‘Don’t kill the golden goose’

See the main story, John McCaslin’s profile of retiring park superintendent Jim Northup, here.

Asked what he considers to be the greatest threats to the future of Shenandoah National Park, retiring Superintendent Jim Northup points to his faded copy of the National Park Service Organic Act, establishing the National Park Service and the National Park Service System in 1916.

Detail of a photo by Joyce Harman
Detail of a photo by Joyce Harman

Often quoted by the superintendent during his 36 years with the National Park Service, it reads in part: “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.”

The key word for Northup being “unimpaired.”

“I would certainly classify potential development around the boundary of the park as a significant threat,” he warns. “We have probably 1.3 to 1.4 million visitors a year that come to Shenandoah and the vast majority of those people come to enjoy the magnificent views that you can get from the Skyline Drive and from the mountain peaks.”

As Northup puts it: “Nobody minds looking at a pastoral scene, that’s part of what they enjoy — looking out on the Piedmont and out to the Shenandoah Valley, seeing agricultural activity.

“But they don’t want to see housing developments and they don’t want to see factories.  So we certainly don’t want to kill the golden goose.”

For the park’s surrounding communities that promote further infrastructure as the most realistic (if not inevitable) means to support a sound economy, Northup reminds that Shenandoah Park continues to provide a rare and natural alternative to irresponsible — and irreversible — growth.

In a word: tourism. And don’t look now, but it’s a growing industry.

“This park is a huge economic engine for the surrounding communities,” the superintendent says. “We do a study each year of visitor spending associated with visitation and last year’s study indicated that those 1.3 million visitors spent about $87 million dollars in the park and in the surrounding communities — in Sperryville, in Little Washington, in Elkton, in Luray.

“In fact, these people are coming here to enjoy these magnificent views. And there are two things that will damage those views: one is poor air quality, which has been a big issue for Shenandoah for many years. And I’m pleased to report that the air quality is actually improving.

“But the other is that potential urban sprawl.”

Northup adds that his office has been “absolutely amazed” in the last few years at the number of visitors flocking to Shenandoah Park “just to enjoy night skies — dark skies.”

“As we have these big celestial events we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who are coming here because this is a dark place,” he says. “And we don’t want to ruin that.

“We’ve started a conversation with all the surrounding communities around the park about the importance of preserving the night skies. Rappahannock County is kind of leading the way in that discussion, with some mixed success right now, but I’m just pleased we’ve started the discussion.”

“Nobody has to give up their lighting,” Northup stressed, simply “downcast” light fixtures.

“We have an automobile dealer here in Luray . . . with these bright lights that light up all these cars at night and they’re just completely ruining the night sky here in Luray,” he says.

The superintendent reveals that Shenandoah is “unique” in that it is presently a candidate to become an International Dark Sky Park—“we meet the criteria to be designated as a Dark Sky Park. We can work together to preserve the night skies.”

— John McCaslin

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About John McCaslin 82 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.