Wilderness: What National Parks Are For

Posted by: Molly Herber on 8/25/15 8:00 AM

When most folks visit national parks, it’s a fairly tame experience. They drive to an iconic site, pop out of the car for a few minutes or maybe even an hour, and then go on their way. The wildest moment might be a tussle with another visitor over the best vantage point for photographing Yosemite Falls.

Exploring by Canoe in the Southwest

Exploring Big Bend National Park by canoe on a NOLS Southwest semester. Photo by Anvesh Thapa.

National parks are an incredible gift, and it’s wonderful that millions of people even stop by for a short trip. But at NOLS, we do national parks a little differently. We avoid the crowds and postcard locations and head into the acres of land that visitors rarely reach.

By seeking out these wild areas, we serve not only themission of the school, to teach wilderness skills and leadership, but also the greater mission of the national parks. The parks don’t exist for the few square miles that are most visited; they exist for the remote areas that only see one or two humans a year, if any. They exist so we know that wild places are still alive and well.

NOLS is the largest backcountry permit holder in the nation, meaning that we are one of the largest channels by which people encounter wilderness in national parks and other public lands. And that is a huge responsibility. What students learn on a NOLS course, which may be the only time they spend time in the wilderness, could later impact their decisions about whether they think those lands are worth protecting.

In addition, it’s also our responsibility to make that wilderness experience and sense of stewardship over public lands available to students from all backgrounds. The most public way we have done this is through Expedition Denali, in which we sponsored the first all African American team to attempt to summit Alaska’s Denali (which lies within Denali National Park). In less public ways, we continue to work with our partners like Latino Outdoors to empower more people to access public lands, and our Department of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability works tirelessly in defense of public access to wildlands.

By working in constant contact and flow with the wilderness and using it as our classroom, NOLS courses help create connections between humans and wild places; we teach students the skills to live comfortably in that environment and to be conscious of the impact their decisions have on those places.

August 25 marks the year leading up to the Centennial of the National Park Service, and during this year the NOLS Blog will celebrate the national parks in which we operate, as well as the individuals who work with the National Park Service to maintain our public lands.

Love national parks? Here’s some ideas for how you can engage this year!

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming.