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A conspiracy theory in our parks?

At what point does restoration or management intervention erase the inherent value in our park resources? I first began puzzling over this question years ago after a simple joke on a backpack trip to the heart of Yellowstone. As my brother and I headed out for the backcountry we left the noise of the roads behind and with it the fabulous megafauna. During the days we spent in a silent, flower-filled valley we never saw anything larger than a squirrel until we returned to our car, which was surrounded by bison and elk.

"With such a beautiful valley, why would these animals hang out along busy roads?" I asked.



"They're fed on the roadsides and trained to stay for visitors," was my brother's retort.

The rest of the trip we pointed out "clues" that Yellowstone was managed just to maximize the tourist experience: massive bull elk within a fenced cabin yard, bison licking the roadsides, and wolves denned conveniently across from a viewing overlook. What evolved became a complex theory worthy of the most fanatic conspiracy buffs. It confused my own once-firm grip on the reality of the Great Outdoors.

For example, we discovered that Old Faithful has continued to spout on average approximately every 91 minutes for the past 30 years. In 2002, over 2,300 earthquakes were measured in Yellowstone. Geothermal features are so sensitive that a single quake in Denali 1,900 miles away sent an impact rippling through Yellowstone. This distant quake caused five geysers to erupt more frequently and three to erupt less frequently, yet Old Faithful has experienced only minor changes amidst all this geologic turmoil. That information seems innocuous until it is noted that in the same year of 2002, tourism was responsible for $1.8 billion in the state of Wyoming. Old Faithful was the most popular overnight destination, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all tourist trips to the entire state. As we watched the famous geyser erupt on schedule, we noticed the water quickly run off through a grouted rock channel and our conspiracy theory was established. What would happen to the Yellowstone tourist industry, the cash cow of Wyoming, if Old Faithful dried up? We asked each other whether, in September 1988 when the Park Service evacuated the entire Old Faithful Village citing wildfire concerns, crews used their shovels to build fire lines or bury plumbing.

Subsequent journeys added fuel to the fire. Arches National Park is home to 2,000 natural arches, including the famous Delicate Arch (of Utah's license plate fame) and Landscape Arch, which some argue is the longest natural rock span in North America. It is impossible to gaze at these delicate structures and not feel that they are defying gravity. In the last 20 years, 42 arches, including many less delicate looking than these massive wonders, are known to have collapsed in the park. In June of 1995, Landscape Arch itself shed three massive sections of rock, each a week apart, then it stabilized and has been quiet ever since. Did the Park Service close the trails around this arch to protect visitors from falling rock? Or, as in our twisted logic, was it to keep us from seeing braces that prop up the span from behind? Before you answer too smugly, consider that an obvious concrete beam already reinforces Agate Bridge in Petrified Forest National Park to keep that natural wonder from collapsing.

With our theory well under development, it was not shocking to hear a National Public Radio story about New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain. This iconic landmark featured on coins, license plates, and memorabilia slid into a jumbled pile of boulders after eons of gazing out across the land. A year after the tragedy, NPR was reporting on plans to develop a memorial to the lost profile and to interpret its history and the changing landscape. The reporter was serious when she said someone from Disney had approached the commission offering "a little Hollywood magic" to rebuild the feature on the mountainside.

If you've visited theme park facilities, you've certainly seen the quality of "re-creations" built to attract visitors. Denver has a quarter-scale replica of Delicate Arch on a miniature golf course. From natural caverns in the lion's den at the zoo to coral reefs in the city aquarium, natural wonders are duplicated with incredible realism. Given the realism we can achieve, how is a visitor to know where natural resources are being restored versus enhanced, or even created?

Before I'm shunned from the world of interpretive naturalists or banned from our national parks, recognize that I'm not honestly suggesting a planned conspiracy or even inappropriate manipulation of all the resources mentioned. However, once you buy into the joke just a little, suddenly funny bits of "evidence" appear wherever you go and the line between natural, managed, and artificial is quickly blurred. Examples of "improvements" to our natural wonders abound and the creative eye can spot them at almost any park or wayside.


It is openly acknowledged that Bosque Del Apache and other national wildlife refuges grow crops and artificially flood fields to attract the incredible clouds of waterfowl that darken the skies. Irrigation gates control the life-giving flow in the Everglades more than natural runoff. In Belize, dramatic friezes on Mayan temples are excavated, studied, then buried under fiberglass-and-concrete re-creations to protect them from weathering. The ruins of Mesa Verde have been "restored" to make them safe for visitors with little distinction made between what was rebuilt from a pile of collapsed bricks and structures that have remained standing for centuries. The Great Wall of China at Badaling was rebuilt in the 1950s with newly fired bricks fully encasing the historic wall, so none of the original can be seen. In Canyonlands National Park, steps are chiseled out of the sandstone to improve safety on challenging trails but are then camouflaged as natural fractures. California condors and Yellowstone's wolves are tagged and every movement is tracked more closely than that of suspected terrorists.

Art restorers in museums have been working on tricks to clean and even retouch famous canvases, but when does the brush of the technician trump the stroke of the master? Is it any different for our natural wonders? When protecting weathering rock art, do we draw the line at diverting rainfall from running across it? Shellacking it with a protective coating? Or can we even touch up damaged or missing portions, as with a da Vinci painting?

Resource interpretation is described by National Park Service trainer David Larsen as finding a tangible icon, and--just like an icon on your computer desktop--"clicking" on it to reveal a whole new set of information and meanings. The interpretive technique is to use a tangible item to transport the mind to a world of universal concepts. Is that possible with reconstructed and manipulated icons? At what point does the resource lose its inherent authority over the imagination of the visitor?

True interpretive integrity requires that we interpret the resource for its inherent values and its current condition. Without restoration, many resources may disappear forever. Yet with improper interpretation, the values of those resources may be threatened. We need to be able to say comfortably and honestly that the visitor is viewing a re-creation or an artificial system when that is the case. We also need to admit that we are not able to indefinitely preserve every resource--and that perhaps our love of it is the cause of its demise. In some places this is done very well. In others, it is ignored or disingenuously minimized.

Our joke theory lives on over a decade later, with one of us throwing out a cynical observation of almost any natural wonder we experience. Maybe it is a coping mechanism to deal with our true awe of nature. Yet, as management of our natural resources becomes more and more intricate, where will the line of preservation fall and how is it interpreted? How will our meddling affect the meanings inherent in our natural and cultural wonders? At what point will we have gone too far, and will we know? Next time you visit Yellowstone, see if you can tell where the channels and manholes lead in the meadows around Old Faithful. Enjoy the joke. Then, ask yourself how much intervention is too much.

Skot Latona is a Certified Interpretive Trainer at South Platte Park in Littleton, Colorado. He appreciates sharing examples, photos, or creative outlooks that could add to the "research" on his conspiracy theory. Some of his photo "evidence" can be viewed at or he can be reached at
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Author:Latona, Skot
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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