Saifee & Shadley: Utah’s National Parks Aren’t Working


Silvana Peterson

Visitors hike the narrows in Zion National Park in October 2020. (Photo by Silvana Peterson | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Zahra Saifee and Will Shadley


Utah is home to the “Mighty 5:” Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion National Park draw millions of visitors annually.

The national park closures because of COVID-19 revealed just how much we’ve influenced these ecosystems and the cost of our presence in these areas.

Free from human impact, wildlife in our national parks thrived. However, as vaccine rates increase among Americans, so does the eagerness to travel.

With international options limited, many regional airports, like the one closest to Yellowstone National Park, now operate at levels greater than normal.

The National Parks Service (NPS) must choose between environmental degradation and continued open access. Once considered “America’s Best Idea,” the idea of what that set out to achieve grows murky.

Our national parks must find a balance between the values of environmental protection and equitable access — but any restructuring of national parks would be incomplete without prioritizing Indigenous voices.

The NPS’s Erasure of Indigenous Peoples

Founded over a century ago, national parks aimed to create untouched wilderness. But because of their conceptualization as places free from human influence, the U.S. government saw Indigenous removal as necessary to establish national parks.

Indigenous peoples’ erasure happens both physically and figuratively. For instance, the presence and history of Southern Paiutes are less prevalent than LDS settlers in Zion today. The name of the park itself most obviously exemplifies this historical erasure. Southern Paiutes referred to the land as Mukuntuweap, but most people call it Zion, a place of spiritual sanctuary for LDS people.

In their mission to protect wild spaces for future generations, NPS has ignored and forgotten the first inhabitants of those lands. They have stripped Indigenous peoples of their sovereignty, as they have no say in decisions surrounding the places most important to them. Since its establishment, NPS has decided how to balance environmental protection and equitable access without Indigenous influence.

Indigenous Control Over the Parks

Indigenous peoples deserve a prominent role in the management of national parks. In David Treuer’s “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” piece, he argues for tribal ownership of and governance over the national parks.

What that idea looks like is up to interpretation. But at its core, yielding total control to Indigenous peoples comes with the acceptance that they can limit access or engage in environmentally destructive practices should they choose to.

While we can’t speak to what Indigenous peoples might decide to do, we couldn’t fault a socioeconomically disadvantaged group for improving their economic situation — even if it comes with environmental degradation.

Indigenous peoples also likely recognize the strain of increased access places has on the environment. Again, they would be justified in limiting access to protect places significant to them. These complications, while possible to overcome, must be addressed during a restructuring of the national parks.

Balancing Equity, Sovereignty and Environmental Protection

America’s wild places provide transformative experiences, but they are only available to those who can access the outdoors. As the most approachable version of wilderness, national parks can benefit and inspire new generations to protect the environment.

Those benefits, when evenly distributed, create more opportunities for everyone. Yet, NPS serves predominantly white visitors — 77% of visitors are white while they make up only 58% of the US population.

Clearly, NPS should strive for a more representative makeup of their visitors. However, the cost to increase visitor numbers abandons national parks’ original purpose of environmental protection.

Additionally, open access doesn’t allow Indigenous peoples, assuming they’re given ownership over the parks, to determine how many people can enter. Prioritizing equitable access should be a goal of a restructured national parks system, but a solution that works well with tribal sovereignty and environmental protection will be difficult to find.

Likewise, environmental protections in national parks limit access and tribal sovereignty. However, compromising on those protections puts our planet at risk.

National parks serve as places to preserve biodiversity and increase climate resilience. Because of the unique nature of ecosystems contained within national parks, environmental degradation would lead to native species loss. Without them, we have no hope of achieving the parameters set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Looking Forward

Currently, NPS fails to provide adequate environmental protection, equitable access or prioritize Indigenous voices. While improving the conditions of one of those three values potentially harms the other two, failing to act harms all three.

Without action, we can expect continued overcrowding of national parks by an unrepresentative population while Indigenous peoples cannot affect change.

The hesitation to advocate for a solution, particularly among environmentalists, is understandable. Compromising any of these principles contradicts the core values of environmental justice. Still, the absence of a solution should not be tolerated.

The answer to this complicated problem starts with a conversation. The federal government must organize all relevant stakeholders to initiate policy proposals to restructure the national parks.

With so many possible solutions, committees should be established regionally to determine the best course of action. In Utah, those stakeholders include environmentalists, social justice advocates, our federal, state, and local government representatives, members of the five Indigenous tribes of Utah (Shoshone, Paiute, Ute, Goshute and Navajo) and the general public.

This problem will not be easy to solve. But if we act now, there’s still a chance for “America’s Best Idea” to keep that title.


Special thanks to Professor Gregory Smoak, director of the American West Center, for lending his expertise on this complicated topic. 


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