Warning! No More Signs!


America’s wilderness laws have some odd effects.  The lines separating a designated wilderness from the rest of the country are arbitrary, and invisible.  Yet the apparatus of civilization lies behind those invisible lines.  We make rules, and the rules change when you cross the line.
Isle Royale National Park consists of one large island in Lake Superior, surrounded by many smaller islands.  Almost all visitors arrive by boat, so there are two marinas and some campgrounds with developed docks or small ranger stations.  Outside these few developed locations, the entire national park is designated wilderness.


Tobin Harbor

There’s only one lodge in the park, at Rock Harbor.  Rock Harbor has some walking trails around the lodge, and these provide a little island of civilization in the middle of the wilderness.

For the National Park Service, Isle Royale’s wilderness provides a major “interpretive theme” for the park  The NPS wants “wilderness” to be one the main idea that each visitor learns about the park, and a major theme that she brings home with her.  The visitor centers emphasize wilderness, as does the website.

So does one of the trails behind the lodge.  The Stoll nature trail is shaped like a long, skinny figure eight along most of the length of Scoville Point.  After leaving the lodge and its outbuildings, the trail goes through a mix of terrain.  When the trail goes through wetlands it becomes a boardwalk.  As you walk along there are signs that explain the natural environment that the visitor sees.

Stoll’s Wilderness

Near the middle of the figure eight you reach the last sign on the walk.  This sign introduces the concept of “wilderness,” and gives the visitor a choice.  You could turn and complete the lower loop.  Or, you could go forward and hike the second loop.  If you continue, though, you must be warned: beyond this sign is a federally-designated wilderness and there are no more signs.  The Park Service is very clear:

“Beyond here you enter designated wilderness.  You will find no more signs that explain what you see.  The purpose of designated wilderness is to retain a primeval character, with the imprint of humans substantially diminished.  Beyond this point you must make your own discoveries.”

Skylight at Rock Harbor

You stand on an important invisible line.  Congress has proclaimed that wilderness lies before you, with civilization behind.  That line at your feet is a choice—do you dare make your own discoveries?


Can you survive without signs?





Click on any image to see it on Flickr.  My set of Isle Royale images is here.

A Taste of Wild Dinosaur

A Taste of Wild Dinosaur

June starts the summer travel season. Many Americans will be driving out West to enjoy our spectacular scenery and national parks.

It would be easy to overlook Dinosaur National Monument because of its funny name.  Sure, it has some dinosaur fossils at a small site near US-40. However, it has much more in over 200,000 acres. It’s a big park, about the size of Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain and other more famous national parks.

If you’re in Colorado, Utah or Wyoming, it’s closer than you think. The rough roads are part of the adventure. Allow more time than you think you need, and explore.

Here’s a story from my pre-blog archives.

What makes something a national park?

Vendome Well

The town of Sulphur, Oklahoma, lies a few miles off the interstate between Oklahoma City and Dallas. After you fight your way through the modern chain stores and gas stations, you arrive at small-town America. On the right is a lovely city park, well cared for, and a fine example of the civic virtues of small-town America.

That lovely city park is actually a former national park.

Once known as Platt National Park, this site exemplifies a long battle over the question, “What is worthy of being a national park?” From the moment of its creation in 1906 until its decommissioning in 1976, people fought over whether Platt “deserved” to be a national park. The National Park Service and its allies in the environmental movement generally said it did not.

Former Park Headquarters

Congress established Platt National Park in 1906, ten years before creation of the National Park Service. At the time, there were no procedures to establish standards or review park proposals. There were no outside groups dedicated to the parks, like the National Parks Association today (now the NPCA).


Travertine Creek

Both the NPS and NPCA worry about the “standards” of national park status, and see clearly the risks of not setting standards. In the most egregious example, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall tried to create an “All-Weather National Park” that consisted of a handful of scattered parcels centered on . . . Albert Fall’s ranch.

