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Coastal Voices: Leave parks as you find them

A number of articles have recently been published concerning picking mushrooms in Redwood National and State Parks.

Several of those articles contained a significant amount of inaccurate and misleading information, which I felt the need to rectify.  However, I was prompted to respond to these articles primarily to address a larger issue of the reasons for and the basic concepts behind national and state parks.

The idea of national and state parks is truly an American concept, with the establishment of the areas around Yellowstone and Yosemite as national and state public preserves in the late 19th century being the birthplace of this idea.

As the concept of setting aside lands for use by all people has evolved over the last century, a number of different functions and purposes for such lands has developed into different names and policies for their management such as national forests, wildlife refuges and conservation areas, all having differing rules and regulations aimed at achieving their different purposes.

The guiding principles for national parks (which has since grown to include areas such as national seashores, monuments, historic sites, and many others), were established by the legislation that created the National Park Service in 1916.  This legislation declared fairly straightforward purposes to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This purpose differs from other public lands, which have been established to serve other purposes including consumptive uses such as grazing, mining, timber harvest, and removal and use of certain animals and plants (including mushrooms).

The purpose of national and state parks to preserve all natural and cultural resources, has led to regulations being put in place over the years which prohibit the removal of any plants or wildlife.  Such regulations provide very few exceptions to such prohibitions.

As you’re strolling down a park trail lined with flowers or enjoying a colorful array of mushrooms, it may be surprising to know that it is illegal to pluck either one.  And in the larger scheme of things, even though every plant plays some role in the life cycle of other plants and animals, this one action probably has little if any impact on the forest.

But the idea behind national parks is more than just preserving every flower and mushroom. It’s also about passing along from generation to generation, a concept that there are special places in America where all people can enjoy, learn about, and experience nature through smells, sights, sounds, feelings and other senses, without impacting or removing things, so that all people can have a similar “unimpaired” experience.

So while yes, it is illegal in a national or state park to cut a mushroom from its stalk even if you are only moving it to take a photo, it is perfectly okay, and in fact encouraged, to observe and photograph that mushroom, to ponder why it’s growing in that particular location, to look up when you get home why it’s such an unusual color, and to figure out if it’s the kind you can use to spice up an omelet.

And even though picking a flower here or removing a mushroom there may cause no significant ecological damage, it certainly robs the next person to hike along that trail, the opportunity to “discover” that flower or unusual mushroom in the same way you did.

In some heavily used parks or areas, it can have significant and lasting effects on the ecology of the forest or on the quality of visitor’s experiences, such as reducing the numbers of wildflowers that grow along a trail and that can be easily seen by trail users due to lack of reseeding.

National parks are said by some to be America’s living museums. A place where all are welcomed and encouraged to visit, experience, learn, and enjoy, but where you leave only footsteps and take only memories. Del Norte County has a wide variety of public lands right here in our backyard with a wide variety of allowed uses.  These places draw visitors from around the state, the country, and the world.

Some would say all these public lands are a hindrance to growth and development. Others feel they provide a quality of life which draws residents and visitors alike, and create rather than hinder business opportunities.  In any event, these magnificent redwood trees, not we, choose where they want to grow and their towering forest communities have created a place the people of the United States and the state of California felt worthy of designation as special places, open to everyone, to be preserved and enjoyed by us and by future generations.

I encourage you to take advantage of the many opportunities available to us in the diverse range of parks, forests, refuges, and other public lands right here in our backyard.

Steve W. Chaney is the National Park Service superintendent for Redwood National and State Parks.


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