I have been on an average visiting at least one national park or wildlife sanctuary in India every year for the past two decades. This summer we had the opportunity to visit four different National Parks in the USA, each one differing from the other in terrain, climate, flora and fauna. Yellowstone is the world’s first designated national park and spread over a stupendous 2 million hectares. The adjoining Grand Teton is a young park. Grand Canyon is one of the world’s natural wonders. New River Gorge is a smaller park based on the new river eco system. So while the parks are diverse in most aspects one thing that links them all is the model park management & administration run by the National Park Service (NPS) through its team of Rangers and staff.
The main underlying philosophy of the national park is to enable people to learn about, appreciate, enjoy while at the same time respect nature and allow wild animals their space within their habitat. This core philosophy is reflected in the facilities provided, the information system, clarity in communication and the way the park is run. Let me run through some of the key impressions which have stayed with me.
The experience starts at the time of planning your trip itself. Check out the exhaustive information provided on nps.gov which is the official website. Every sort of detail required for planning a visit, what to do when there, fees, local weather and conditions updates and links to park lodging is available. Maps on how to reach and detailed park maps showing major attractions are there to guide you.
The Park Newspaper – every park has its own seasonal newspaper edition which can be downloaded from the site itself. A regular newspaper style copy is available at any of the Visitor information centres in the park. We took one for the spring season and it had all the programs running in the park by NPS, the hiking/trekking trails open and maps for the same as well as a few articles of interest on park happenings and wildlife encounters.
All park lodge booking can be made online either on the net itself or through phone using credit card. This is in line with the reservation process in all US hotels. I made a booking for Grand Canyon lodge sitting in my home in Hyderabad without calling a single person or customer service agent!
So now I have planned my trip, collected all the relevant info, booked my accommodation and am actually on the way there. What happens when I reach there:
Park fees are very reasonable just like in India and collected at toll booths as you enter the park. Fees are simply per car or per person. Everyone has one or more cameras anyway!!
Each park has multiple Visitor Information Centers staffed by NPS rangers occupying kiosks containing all types of information booklets, maps etc. I love meeting them because I can ask them to recommend what trails I should take or what places I should see knowing that they will give me an enthusiastic answer delivered with a straight look into my eyes, a smile on their face and speaking clearly using one of the maps which I can then keep. These rangers sincerely believe it is their job to guide people and help them appreciate and enjoy their park.
Grand Canyon rim free shuttle bus service – probably the best shuttle facility in the world of its kind. This consists of three loop lines, red, blue and green, with intersection points for transfers like the Venn diagrams for sets we used to draw in maths. You can hop on or off at any point, a bus will come along every 10-15 minutes. Each stop has a shelter, a bus map, a stop name and friendly drivers who also give you tips on views and viewpoints. This covers the entire 20 odd miles within the National Park and is all FREE!
The hiking (trekking) trails – America beliefs in doing things yourself helps you explore more, learn better, set your own pace and have the satisfaction of independence. The trails (self guided) are another example of this. Here is what you do. Take your trail guide in the park newspaper and check out the information about each trail – distance (miles/km), climb height (feet), approx. time required for normally fit person, what sort of terrain and animals can be seen, availability of rest houses, water source along the trail and where located…can you ask for anything more! Decide on which trail you want to do and proceed to the trail head by car or shuttle bus using the park map.
Once you get onto the trail, just enjoy the scenery, the rhythm of walking and keep your eyes open for birds and animals. The trail will be exactly as the map says and any junction with other trails will be marked with a signboard clearly indicating name of each trail and distance in each direction. Smaller paths may intersect at times, so keep your eyes open, every few hundred feet or so a small orange mark on a tree trunk shows that you are on the main trail. If you don’t see one, turn around and go back to the intersection point and try again. You just can’t get lost!
Animal and human safety – animals have right of way and people there have respect for this as with all rules. It is not uncommon to see long traffic jams in the main roads as cars are held up by herds of bison crossing. Bears are the sensitive animals in US parks – tips on bear safety, what to do should you come across a bear on foot are written in the park newspaper and on signboards at all centers, lodges, camping areas …you just cannot miss knowing about it even if you want to!
An average American generates 5 times the trash of a middle class urban Indian. all forms of plastic, foil, carton and paper, cans and bottles are to be disposed off. But you will find it hard to see even a scrap of paper on any road, trail or lodging area in a park. How come? There are multiple trash cans/bins at every view point, trail head, rest house, lodge, camping area and other general interest areas. Separate trash bins for recyclable items are provided. All cans are bear proof; you have to pull the handle and open the shutter downwards to throw in the trash and shut them back firmly again. Talk about discipline and adherence to the rules, I never saw a single trash can with even a part open shutter!
The Junior Ranger program is all about getting kids involved with nature at a young age itself. Each park has designed a child activity booklet related to the park and its flora and fauna. The child also has to attend one or more of the Park Ranger led programs / talks and do certain activities. On successfully completing these, the child is awarded a Junior Ranger badge pinned on by the NPS Ranger. Its fun to see the kids all excited about getting a badge pinned to their jackets!
To summarize, what I learned from the NPS style of administering and managing the national parks is that the twin goals – protecting nature and letting man appreciate it at the same time are truly compatible. By allowing people (right from small children) to come close to and be one with nature while at the same time developing in them a respect for wildlife and discipline whilst in their midst, the NPS is a role model in many ways to emulate. The immediate defence mechanism most of us Indians would adopt is that India has far more people it is difficult to implement similar measures here. Here we should remind ourselves that the Grand Canyon National Park has about 5 million visitors each year!! Need we say more……