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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


You are REQUIRED to hang your food in Yellowstone NP.  Note that the bear-hanging pole is directly over a prime tent spot!

You are REQUIRED to hang your food in Yellowstone NP. Note that the bear-hanging pole is directly over a prime tent spot. Way to go, trail crew!

Animals have a minimum safe-distance.  Get too close and you're toast!

DO NOT exit your car for a photo op! Animals have a minimum safe distance. Get too close and you're toast!

I grew up in Indiana, a few hours drive from Indiana Dunes State Park. When other State Parks were crowded, “The Dunes” wasn’t.

That changed on February 15, 2019, when “The Dunes” became our 62nd U.S. National Park. Most Americans were probably thrilled at the change. I was mildly depressed. Here’s why:

National Park status means money! Travelers who would ordinarily avoid a super-scenic spot, will flock to it if it’s a National Park. More people means more money for “improvements” like upgraded roads to accommodate fat RV’s, bigger parking lots and campgrounds, modern restrooms with electricity and flush toilets, laundromats, and an ultra-modern Visitor Center. And naturally, enhanced rules and regulations to protect everyone from everything.

Few park visitors have an appetite for wilderness. Most are content to drive the roads, picnic at an overlook, take a few selfies with a view, then happily motor on home, believing they’ve seen it all. Few get off the beaten path. Most don’t walk any path!

In the past, the National Park mission was to protect everything within its boundries by keeping things as “natural” as possible. Now, it seems, it’s more about money. Concessions in our National Parks bring in around one billion dollars a year and the Park Service gets a chunk of it. The NPS grants 575 concession contracts but 60 contracts generate 85% of total gross receipts. Concessioners pay a franchise fee to the federal government based on the value of the contract. This franchise fee averages 5% on all contracts.

The most popular national parks now have privately operated two-star hotels and restaurants that charge four-star prices. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, a claustrophobic little room at the Yellowstone hotel costs around 200 dollars a night. Multiply that by four if you want a suite! Supper for two with wine and tip at the Hotel dining room can easily top 100 dollars.

Those who can’t afford to pay these high prices camp wheel-to-wheel in over-crowded campgrounds—IF a site is available. And it won’t be unless it was booked months in advance on the,web-site.

Earlier this year, I visited a Colorado friend who lives near Rocky Mountain National Park. One mid-week day we drove to the park, hoping to picnic and hike. But every parking spot was full. A half-mile long line of idling cars sat along the road, expectantly waiting for an opening in the Visitor center parking lot. A park ranger regulated the flow of cars which were going nowhere. Thank goodness we were driving in the opposite direction.

Keeping trails and backcountry campsites safe and clear of debris requires regular maintenance, which costs money. Solution? Encourage visitors to stay on the tarmac (it's called “windshield management”), or at worst, on easily-maintained trails. If the budget is tight, close some backwoods campsites and trails. Larry Rice, my Colorado friend, recently completed a ten day loop in Yellowstone’s backcountry. He reported that the feds had closed many remote campsites he had planned to take, which resulted in excessively long days on the trail. One day, he walked nearly 20 miles (with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet) to reach the closest open campsite.


People who don’t spend much time outdoors often have an anthropomorphic view of animals. Wolves and bears, bison and moose look tame on TV--surely, you could all but touch them and they wouldn’t bite. This past year, two people in Yellowstone park were butted by bison. Fortunately, they both survived. Every year, people are mauled by bears because they “got too close”.

Larry e-mailed this when he returned from his Yellowstone hike:

“On the drive out from Mammoth to NE Entrance, I saw about 400 bison. There was a big tour bus with about 60 passengers. They all disgorged and ran up to the bison to take selfies. A park truck right in front of me stopped; the ranger got out and ordered the passengers to get back on the bus, otherwise he’d arrest them all. But no one paid any attention; they just stood there, gawking, jockying for photos.”

DANGERS: Every animal has a “comfort safety” zone which, for wild animals is generally “If I can see you, I’m gone!” But the skedaddle distance erodes with frequent human encounters. What began as a quarter mile “goodbye” zone, may become yards or feet. Exceed this and you may get butted, bitten or gored. The problem is that you won’t know how close you can safely get until there’s an attack. Gawkers leave their cars to get a selfie with a bear. They approach too close—step over the line—and suddenly, they’re toast!


The Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota is the most heavily traveled (about 250,000 visitors a year) wilderness area east of the Rocky mountains. Yes, there are areas of crowding, but the numbers are small compared to the visitor density in popular national parks. The BWCA is NOT a national park! It is a federally managed wilderness area within the Superior National forest. As such, concessions are not allowed. There are no hotels, restaurants, modern restrooms or paved paths. There are about 1,500 miles of canoe routes and 2,200 campsites in the Boundary Waters. Campsites don’t have flush toilets, showers, running water or electricity. Sorry, it’s “paddle only”--no motorized vehicles, power boats or wheels allowed. Going from lake to lake requires carrying your canoe and everything in it over often rough, unmaintained trails.

Thank goodness, the BWCA is NOT a national park!

Check out my new teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL. It's a riveting high-adventure, survival novel AND a "how-to" skills book in one--a first for books of this type.

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