STORY AND PHOTO BY RYAN T. BELL
The boundary lines on national park maps aren’t printed in a shade of gray, but black ink, so it’s easy to think of their borders as permanent. Yet parks from Yosemite to Yellowstone have changed shape through the decades. Park expansions require an act of Congress, so they don’t come around often. But when they do, horsemen can bene t from thousands of new backcountry acres to explore.
These three national parks are looking to expand their borders, with potentially far-reaching impacts on the trail riders of tomorrow.
This year, the jewel of the Sierra Nevada celebrates its 150th birthday. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, protecting land that would eventually be named Yosemite National Park in 1906.
To celebrate, Californians want to give the park a present: 1,575 new acres. The Yosemite National Park Boundary Expansion Act would allow the U.S. National Park Service to buy a chunk of private property located on Yosemite’s southwest border. Historically, this parcel of land was located within the boundaries of the Yosemite Grant. But when Congress formed Yosemite National Park, it caved to timber interests and reduced the size of the original land grant. Today, most of that fringe property shows the mark of industry—heavy logging and infrastructural development. But the 1,575 acres under question are a rare exception.
Compared to Yosemite’s current 747,956 acres, the addition may seem like a drop in the bucket. Not when you consider that it links Yosemite to its neighbor, the Sierra National Forest, which alone is more than 1.3 million acres. Conservationists say the property acts as a wildlife migration corridor. Horsemen can use the corridor for a migration of their own, connecting the U.S. Forest Service’s trail network with park routes, like the scenic Four Mile Trail that tops out on Glacier Point with a panoramic view of Yosemite’s best-known attractions: Liberty Camp, Half Dome and Vernal Falls.
The founding of North Cascades National Park in 1968 is a reminder that compromise can sometimes be a diluting force. Conservationists had lobbied for the better part of that decade to create an expansive national park in northern Washington State. But by the time President Lyndon Johnson signed on the dotted line, compromise had winnowed down the park boundary by hundreds of thousands of acres.
Harvey Manning, one of the conservationists, prophesied that future generations would criticize them for kowtowing to politicians, saying, “In 2000, they will say, ‘You were too timid. You compromised too much. You should have been more farsighted. More daring.’ ”
The American Alps Legacy Proposal aims to rectify the error and expand North Cascades by 237,702 acres. Unlike Yosemite’s expansion, which is reliant on acquiring private land, the American Alps proposal envelops pre-existing public land. The largest chunk, 94,644 acres, would be Ross Lake National Recreation Area that currently bisects the national park into a northern and southern unit. Ross Lake dams the Skagit River, generating hydroelectric power for the city of Seattle, which is why it was removed from the original national park design. But the Alps plan allows for the power company to operate, while absorbing Ross Lake into the surrounding national park.
It is debatable whether the American Alps will ultimately benefit horsemen. As the boundaries currently sit, a horseman riding north and south through the North Cascades must cross the recreation area, where rules and regulations differ from the national park. Unifying the two would streamline bureaucracy and trail management. Protecting the mountain range against industry also will protect it for future generations.
On the other hand, an expanded North Cascades National Park would likely increase backcountry traffic. As it is, Ross Lake serves as a deterrent zone to all but the hardiest of trail users entering the backcountry. In 2012, a mere 26,935 visitors entered North Cascades, ranking it among the least visited in the entire national park system. Ross Lake, in contrast, received 742,200 visitors, a good indicator of the increased traffic that could result if the American Alps plan goes through.
Looking back 225 million years, northeastern Arizona was a verdant land teeming with prehistoric plants and animals. Today, fossilized remains dot the ground, often alongside human artifacts dating back 8,000 years. As home to such a trove, the region is hard-hit by poachers who harvest petrified rocks, excavate dinosaur fossils and steal human artifacts that can fetch hefty prices on the black market.
In 1962, Petrified Forest National Park was created to protect the archaeological and paleontological treasures. But as with Yosemite and the North Cascades, conservationists now believe that the park didn’t take in enough acreage to accomplish the goals of preservation.
In 2004, Congress passed the Petrified Forest National Park Expansion Act, allowing the park service to acquire up to 125,000 additional acres. Today, half that goal has been met through transfers of land from the Bureau of Land Management and the purchase of three private ranches. The slow and steady nature of Petrified Forest’s expansion demonstrates that an act of Congress works more like a trickle of water than a light switch.
For horsemen, Petrified Forest is a diamond in the rough of the American southwest. Rainbow-colored buttes, domes and rock spires earn it the nickname “Painted Desert.” The landscape looks like the setting of a John Ford movie, with a dash of Indiana Jones for all the fossilized remains you see lying on the ground (don’t touch them!).
The park remains largely undeveloped, much of it wilderness devoid of an established trail network. The Park Service asks riders to keep to dry washes, ravines and hard-rock surfaces in order to preserve the pristine nature of the park—a fair request in an ecosystem where a footprint can stick around for eons. And Arizona’s warm climate makes Petrified Forest a great destination in the early spring and late fall, when backcountry trails in Yosemite and the North Cascades are buried in snow.
Contributing editor RYAN T. BELL lives in Montana. Read more Backcountry columns on his website at ryantbell.com. Send comments on this story to [email protected].