Virtual national parks

Essay by John Mattingly

Recreation – January 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

I DON’T ADMIT THIS AT John Deere dinners, but I went to the law school in Boulder for a while. I did not graduate, perhaps to my credit. When people learned I was a farmer looking for a retirement career in the law, they invariably grimaced, asking “Why?” I never came up with a good answer.

So, my sabbatical in law school was short, marked by a single notorious moment in a class called Foundations of Natural Resource Law — “Foundations,” for short.

About mid-way through the course we were looking at management strategies for the public lands, made more challenging by the dramatic increase in human traffic and the legal necessity to honor multiple uses. Bicycles, horses, and hikers wanted access to the same trails, the high-octane crowd wanted to use the same land as preservationists, grazers were concerned about endangered species — you get the idea.

The able professor for Foundations gave the class an assignment: Come up with a comprehensive management plan for National Parks that can survive legal scrutiny.

After wrangling with the legal variables for a week or so, the grim reality of increasing human traffic rose to the top of my policy concerns. The number of visitors to National Parks was increasing exponentially as baby boomers got their RVs and the younger set got their SUVs. (Just think of the ads showing an SUV climbing a mountain, or digging its way into the wild.)

My plan was simple:

Part one: Over the next ten or so years, close National Parks to all human traffic. This withstands legal scrutiny because it doesn’t discriminate against any single group.

Part two: Preserve the Parks for the creation of high quality virtual experiences: films, multi-media presentations, gallery showings, books, virtual reality headsets, and even cognitive-neural jacks directly to the brain that provide the very highest quality virtual experiences.

The professor was so intrigued by my proposal, or perhaps by the controversy he knew it would cause, that he read my paper to the class — to a chorus of boos — and then asked me to come forward and defend my plan.

Class: This plan is outrageous and crazy.

Answer: If human traffic to the Parks continues at its current rate, the traffic will pollute and destroy the very experience humans seek from Parks.

Class: People need to get away from the urban rat race and experience nature first hand.

Answer: The average visitor to a Park goes 25 feet from the vehicle, most frequently to a kiosk for souvenirs or food, or to use the restroom.

Class: It will never happen.

Answer: Park service personnel are already closing down sections of most Parks — see Zion for example — and limiting human traffic. Take a look around, part one of this plan is already in progress.

Class: You can’t replace the actual, real experience of being in a Park.

Answer: High quality virtual experiences can not only replace the real, but surpass them. A virtual visit to a Park can include all the best weather conditions, sunsets, times of year, wildlife viewings, and lighting.

Class: Virtual reality is crass, unconvincing.

Answer: Not really. Humans are evolving in the virtual direction, spending an obvious majority of their waking hours with computers, TV, palm pilots, laptops, and cell phones — all of which are virtual experiences. The fact is, a transition to virtual Park visits wouldn’t be a huge stretch, especially for the generation of kids who grew up with all these virtual devices in the home. The future will bring virtual reality technology that is so convincing to the five senses as to be nearly indistinguishable from the real.

At the urging of the Foundations professor, I applied for, and was nearly given, a substantial grant to refine this plan for presentation to the National Parks Service.

That was four years ago. Today, looking back, I see the plan is advancing without my presentation. Parks are gradually being closed off or restricted and virtual reality is galloping along.

TO GLIMPSE AN evolutionary perspective, compare today to the 1950s. I recall going to Yellowstone, Mesa Verde, Roosevelt National Forest, and seeing few, if any, people, and seldom seeing a ranger. Most roads were dirt, facilities were scant, access was pretty much unlimited, at your own risk. Today, it’s all tightly managed, and the direction of policy is toward limiting the very features which made the Parks seductive: closing off or regulating paved roads, curtailing access to restoration areas, requiring permits for selected activities, increasing regulations and penalties, etc. The trend in the next 10 years will be toward limitation and restriction, literally reversing the trend toward increasing accessibility, a policy that proved self-defeating.

On the virtual front, in the 1950s we had a 12-inch black and white in the basement and were allowed to watch only Huntley-Brinkley and George Gobel. We read two newspapers a day and finished about a book a week. Electric typewriters were rare, many communications were done on manual machines or by hand. Typing 60 words a minute was a valuable skill. Phones were rotary finger dial, which, though a small difference from one-button calling, shows the way we are moving more and more of the human touch to machines.

Much of this change I would quickly categorize as good. For example, I much prefer my John Deere tractor pulling a disc to using a shovel when working a field. But, compared to working with a hand tool, working from a tractor has a very different feel and transfers very different information about the ground to me as the operator. I don’t smell, or have any real tactile interaction with the ground (except for the hemorrhoids I get from bouncing around) and the tractor is so comfortable the field is like a movie projected on the window to the music of my choice. New tractors have effectively removed the operators’ discomforts, but in so doing so, they effectively removed the farmer from the field with action seats, air conditioning, high quality surround-sound systems (even TVs), and computerized monitoring of key functions, including steerage. It is now possible for one farmer to operate up to eight tractors by remote control from a nearby tower. The trend is clearly away from actual (real) interaction wit

So even today’s “field-toughened” farmer will find the transition to virtual Parks a mild and pleasant one, not much different from a day in a new John Deere tractor.

John Mattingly farms and writes in the San Luis Valley.