Even without Albert Fall’s corrupt intent, standards are important. If you don’t worry about standards, politicians will press for more and more parks of ever-lower quality. After all, every state has some lovely spots that aren’t really national in significance, such as Starved Rock in Illinois or Turkey Run in Indiana. I’m a big fan of both, but they are properly state parks.

Travertine Nature Center

Platt is one of those lovely spots. It preserved a group of cold springs, some mineral and some freshwater. Many of the springs are in a surprisingly deep valley of Rock Creek. The hills provided some shade, and the springs some water, supporting an eastern deciduous forest on the valley floor. The shaded valley, trees, and cold water made Platt a great place to keep cool on hot summer days in Oklahoma and North Texas, an “oasis on the prairie.”

Swimming hole

Pleasant it may be, but Platt lacks any distinctive natural resources, culture or history. The NPS, NPA, and some members of Congress recognized this. People made serious attempts to disestablish Platt National Park in 1910, 1913, 1924, 1927, 1928, 1930, 1932, 1938, 1941, 1957, and 1958. In each case the Oklahoma congressional delegation stopped the effort.

As Americans’ recreational interests changed, Platt became less popular – though it still gets more than a million visitors a year. When the Bureau of Reclamation dammed Rock Creek to form the Lake of the Arbuckles in 1968, the NPS took over management of recreation on the lake. That provided an opportunity to create Chickasaw National Recreation Area here in 1976, and to fold Platt into the NRA.

Platt Historic District

Today, the NPS tells the story of Platt National Park in a historic district here.  That interpretation ignores the debates over standards. Perhaps it would be too awkward to admit that the National Park Service still manages lands that it found unworthy for seventy years.

This blog post draws from material in my book manuscript, “Telling America’s Stories: How the National Park Service Interprets Westward Expansion.”

For more photos, see my Flickr set.

If you’d like to read a more favorable account of Platt, see
Parker, Albert J.  2010.  “A Park of the People: the Demotion of Platt National Park, Oklahoma.” Journal of Cultural Geography 27(2): 151-175 (June).

Wray, Jacilee and Alexa Roberts.  1998.  “In Praise of Platt: Or, What is a ‘Real’ National Park?” George Wright Forum 15(1): 68-78.

The Civil War in New Mexico

Colorado Volunteers

On Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifices of individual soldiers. It’s worth remembering that the battles they fought were not the only factor in victory or defeat. Civilian morale plays a key role in many wars, as does munition manufacture or international trade.

But today I want to think about the importance of logistics. We tend to overlook logistics by focusing on battlefield heroism. Sometimes the battlefield gets the story wrong.


Windmill Hill


The Battle of Glorieta Pass was the decisive engagement in the trans-Pecos theater of the Civil War. The idea of the New Mexico campaign is pretty simple. Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his Texan volunteers would drive up the Rio Grande to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. From there, they planned to cross the mountains at Glorieta Pass, moving eastward along the Santa Fe Trail (roughly modern I-25).  The rebels would resupply by seizing the major supply base at Fort Union and then move on to take the rich mines of Colorado. The campaign would also disrupt Union communications with California, Nevada, and Oregon.

The key to the campaign was logistics. The Confederates would have a long supply train stretching back to El Paso, and they needed to seize Fort Union to make the plan work. The Union commander, Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, understood the situation well. Though he “lost” every battle, he won the campaign. The Confederates lost their supply train, forcing them to retreat back down the Rio Grande. After taking a desperate escape route through the mountains, less than half of the Texans found their way home to Fort Bliss.

Kozlowski’s Ranch

The decisive moment came over three days at Glorieta Pass, March 26-28, 1862. On the third day, Canby split his forces in the face of the enemy. Almost half of his troops marched over Glorieta Mesa to the Confederate rear, where they destroyed the rebel supply train. The other half of the Union forces fought a delaying action. They gradually gave ground to Sibley’s Texans while remaining in good order and holding a position across the Santa Fe Trail.

