers are formally known. Hoover’s extended family was part of the early group who built West Branch, and civic leaders. The Quaker community instilled him with the values that served him well, “education, thrift, and individual enterprise.”
In addition to teaching visitors about the Quakers at Hoover NHS, the NPS idealizes Iowa small-town life. The interpretive plan says that “The park presents the opportunity for visitors to experience the serenity of the landscape and explore the simplicity of the small town rural character with all of their senses.” This simplicity helps illustrate Quaker values of simplicity as well.
However, small-town life here was less bucolic than the NPS imagines. Those who explore the entire website will find stories about ten houses in the historic district (the Garvin, Hayhurst, Leech, Mackey, Miles, C. E. Smith, P. T. Smith, Staples, Varney, and Wright homes). Many coincided with Hoover’s days in West Branch, but several were built after he had moved to Oregon. The house histories on the website mention that three of these homes went through foreclosure, the Hayhurst (1878), Garvin (1885), and Leech (1886) homes. The park does not say this, but those years coincided with a national decline in per capita income in the 1880s, a decline associated with the Great Depression of 1873-96.
The financial traumas that must have been associated with these foreclosed mortgages provide a view of American capitalism that differs considerably from what the NPS presents at the site. This was not merely a community that valued education, hard work, and faith, but a community where some hard-working people lost their homes to the local bank or real estate developer. These frequent foreclosures — three of the ten historic homes in eight years — contrasts with Hoover’s memory that “In consequence of plain living and hard work, poverty has never been their lot.”
A more realistic sense of how West Branch connects to the national and global economies might make for some good story opportunities. The park brochure notes that Hoover’s ideals of individualism and charity pointed in different directions during the Great Depression. It might go further and explore how his town’s economic difficulties shaped both of those values. As we now know, those values were a poor guide to policy-making in Hoover’s presidency.
Hoover’s failure to address the Depression paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, with large-scale government intervention in the economy far beyond what Hoover was willing to do. That set the stage for the great debates of the twentieth century, with presidents such as Lyndon Johnson expanding the role of government while Ronald Reagan and others sought to decrease it. Interestingly, Hoover later found a role in the expansion of government. He led two “Hoover Commissions” on making the executive branch run more efficiently, one for Truman and one for Eisenhower. However, the park does not connect this fact to any larger issues in American history.
The park’s current Long-Range Interpretation Plan intends to make the Depression of 1929-39 a bit more visible than it currently is. Those recommendations were not yet visible on-site in 2012, though the adjacent Presidential Library does not shy away from the Depression years.
Because the Hoover family played a major role in establishing the national historic site, interpretation here stays close to his own self-image. That story belongs here, but it should also connect to larger and more complicated stories about the political economy of small-town America.
Adapted from “Telling America’s Stories,” a book manuscript by Robert Pahre. For questions and comments, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other than trips to government offices, political science has generally not used field experiences as part of the undergraduate curriculum. To illustrate the possibilities of such experiences, we discuss field-based courses and curricular units at three sites. Each uses a national park to teach students about environmental politics and policy issues. The course designs use experiential education theory to define learning objectives and the means to achieve them. We provide evidence from students’ self-reported academic and nonacademic outcomes that is consistent with the expectations of experiential theory. Not surprisingly, course evaluations are high. More important for experiential curricula, students report high levels of motivation in these courses, whether the experience is long or short, whether advertised in advance or not. Though self-selection may explain some of the positive outcomes, two before-and-after surveys suggest that experiential outcomes exceed expectations in interesting ways. In short, students like field experiences, the field experiences motivate them to learn, they learn more effectively, and they enjoy these courses more. Experiential opportunities should play a more important role in the political science curriculum.
If you’re interested in seeing the entire paper, please email me at email@example.com for the access code.
The Civil War battlefields in the National Park System have long emphasized battlefield tactics and heroism. They are decorated with stately cannon, and it’s hard to imagine the blood and noise of the battlefield. Until recently, most of them have also skirted around the big issue: why were these men fighting in the first place?
