National parks are never without conflict, and especially in the USA where there have been many land issues regarding the land rights of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, for whom many of the national parks are sacred or historic land. It is part of the USA national parks’ remit to embrace these cultures, respect them as partners in the stewardship of these landscapes and share their stories and history in all of the parks’ programmes. This is successful in many parks, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, the Grand Canyon and Olympic, and at national park owned remembrance sites which commemorate the American Indian wars of the 19th century. But there are always issues cropping up that escape most tourists.
These conflicts often take place on the buffer zones of national parks, as this is where the American Indians have many of their reservations now. For example, the Havasupai tribe, and several conservation groups, recently won a battle to stop a mining company exploiting land around the Grand Canyon for uranium. Land that is not only iconic for many, but sacred to the Havasupai. Or, if you go to the Mesa Verde National Park and ask them where the Ute Mountain Tribal Park is, few people will be able to tell you. It does, of course, back onto the national park, and is bursting with similar natural and cultural treasures, with Ute Indian guides to show you around their endlessly scenic off road trails, secret ancient cave dwellings, and dramatic canyons. They are rightly pushing for a tiny percentage of the tourism income but just don’t have the backup of the national park marketing machine to help them do so, even though they are considered important neighbours and stakeholders.
On a positive note, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana have recently been given 145 bison from Yellowstone National Park that had been part of a scientific research programme. The plan had been to distribute the bison to zoos and wildlife parks across the country, but this was reversed, and the bison will be able to roam freely on reservation lands now instead. In contrast, Mesa Verde National Park takes issue with the fact that wild horses from the nearby Ute Indian reservation wander onto the park land, and create havoc, such as destroying wiring and, wait for it, ice machines outside tourist cabins. There have been cases of these horses dying in the park due to dehydration, but they don’t come under the usual conservation plans because they are considered ‘invasive’. Neal Perry, a wildlife biologist at the park, was quoted in the Denver Post in July 2014, saying "We would never intentionally do anything to lead to the death of a horse…but we are not going to support horses because they are not part of the natural ecology of the park."
When the national parks were closed as part of the US government budgetary debacle and ensuing shut down, people were rightly horrified. Because everyone wants to claim a right to the great national parks. That is the message we have been sold but, as we can see from their history, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Or straightforward conservation. Both usually come with complications and conditions.
What you can do
Look into the people behind the place, the legacy behind the landscapes. Read up before you go, and find out if there is some way in which you can contribute to the indigenous cultures of the national park and surrounding areas when you are there. Two superb books to take on your travels are: I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People by Steven Hirst, and American Indians and the National Parks by Robert H Keller and Michael F Turek.