The National Park Service notes that both sides suffered high losses (about 15% killed, wounded and captured). It also claims the battle was a tactical Confederate victory because the rebels held the ground at the end of the day – though Colorado volunteers did “save the Union” here.

Civil war artifacts

Those claims miss the point: the ground of Glorieta Pass didn’t matter. The supply train did. Destroying the Confederates’ supplies while keeping the rebels away from Fort Union made this a decisive Union victory.

Don’t believe me? Look up pages 293-305 in Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the war. He’s sympathetic to the Confederates and their strategic vision, and he always has an eye for Southern valor. Even so, Foote rightly sees logistics as key here. The fact that Canby sent almost half his men after the wagon train makes his own priorities clear.

Rabbitbush on the Civil War trail

Why does the NPS get the story wrong? First, we must remember the professional mindset of military historians – they like battles. Understandably, the NPS hires military historians to develop the interpretation of military sites. That perspective leads to a view that “the Battle of Glorieta Pass represented the high water mark for a bold Confederate offensive into Union Territory on the western frontier. Here volunteers from Colorado clashed with tough Texans intent on conquering New Mexico.” Battlefield heroism rules.

Plaza of the Governors

Second, the NPS inherited a particular landscape of memorialization here. The Texas Division of The United Daughters of the Confederacy got to the site first.  They erected a monument on the battlefield in 1939, in belated recognition of the Texan centennial. It took Colorado more than fifty years to follow suit, with a State Historical Society monument erected in 1993. New Mexico recognizes its soldiers on an obelisk in downtown Santa Fe, honoring “the heros of the Federal Army who fell at the battles of Cañon del Apache and Pigeon’s Rancho (La Glorieta), fought with the Rebels March 28, 1862.” All three monuments celebrate the battlefield heroism.

Park advocates share an interest in battlefield bravery. The site had remained in private hands until the Glorieta Battlefield Unit of Pecos National Historic Park was established in 1990. The Glorieta Battlefield Preservation Society, a group of regional Civil War reenactors, worked to preserve the site. The Council of America’s Military Past, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and other military heritage groups worked with them.

Hispanos at Glorieta Pass

When the NPS took over in 1990, that heroism lay across the landscape in roadside signs and memorials. Park advocates provided funding for the interpretive trail and most of the signs the visitor sees.  Signs funded by Texan and Confederate groups highlight the bravery of Sibley’s troops. Signs placed by the State of New Mexico highlight the role of Hispanos, New Mexican Volunteers, and U.S. Regulars.

Texas Mounted Volunteers

The UDC provided some of the text on its signs, and local history enthusiasts provided text on some New Mexico signs.  The UDC even thanks itself on one NPS-branded sign:

The Texas Monument honors the Texans who fought here and praise is due the Texas Division, UDC members for their perseverance and determination to dedicate this monument and establish the first park to preserve the memory of the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Bravery, heroism, perseverance, and determination are all fine military qualities – – but don’t forget to burn the wagon train.

Kozlowski’s Ranch served as field hospital

This post draws on material from my book manuscript, Telling America’s Stories: How the National Parks Interpret Westward Expansion.

For another piece on how the NPS interprets the Civil War, see
“How the Cherokee Fought the Civil War,” Indian Country Today, 28 March 2012.

The Stories of the Black Hills

The Racetrack of the World

The Black Hills (Pahá Sapa) are a sacred cultural landscape. Sacred sites litter the landscape – unusual geologic features, hot springs, sacred peaks, and the locations of many legendary doings. Perhaps most important, the Hills hold a cave out of which Buffalo Woman, the first bison, and the Lakota people themselves sprung out of the earth. Many Native names remain on the landscape for those who see them, including Pe’ Sla, Wicicala Sakowin Pahá, and Mato Tipila.

Mato Tipila

The Pahá Sapa have seen many battles over their ownership and meaning. General George A. Custer successfully sparked a gold rush that led the United States to seize the Hills. This seizure violated previous treaties with the American Indians of the region. A century later, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the justice of Lakota claims, and ordered the federal government to compensate the tribe. The Lakota have continued to demand return of the land instead of cash, so the compensation funds continue to accrue interest in an escrow account.