The answer, briefly put, is slavery. Southerners have resisted that conclusion, and Civil War buffs in the South have fought NPS staff at those sites that have taken the issue on. Interpretation is changing – for example, Chickamauga has a good exhibit on how slavery caused the war, though it’s shoehorned into a hallway. Among the battlefields I’ve visited in recent years, Pea Ridge and Murfreesboro address slavery, while Wilson’s Creek and Glorieta Pass (Pecos) do not.
One of the best interpretations of slavery in the Civil War appears not at a battlefield, but at Ulysses S. Grant NHS in a suburb of St. Louis. Slavery plays a major role in interpretation throughout the site. The brochure calls White Haven as “A Microcosm of National Issues” because it divided Grant from his in-laws, who owned the White Haven farm here.
His father-in-law, “Colonel” Dent was a slaveholder who favored secession. Grant’s father, Jesse Grant, was a strong opponent of slavery who refused to visit his son at White Haven. Julia’s brother Fred, a long-time friend of Ulysses, fought with the Union. However, John Dent, Fred and Julia’s brother, fought for the Confederacy.
The website gives a page to slavery, discussing the economics and demographics of the institution in Missouri. Visitors to the farm will find the same information throughout the house and grounds. Aside from the plantations of the “Little Dixie” region along the Missouri River and the “Bootheel” region in the southeast, most of Missouri did not have many slaves. White Haven’s ten slaves made it unusual in the St. Louis region, whose enslaved population was in steady decline. This reflected a change in farm economy, as farming switched from large-scale plantations using slaves to grow cash crops to small-scale truck farms growing fresh produce for the urban market.
The NPS has given the enslaved people of White Haven an opportunity to tell their stories, notably the cook Mary Robinson. Her later recollections enrich interpretation throughout the site, including details of the kitchen work. Visitors will learn that some of the enslaved staff here could read and write, though both pursuits were illegal under Missouri law. Slate pencils found in the winter kitchen provide evidence of literacy.
Julia’s puzzlement at one slave’s “carelessness” also provides a window into how the enslaved workers evaded her oversight. “Old Bob” was responsible for keeping the fires going in the seven fireplaces of White Haven. When the embers died out, he had to walk a mile to the neighbors “and bring home a brand of fire from their backlog.” Obviously, this gave him some free time away from the Dents, and an opportunity to socialize at a neighboring farm. The enslaved staff also used to bring Julia special gifts so that she would intercede with her parents to allow them to travel to visit their wives on nearby farms.
The NPS points out that Julia Dent seemed oblivious to other realities, thinking that the “house kept itself” and that the family “produced” the crops on the farm. She later wrote that she believed they were happy, at least before “the Rebellion.”
Ulysses had a better sense of the material conditions of slavery. Presumably this understanding played some role when he remodeled the kitchen after the war, providing modern appliances and inside passageways from the kitchen.
Reality struck home when the Union gained control of neutral Missouri early in the Civil War. Colonel Dent avoided St. Louis, now dominated by Unionists, and became estranged from many of his neighbors. His slaves saw opportunity and began to run away, demonstrating by their actions just what they thought of their master and his home.
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site does a good job interpreting the realities of slavery in this part of Missouri, and shows how other the Civil War battlefields might take a more realistic look at what the Civil War was really about.
This is part of my book manuscript, Telling America’s Stories: How the National Parks Tell the Stories of Westward Expansion, in progress.
More photos in my Flickr album.
Audrey Neville and I will be conducting a quasi-experiment next semester in my lecture course on environmental politics. Students can decide to go on a field trip with me to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. If they prefer, they can go on an online “virtual field trip” to the same place. Either way, they will complete the same assignments – some quiz-like questions along the way, some discussion, and a take-home essay at the end.
We’re interested in how the physicality of experiential learning affects learning outcomes. I won’t go into our expectations here, but they follow in a straightforward way from the literature on experiential learning. Some earlier work with Carie Steele has evaluated field experiences in a non-experimental way. Audrey and I see this second project as a quasi-experiment in which we compare two modes of learning. It’s important to note that we do not compare either learning mode to a null (no field trip), but only against one another.
