Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks by Joseph L. Sax

Source: The University of Michigan Press
Paperback, 160 pgs.
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Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks by Joseph L. Sax is an examination of the preservationist ideology in terms of the modern world, and the popularity of national parks as places to play and vacation. While he considers the preservationist stance a moral one in that it looks to preserve the wild without accoutrements, he also recognizes that the national park system is one governed by public policy and unless preservationists can convince everyone that their stance is best, compromises will need to be made. “The assumption is that the values he imputes to the parks (independence, self-reliance, self-restraint) are extremely widely shared by the American public,” says Sax (pg. 15).

Leaving the wilderness completely untouched would essentially preserve it for those who do not need modern conveniences or do not want them when vacationing, but allowing roads to be built along with resorts in every National Park is something he considers ridiculous — a taming of the wild for human desire. “His goal was to get the visitor outside the usual influences where his agenda was preset, and to leave him on his own, to react distinctively in his own way and at his own pace,” he notes (pg. 24).  Like we ourselves do not wished to be tamed by others’ expectations of us, we should not do the same to the wilds of America because by doing so we rob ourselves of the purest experience we can have through contemplation and our own guidance.

Chock full of historic tidbits about the Sierra Club and the Park Service, Sax also relies upon the fishing, hunting, and other guides available that talk about not man’s dominance over nature but how man can forgo its technological advantages and outsmart nature in the hunt.  “The purpose of reserving natural areas, however, is not to keep people in their cars, but to lure them out; to encourage a close look at the infinite detail and variety that the natural scene provides; to expose, rather than to insulate, so that the peculiar character of the desert, or the alpine forest, can be distinctively felt; to rid the visitor of his car, as the fisherman rids himself of tools,” explains Sax (pg. 79).

Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks by Joseph L. Sax is an examination of national parks through the backdrop of policy versus preservation and whether business should be able to dictate how much demand should influence our development of these natural places.  It’s an exploration of how nature can affect the individual if we were to let go our modern trappings and let ourselves be in the wild, rather than try to tame it.  Most fascinating is the discussion of resorts near National Parks and how we soon forget that these are businesses trying to make a profit, and that their build-up for parkland is not necessarily for the benefit of tourists wishing to experience nature.  The Mount LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains is the antithesis of these places, he says, and as someone looking for places to visit there, this one has been on my list.

About the Author:

Joseph L. Sax, a legal scholar, helped shape environmental law in the United States and fuel the environmental movement by establishing the doctrine that natural resources are a public trust requiring protection.  He recently passed away in March 2014.


  1. Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) says

    Sounds thought-provoking, though not sure this is my cup of tea.

  2. We need advocates such as the late Mr Sax to bring awareness. This seems like a serious book, well-written and worth the read.