Inside Jewel Cave

The Black Hills are home to three national park units – Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park.  Two more sites lie near the Hills and arguably part of them: Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument.

Though all are part of the same landscape, National Park Service interest in Lakota stories varies enormously from one sites to another. Jewel Cave says almost nothing. Wind Cave acknowledges that the cave opening is the site of the Lakota origin story, but that’s about all it says. If you look at the visitor center, roadside signs, and website, Wind Cave is clearly much more interested in Anglo history. It tells of the struggles over cave ownership before this site became a national park, the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps to build the park’s infrastructure, and the government’s efforts to build a game preserve here.

Badlands South Unit

The South Unit of Badlands National Park does tell these stories. It’s in a portable trailer along the side of a state highway, and many of its exhibits do not meet the current quality standards of the NPS – clearly telling the occasional visitor how important the center is for the NPS. It’s also far off the beaten tourist track, and lies on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Playing with Souvenirs

Changes are afoot at Mount Rushmore. The brochure opens up the story a little bit, saying, “The faces on this mountain remind some of the founding fathers and the birth of this nation.  For others these faces remind them of cultural injustices and the loss of land and heritage.” In the summer, a “Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Heritage Village” interprets the traditions of local Native communities.

Bear Lodge

Devils Tower (Mato Tipila) does much more. It tells visitors that this is a spiritually significant place to many tribal nations, and it uses the peak’s name in those languages. It explains the colored flags and tobacco offerings that visitors may see at the site. The park asks rock climbers not to climb the Tower in June because the month of the summer solstice has special religious significance. It also explains both sides of the rock climbing controversy, since many Native Americans would like people not to climb the Mato Tipila at all.

Makaopta Makosica Oinajin

What do the more successful sites have in common? The changes at Mount Rushmore occurred under Superintendent Gerard Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa), who grew up on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Devils Tower has seen many of its changes under Superintendent Dorothy FireCloud (Rosebud Sioux) and her successor Reed Robinson (also Rosebud Sioux). Interpretation at Badlands South Unit is provided by the Oglala Lakota Nation through a cooperative agreement with the NPS.

Shield at Badlands South

Quite simply, when American Indians get a chance to manage these sites, Native stories appear. If Anglos have always managed the site, Native stories appear in only a pro forma way. Under Anglo management, centuries and millennia of Native heritage in the Pahá Sapa become a few sentences on a roadside sign. Those words are far less than attention than failed homesteaders, summer paleontology expeditions, or the Civilian Conservation Corps receive.

Telling everyone’s stories of the Pahá Sapa is better than only telling some people’s stories. Achieving that is pretty simple in principle: hire Native American superintendents and/or develop cooperative agreements with affiliated tribes. Because about eight percent of NPS employees are Native Americans, there’s a strong talent pool already available.


This post draws on material from my book manuscript, Telling America’s Stories: How the National Parks Interpret Westward Expansion.  You can find some spin-off articles on my research page.

For some related articles, see
“No Longer Circling the Wagons: Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong,” Indian Country Today, 7 September 2011.

“How the Cherokee Fought the Civil War,” Indian Country Today, 28 March 2012.

Click on any photo to go to my Flickr pages.


When is a National Park not a National Park?

When the National Park Service doesn’t want it to be.

David Berger Memorial

Congress designated the David Berger Memorial as a national park unit in a 1980 national parks bill. As is its custom, Congress included a statement of national significance and assigned authority over the memorial to the Department of the Interior, of which the National Park Service is a part. As is also congressional custom, it did not provide funds for what it had authorized.

Reach for your dreams

The memorial makes up the entire David Berger National Monument. It remembers David Berger, a weightlifter with dual US-Israel citizenship who was one of the eleven Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eight Cleveland families, all friends of Berger’s parents, commissioned and paid for the sculpture.