The field trip is embedded in a larger course, and presents material equal to about 1.5-2 weeks in that course. All students engage in an online learning activity (OLA) that introduces key analytics and concepts relevant to the field trip. The unit focuses on the relations of humans and nature in the abstract, drawing from issues you may know from William Cronon’s Uncommon Ground. Then we apply those issues to the concrete landscape of Northwest Indiana, where a national park unit coexists with three steel mills, two power plants, the Port of Indiana, two US highways, three interstates, and a mix of communities that range from second homes for the wealthy to the post-industrial cities of Gary and Hammond.
The physical field trip lasts an entire Saturday, about 11-12 hours from door to door. About half of that experience is driving. Our target is to make the virtual field trip take about 5-6 hours, though it’s possible that students can work through it a bit faster. The virtual field trip has quite a bit of video, taken on a pseudo field trip in September with three Illinois students acting as stand-ins for the virtual students. This was the third time I’ve taken students to Indiana Dunes, so my “shticks” are pretty stable.
We designed the OLA and the two field trips with the experiment in mind, but we did not design them to serve the experiment. The material serves pre-existing learning objectives in the course. We followed several principles in our OLA and field trip designs, and these principles affect the quasi-experiment.
Autonomy. Students choose their own experience, based on their own interests and commitments. We do not randomly assign them to either. (Random assignment would also introduce some injustices that we want to avoid.) We expect some differences in the two student populations, and we will have to control for those differences instead of getting rid of them through random assignment.
Access. All students should have access to whatever modes help them learn best. Following the conventions of experimental design would require a control group of students who would not be allowed to access either field trip. These conventions would undermine pedagogical principles of access. We will thus use a nonequivalent groups design to examine how the treatments affect student learning. Though an experimental design would have better internal validity, it seems strange to sacrifice student learning in pursuit of greater understanding of student learning.
Student learning first. We want both options to provide great learning experiences, and we’re not going to sacrifice learning in either option to make the other option look better. If we need to make tradeoffs between the purity of the experiment and pedagogy, pedagogy will always triumph.
For this reason, we allow students who take the physical field trip to view the virtual field trip if they like. We will also provide students who take the virtual field trip with enough information to drive up to Indiana Dunes on their own and obtain a physical experience. We want students to be able to do whatever they want to do in order to succeed in the course. We realize that this is not ideal in terms of experimental design, and we’ll have to control for any students who do this.
Neutrality. We want the physical and virtual field trips to be as similar as we can make them. We want both to be successful learning experiences. Students may mention things that they “saw” without revealing whether it was virtual or physical. their choice. We should not know whether a student chose the virtual or physical field trip, and will grade without that information.
Online learning is popular among administrators and some faculty, controversial among other faculty. People usually contrast online learning with classroom learning, whether lectures or seminars. However, advocates of experiential learning believe that it provides much better learning outcomes. I teach across all three “platforms,” and want to understand better what each platform does best.
Thank you for reading so far. We would be grateful for your comments and reactions as we finalize our course design and research design.
In previous years, we have started class in Grand Teton National Park. We often have students who choose to fly, so we pick them up at the Jackson airport. Being further south than Yellowstone, GTNP is also a little bit closer to Illinois, and we can cover the 1350 miles in two days.
Seeing the Tetons first can shape students’ views of Yellowstone in negative ways. For many students, Yellowstone can be a bit of a disappointment, as they decide that they like the spectacular scenery of the Tetons more. Jackson Hole also has a more visible elk population, which shapes students’ perceptions of the landscape. Wildlife such as moose is more dependably visible on Teton trails.
Interestingly, seeing Yellowstone first in 2013 produced the same result – the Tetons show better. The reasons varied a little. Students preferred the scenery in the Tetons to that in Yellowstone. Students preferred the feel of Teton trails over the boardwalks and greater development of Yellowstone’s trails, even in the backcountry.
