My family and I spent three days in Crater Lake National Park this past summer. The deep blue waters against the still melting snows were a sight to behold. Beyond the lake itself there were ranging streams, waterfalls laced in wildflowers, remarkable geologic formations, superb hiking, and a wide range of wildlife.
We had a wonderful time, but I had a very unpleasant experience on our last hike. It was the same type of experience I have nearly every time I visit an easily accessible park. We had followed a short trail to the base of a spectacular waterfall. The trail ended at the base of the cascade in a meadow of wildflowers. The flowers continued up the steep slope from where the trail ended completely surrounding the waterfall. Signs reminding visitors of the fragility of riparian areas had been placed every ten feet with the strict requirement to "stay on the path!"
I watched two middle aged men walk right past the signs following an already forming (and eroding) path through the flowers up the slope. The appearance of the men suggested that any comment I might make was likely going to create an unpleasant conflict and was likely a hopeless cause anyway. So, I fumed with frustration and had to laugh as the wife of one of the men struggled to get their picture without including a pesky signs in the shot (the signs that reminded them not to go past this point!)
The really interesting lesson came as they walked back toward the path. I overheard the woman who had taken the picture say, "You weren't supposed to go up there." One of the men then remarked, "this is a public park, it belongs to me."
I've heard that sort of logic hundreds of times before. It is a form of the old, "tragedy of the commons" argument. Individuals mistake a share in the commons as a right of ownership. Had my wife not been there to calm me down what I would have said was, "those flowers you just trampled and the health of the riparian system were mine as well as yours. You just robbed me of what was rightfully mine."
What belongs to all of us does not belong to any one of us. Our right is to share in the commons in a way that does not diminish the quality on which the common right was defined. In this case, the common right was to the majesty of that waterfall. By acting on their own interest and with a sense of entitlement, those men stole the commons for themselves.
I found myself wishing that the new trail we were walking on had never been built. Yet, I have argued in my blogs before that each of us needs the opportunity to experience the world in which we live. Those men are entitled the right to experience the beauty of a waterfall. Do I prevent my children from digging in the dirt or chasing down insects because I know they are likely doing harm...or do I let them learn to love the world before rigidly protecting its fragility? Should beautiful places like Crater Lake and Yosemite be locked away and protected or should we allow their beauty to be diminished for the sake of experience?
I don't have an answer.
Vincent M. Smith - PhD