"You feel really stupid, just sitting here and waiting," said one man, as thousands of people arranged themselves on stone benches around the marbled rocks at Yellowstone Park's most celebrated attraction: the Old Faithful geyser.
What he and the rest of us were waiting for was an eruption of the seething sulphur spring into a spectacular jet, a hundred or more feet high. It happens once every 80 minutes or so – except that every now and again it misses its trick.
As we spoke, it was a fine calculation as to whether the looming thunderstorm or the erupting geyser would douse the crowd first. But Old Faithful lived up to its name after a half-hour wait for one of the more impressive sights of the natural world, layer upon layer of bare moonscape behind, and a sky worthy of Götterdämmerung above, did not seem time wasted. But nor was the first and best known of America's national parks overrun with people, even at this peak holiday time. Once out of the immediate vicinity of Old Faithful, there was space, and ample natural splendour to go round.
Even in high season, families of moose graze peacefully in the sagebrush, herds of elk bound across meadows, and solitary buffalo amble nonchalantly across the road.
Yet, despite the general content of hikers and campers, all is not well in the world of America's national parks.
This summer has brought with it a new bout of soul-searching about the state of the parks. Yellowstone, which was designated in 1872 – even before Wyoming became a state – was followed by another 377 parks, creating a national system of wildlife refuges, accessible and affordable to all, that is universally acknowledged to be one of America's glories.
But for many, including in the Park Service itself, the glory is definitely fading.
Two years ago, the theme for national worry was overcrowding; national television showed camper-caravans nose to tail in some of the most popular parks, Yellowstone among them, and park officers practically pleaded with people to stay at home or go to the seaside instead. The parks, they said, were being killed by their own success. There was a whiff of "classism" in some of the reports, which strongly implied that there were not just too many people touring the parks, but the wrong sort of people – television-age people who wanted quick thrills rather than unadorned nature.
Last year, the preoccupation was the physical state of the parks. Yellowstone, and neighbouring Grand Teton, suffered some of the worst forest fires since 1988. The scars persist in acre after acre of denuded forest at Yellowstone.
But it was less the natural assets that drew flak than the services: the roads, the park lodges, hotels and restaurants, which were taken to task for being dated and in urgent need of refurbishment. Today, the concerns are different again. The disparagement of the parks, it seems, was too successful in encouraging visitors to go elsewhere.
Numbers – and so income – are down at most of the top 10 parks in the country.Yellowstone experienced an 8 per cent drop in visitors last year compared with in 1999, and the trend this year is down again. In response, the National Park Service has retained a public relations company to advise it on "selling" the parks all over again.
Then there is the George Bush factor. Mr Bush may have used national parks, from Sequoia in the north-west to the Everglades in the south-east as backdrops to suggest his commitment to the environment, but his plans – to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for oil and gas, to allow the laying of new pipelines under national forests, and perhaps to rescind Bill Clinton's designation of new forest land – have fuelled widespread public scepticism about his intentions and his stewardship of the national parks.
Unconfirmed reports circulating at Yellowstone say that a ban on snowmobiles in the park, due to come into effect in two years' time, is likely to be diluted or shelved. Mr Clinton had encouraged the ban in response to protests from environmental groups and the Park Service about pollution and damage from the machines, almost 1,000 of which play the park daily in winter. Snowmobiling is big business in the towns around the park, and the counter-lobbying by local commerce is having its effect.
The Bush administration is also stalling on previously approved plans to reintroduce the grizzly bear to the park. A six-year-old programme to reintroduce wolves, while still protested by local ranchers, has been judged a success but is unlikely to be extended.
The policy change on snowmobiles and bears highlights a harsh reality for the parks: while lauded and loved by the American public, they lack a forceful lobby to fight their cause in Congress against competing interests. Although their allocations increased under the previous administration, they fell far short of what the Park Service says is required to bring neglected facilities, which date in many cases from the Fifties, up to standard.
There is a spartan feel to many of the lodges and cafés that recalls the old Eastern Bloc. The museums and explanatory boards can appear laughably dated. The public lavatories on Mount Rushmore were closed on Independence Day because of a pipe problem, and replaced by (an inadequate number of) portable loos.
Not that everyone wants the park facilities to be brought into the 21st century. There is a constituency that feels park lodges should be spartan and that a communal spirit should prevail. The idea that lodge rooms should have telephones or televisions, or even private bathrooms, is inimical to what many think the national parks stand for. They recoil from the notion that the parks should be in mobile-phone range, that alcohol should be available in the restaurants, or that private investment should be encouraged. The renovated Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, an old and much-loved institution that now resembles an upmarket tourist resort, would support their misgivings.
The fear that park lodges will be transformed into enclaves for the rich, and that the line between real and Disneyfied nature will be blurred, is the battle to come: a battle that is for nothing less than the soul of America's national parks.Reuse content