Students also though that the Tetons attracted “higher quality” hikers, even on the very popular trail to Inspiration Point. It’s been interesting to me that “lower quality” hikers (unprepared in clothing, supplies and demeanor) make my students view a trail as more like developed frontcountry.
This year’s wildlife viewing was not noticeably better in either park. We did not see pronghorns in either park, though we saw many outside the parks. We did not see moose, wolves or bighorn. We did see some smaller species for the first time in my classes, notably badger and pika. Yet even without wildlife sightings, students preferred the Tetons.
Is there something wrong with Yellowstone? You can’t do much about the scenery. The Tetons are one of the world’s great mountain ranges in scenic terms. Yellowstone has the Absaroka, Beartooth, Gallatin, Red, and Washburn ranges — all beautiful but they do not match the Tetons. Spectacular as Yellowstone Lake is, Jackson Lake has the better setting.
More important than the scenery, the visitor experience in Yellowstone clearly impacts the students’ own visitor experiences in undesirable ways. Visitors are more likely to seem ill-prepared in Yellowstone, are more likely to stick to the parking lots, and seem to crowd the wildlife more. That makes Yellowstone seem less natural, even less “wild.”
Sadly, in the world’s first national park, visitors can be a problem for other visitors.
Wilderness law encourages us to draw a sharp line between “wilderness” and “not wilderness.” That’s certainly easy for land managers because it tells them how to manage specific lands on either side of a line. It’s supported by the natural science approach to most land management, which thinks in terms of physical characteristics of a place.
A wilderness is “untrammeled,” without evidence of human occupation or resource use. (Evidence of recreational trammeling is, perhaps incoherently, consistent with a this definition of legal wilderness.)
Humanists might suggest that “wilderness” is socially constructed. Society has built an idea of wilderness in general, and associates certain kinds of places with that idea. As I know from conversations with students, those ideas are widely held but also somewhat malleable. Students are willing to consider types of wilderness they hadn’t thought of before, like caves, underwater sites, or tallgrass prairie. They also change their minds about what signs of human presence they will accept.
As is usually true, social scientists tend to take positions straddling the views of humanists and natural scientists. Through surveys, logs and journals, poking hikers randomly for their feelings, and other techniques, social scientists have connected physical places to social constructions of those places. I do this informally while teaching, drawing from the wilderness literature to define the kinds of questions I ask. Students fill out worksheets that look like some of the surveys, and I control the places where I have them fill them out.
Based on some of these techniques, Carie Steele (Texas Tech) and I have examined how our students have constructed the idea of “wilderness” in the field. In a recent article, “What Makes it Wild?”, we discuss two different ways that perceptions of wilderness change independent of the landscape. First, the sequence of wildlife sightings matters: seeing elk and then a bear along a trail is different than seeing a bear and then an elk along the same trail. Seeing the bear first makes the trail seem wild, which makes the elk seem wilder too; seeing the elk first would not make the trail seem wild. Bison, wolves, and even spawning trout can make a place seem wilder.
Second, a group may define wildlife and wilderness in idiosyncratic ways. This makes one group perceive a place differently than other groups do, just because of the peculiar direction their own conversations have gone.
If “wilderness” is socially constructed, if it changes, if people view it differently, if different groups arrive at different construction, then we probably should not think of wilderness in terms of sharp lines. If our definitions of wilderness are degrees of gray, instead of being black and white, how should we manage wild places? How do we keep it wild if “wild” is a gray area to begin with?
These constructions have real consequences for land management. For example, the National Park Service wants to remove a sustainable oyster farm from a wilderness area in Point Reyes National Seashore because it’s incompatible with “wilderness.” Defenders of the oyster farm, including some wilderness theorists, disagree. They believe some kinds of resource use are compatible with “wilderness.”
Does a fuzzy wilderness have oyster farms?
For the Point Reyes issue, Google “Drakes Estero.” You’ll see links to both sides.
