Crossroads for America's National Parks

An exhibit tells how road-building first enhanced and then endangered the parks' future

Since their creation in the last third of the 19th century, America's national parks have been viewed as one of the country's great national treasures. What has made them accessible to so many millions of people, the very roads that lead into and through them, is the subject of a fascinating show at the National Building Museum in Washington, "Lying Lightly on the Land: Building America's National Park Roads and Parkways."

Featuring historic photographs, architectural plans, and drawings as well as art, postcards, maps, signs, camping equipment, and interactive computer displays, this exhibition is both a nostalgic walk down memory lane and a disturbing reminder of the unintentional burden of the parks' stunning success in attracting visitors.

With the arrival en masse of the automobile along the littoral of Maine's imposing Mt. Desert or far below Yosemite's ancient cliffs, visitors have had to deal with traffic jams, smog-drenched air, trails cluttered with litter, and tight parking. As Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt remarked, it's not that there are too many people visiting these parks, it's that "there are too many cars."

In its evocation of a simpler time, "Lying Lightly on the Land" reminds us that in the first few decades following the opening of the national parks, particularly out West, most of the visitors arrived by train or stagecoach and stayed for longer periods than they do today. It was not unusual for early visitors to stay in posh nearby hotels for weeks or even months at a time.

Ironically, it was the very democratization of America that led to the clogging of the parks. As demand for cars grew, their sticker prices dropped significantly, and working-class Americans found affordable automobiles and cheap gas irresistible.

Of course, flocking to the parks would not have been possible without the desire of earlier park administrators to bolster attendance. Working hand in hand with other federal government agencies and eventually supported by major federal funding, the National Park Service oversaw the construction of thousands of miles of new roads, parkways, bridges, tunnels, and overpasses in the 1920s and '30s. Most of them were consciously designed to take advantage of the spectacular vistas afforded by the country's varied natural topography.

That the Park Service succeeded in giving more people access to these sites is not in question. It succeeded far beyond its wildest dreams. For with better roads, more people came. Lots more, their vehicles jampacked with sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, clothes, and cooking gear - everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.

By the time of the Great Depression, the automobile, which had once been the exclusive bailiwick of the upper crust, had motored its way into middle America. The rest, as they say, is history.

Implicit in the Park Service's charge to "lie lightly on the land" was the concept of building in harmony with nature. Instead of roads that were engineered to be perfectly straight in stretches, with curves that followed a draftsman's perfectly regular parabola, the idea was to go with the flow of things, to meander with the natural contours of the land - to build, in historian Richard Quin's terms, in such a way as to "reduce the sensory demarcations between pavement and scenery."

This exhibition's major shortcoming - that there is no exhibition catalog - reminds one of what a critic once said about the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson - namely, that he missed his calling and really should have been a novelist. "Lying Lightly on the Land" really ought to have been a book.

If ever there was a reason - beyond pure aesthetic delight - to have an exhibition catalog, this is it. For at its core, this exhibition has an educational raison d'tre. In the first place, the artifacts on display here are, by themselves, wonderful mementos of very recent American history. And besides, there is a lesson that Americans, even with the best of intentions, are entirely capable of being burdened by their own success.

* 'Lying Lightly on the Land' is at the National Building Museum until Jan. 11, 1998.

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