Broken Rings

Berger’s parents, Dr. Benjamin and Dorothy Berger, were long-time friends of Howard Metzenbaum, who represented Ohio in the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 1995. That’s presumably how the monument ended up getting designated as a national memorial.

Is it a national park unit? You can argue it either way.  The National Park Service doesn’t have it on the official list of park units but it’s on several official websites and brochures. The unofficial word is that NPS staff have never thought it “worthy.”

More of the history at the National Parks Traveler.
More photos here.

Making Trail

First Pawnee Butte

About a month ago, the Great Plains Trail Alliance (GPTA) joined the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers and some US Forest Service employees to build a new stretch of the Pawnee Buttes Trail in Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado.

There are two big pictures here:

  • the USFS wants to encourage more recreational use of our national grasslands, which it manages along with national forests;
  • the GPTA wants to start the Great Plains Trail somewhere.

Most GPTA members live along Colorado’s Front Range, so I expect we’ll see more GPTA activity at Pawnee and Comanche National Grasslands than elsewhere – at least for now.  Western Nebraska (Scotts Bluff and Wildcat Hills) are also close to most members, and an interest of mine.  We also have a land trust in Montana that’s interested in working with us.

A nice reward for a day’s work

Have you ever wondered how to build a trail?  Not surprisingly, it depends on the purposeand the terrain.  A lot of Pawnee NG use happens on “unofficial” trails. These tend to duplicate each other and increase impact on the prairie. The USFS built a new trailhead to concentrate parking and picnicking in one place, and concentrate impact. However, the trailhead needed a connector trail to the Pawnee Buttes Trail to focus the impact.

While they were at it, the USFS decided to build an accessible trail to a viewpoint looking at First and Second Pawnee Buttes.  The trail to the buttes loops around a butte and up and down a couple gullies, and that’s not going to be accessible. The side trail is flat and wide for wheelchairs.

Some of the GPTA Team

Across a fairly flat grassland, the trail strategy was simple: first, flag a route.  Then, dump a cubic yard of gravel every five yards on the connector trail, about double that on the accessible trail.  This should be enough gravel for a three-foot-wide trail for wheelchairs, two-foot wide for foot traffic. It turned out to be too much gravel, so both trails are a bit wider than intended.

The USFS used a Bobcat to deliver the gravel before we got there. Our job was to spread it out, with shovels, rakes, and Mcleods.  If you piled it 3-5 inches high, you’re ready to compress it. After it was pretty, we used two plate compressors to flatten them trails out, to 1-2 inches.

The Finished Trail

Pretty simple, really.  We were at it for a little over five hours, and the compressors stayed longer finishing the job.  We had a short, hard rainstorm in mid afternoon, and were rewarded with a double full rainbow.  The GPTA contingent then hiked to the buttes and back.  After that, I turned around for the 925-mile trip back to Champaign.

Links: GPTA
GPTA Flickr Page
Bob’s photos of Pawnee National Grassland

Wake, Nicodemus !

Everyone loves a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but the work of bringing a new national historic site to reality is a lot less interesting. Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas tells some great stories, but it’s far off the beaten track.

Old First Baptist Church of Nicodemus, built in 1907.

The bottom line in this article: “It will cost money to preserve this place and tell its stories the way they should be told. If the American people and its representatives in Congress don’t want to spend that money, it’s a mystery why they bothered to preserve the site in the first place.”


Read more here.
Additional images on Flickr here.

Parking Lots

This blog will present my musings on humans and nature, wilderness, national parks, historic sites, and public lands. Sometimes we’ll throw some good old tourism in there. It will link to my “public engagement” publications and some academic publications of mine. I will sometimes share reflections on news items and others’ writings.

What’s in a name? Well, there are at least four puns in there. Let me know if you more than four.

Got a blog you think I’ll enjoy? Let me know.  My professional contact address is just my last name at illinois.edu.

Robert Pahre is a Professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Affiliation is listed for identification purposes only, the University enables faculty blogs but doesn’t endorse content in any way.