Pahre, Robert and Carie Steele. 2013. “What Makes it Wild? Visitors’ Constructions of Wildlife and Wilderness in the Greater Yellowstone Area.” International Journal of Wilderness 19(3): 25-31 (December). Available here in an on-screen reader at the IJW website.
Some photos of wilderness.
In early November, I took a group of students from my “Environmental Politics” class on a field trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. A few of them knew the dunes as a good place to go to the beach – but that wasn’t our agenda on a windy November day.
We started at the Portage Lakefront Unit to talk about the political history of the region. From the breakwater, you can see the full sweep of the Lake Michigan shoreline from Michigan City, Indiana, to Chicago. We couldn’t quite see Chicago, but the industry of East Chicago, Whiting, Gary, and Hammond were all visible.
At this spot, the park faces a steel mill across the channel of Burns Ditch. The Port of Indiana and a NIPSCO power plant, both of which serve the mill, are barely visible on the other side of the factory. The town of Ogden Dunes lies on the other side of the park, a well-to-do community that benefits from the protected landscape of the national park.
The political geography of national parks is nowhere more visible than here. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore owes its existence to a political compromise in 1963. Dune advocates accepted a subsidized harbor bill while industrialists acquiesced in creation of a national park unit here. Each got the core of what they wanted, while each had to accept the existence of the other next door.
The geography of Portage Lakefront makes this compromise visible, and always sparks a conversation. How can nature and humans coexist? What are the benefits, and what are the costs? Seeing a national park, residential community, and major industry lying cheek-and-jowl shows students what these issues look like on the physical landscape.
After Portage Lakefront, we explored the natural landscape that the park preserves. The best place to do this is the Cowles Bog Trail. The trail begins by walking along Cowles Bog, a National Historic Landmark that recognizes where Henry Chandler Cowles (1869-1939) pioneered the study of ecology. The swamp forest here includes pin oak, red maple, and yellow birch. Some of these trees are moving into the swamp and transforming it. In one stretch, the NPS kills these trees by girdling them, to halt this natural process of ecological succession. The park honors Cowles’ studies of ecological succession by arresting this process in time, thereby displaying it better in space – keeping both the fen and the swamp forest.
As we climb into the dunes, we gradually see more habitats, including oak savanna with black and white oaks and shrubs such as chokecherry, witch hazel and sumac. We pass some ponds behind the dunes, and then finally arrive at the foredunes above Lake Michigan. On top of the dunes we see various hardwoods that have established themselves. They can move in here because the marram grass near the beach has stabilized the soil and transformed the ecosystem, providing a place for cottonwood, oak, hickory, and white ash to move in.
These diverse microhabitats characterize Indiana Dunes, and explain why this small place holds more than one thousand plant species. Congress preserved not only recreational opportunities on the beach and trails but also a hotspot of biodiversity. Microhabitats are scattered among towns, factories and transportation networks – a microcosm of the wider problem of environmental politics today.
Can we preserve natural places and a full range of biodiversity in a landscape dominated by humans? Does preserving our natural heritage require killing native trees? While they enjoyed getting out of Champaign-Urbana for the day, we also left them with some questions for their reflective essays on the trip.
Additional links and resources
For four seasons in Indiana Dunes, see my Flickr set.
For my essay comparing Indiana Dunes with Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes, see the National Park Traveler.
For my photo essay on the Midwest’s national park units, see Illinois Issues.
Lake Michigan has two great national parks, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (Indiana) and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Michigan). Both are biologically rich, and reward exploration. Don’t stop at the beach!
There’s also a political back story in each place, with questions of race and class, and trade-offs between economic growth and the environment.
See my full story here.
For Indiana Dunes, see
Franklin, Kay and Norma Schaeffer. 1983. Duel for the Dunes: Land Use Conflict on the Shores of Lake Michigan. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
For Sleeping Bear Dunes, see
Kalt, Brian C. 2001. Sixties Sandstorm: The Fight Over Establishment of a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 1961-1970. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
For data and charts on visitation to Indiana Dunes by underrepresented groups, see the following article. Indiana Dunes is unusual compared to other park units, apparently because it lies close to minority-dominant communities.
Weber, Joe and Selima Sultana. 2012. “Why Do So Few Minority People Visit National Parks? Visitation and the Accessibility of ‘America’s Best Idea.’” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 1-28.
Yellowstone is famous for its geology. The park holds more than half of the world’s thermal features. Its surface appearance reflects the activity of a huge caldera that last erupted about 650,000 years ago. The Yellowstone River carves a spectacular canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, that holds two beautiful waterfalls, 308 and 109 feet high. There are petrified forests atop Specimen Ridge inside the park and in the northern Gallatin range just outside it. Mountains such as the Gallatin, Beartooth, and Absaroka ranges ring the park, and the Red Mountains lie entirely within it.
Despite those riches, geology is an awkward subject for a class on the “Politics of Yellowstone.” The federal government does not have a policy on place tectonics or volcanism. With rare exceptions, we do not have a geyser policy. At the same time, it would be stupid for the course to ignore these wonders. The students rightly want to see this famous geology while they’re in the park.
What to do? We use the scenic geology to start talking about tourism. By visiting tourist-heavy destinations like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, we examine the impact of tourism development on the environment. Finding a geyser along the trail in an isolated area is very different than viewing Old Faithful from a boardwalk surrounded by hotels, restaurants, gift shops and parking lots.
Our first examination of these issues in 2013 came along a trail I call the “Yellowstone Sampler.” We see some unfenced thermal features in the backcountry and usually walk fairly close to some bachelor bison groups at the north end of the Hayden Valley. After lunch at a scenic spot, we emerge from a moderately-low use trail to the crowds and parking lots of Artist Point. The transition is pretty sudden, which makes it a good place to talk about developed tourism and personal experiences of nature.
The hike encourages students to think about “wilderness” – the Wilderness Act of 1964, students’ personal definitions of nature and of wilderness, and the views of other people. Does wilderness matter to people? Is it important for well-functioning ecosystems? Does the preservation of the world, as Thoreau wrote, lie in wildness?
In 2013, I added a new hike to our second full day in the park. As part of our driving tour of the Lamar Valley’s wildlife, we climbed the lower reaches of Specimen Ridge to reach a petrified forest. This was a remarkably steep trail, posing a definite physical challenge – but one that rewarded us with great views from high above the Lamar. We remained in sight of the park road, but the physical challenge contributed to the wilderness feel of the experience for many students.
Though some guidebooks describe it, Petrified Forest is an unofficial trail, not found on park maps. The Park Service does not maintain it, so people find their own track. This results in many social trails and greater impact on the landscape.
In some parks, there might be a road going up to a site like this. Instead, Yellowstone has decided to keep these petrified trees unpublicized, accessible only by a difficult and unmaintained trail.
Is that democratic? Most visitors – about 97% – want to experience Yellowstone from their automobile or a high-density, paved path. Why do we keep them away from the petrified forest? Automobile sightseers are restricted to a single petrified tree just off the park road, and that tree is surrounded by a fence. Even that lonely tree is inaccessible to recreational vehicles. Is that fair? Or should the park keep some destinations away from the vehicles, recognizing that hikers have some “right” to physical challenge?
When you ask those questions you realize that Yellowstone’s geology starts to open up all sorts of questions about political values. What are national parks for? Who are they for?
Some might argue that Yellowstone should serve the vast majority of Americans who want to go sightseeing only a short distance from their automobiles. Others might emphasize the wilderness experience that can be found only in the larger national parks. Still others might move away from human needs and argue that only large wilderness areas can protect intact, well-functioning ecosystems.
Those are the big topics of the national parks. Geology may not be a politically-salient topic, but it turns out that you can find political themes if you use the geology to play tourist.
If you’re interested in geology, and to some degree even if you’re not, I recommend Geology Underfoot in Yellowstone by Marc Hendrix.
For a fascinating view of the human footprint on the geologic record, see Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?