Ah, Wilderness ... at a Price

By Andrea Leigh

IS246 Impact of Technology on Society

Howard Besser

March 19, 2001



Introduction | The Corporate Takeover of Nature | Erasing the Landscape


The Disney Agenda | Grand Canyon Adventure

A Disruption in Aura | Pay-to-Play-Recreation

Conclusion | Notes | Sources



The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world, and they increase both in size and number as their value is recognized ... Nevertheless ... they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gain-seekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial.

--John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club.




The Angeles National Forest sits on the edge of Los Angeles, its high-reaching peaks, gentle waterfalls, and dense forest shelter beckoning its city neighbors with open arms, a comforting haven for those anxious to temporarily escape the confines of urban living. Yet for those travelers who do hop into their cars and snake their way up along the Angeles Crest, they are confronted by a plethora of road signs warning that parking their car anywhere abutting the national forest requires displaying something called an Adventure Pass—or risk being fined.

The Adventure Pass was initially designed as part of a federal three year Fee Demonstration Program slated to end in the year 2000. The idea behind the program was to entice the public to supplement dwindling federal dollars in support of their national parks and forests. Fee-Demo, as the program has come to be known, was attached to a 1996 congressional appropriations bill without public input or debate and in place by summer 1997. The fee demonstration program was implemented as a "test", originally scheduled to end in 1999, but twice extended to give the program additional time to demonstrate its success. Fee-Demo is currently authorized until September 2002.


On the surface, fee-demo appears as a reasonable solution to augment national park and forest budgets. Before fee-demo, most national parks charged a low entrance fee ($5 per vehicle in Yosemite and Grand Canyon, for example) that did not go directly towards maintenance of the Park where the fee was collected, but, instead, went into a federal general accounting fund. Forest Service lands charged fees only for areas with developed campsites. With fee-demo, the idea was to charge a nominal fee with 80 percent returning to the federal land agency where the fee was collected.


When fee-demo was first enacted, entrance fees to the most heavily visited national parks (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Teton) quadrupled to $20 per vehicle. National forests began fiddling with fee structures that at many sites became confusing. Visitors who traveled into Pacific Northwest forests, for example, paid one fee for one forest and an additional fee in an adjoining forest, and then had to pay an additional snowpark fee during the winter. It got to the point where it was uncertain what pass was good when and where. Southern California forests managed to simplify the process by designing the Adventure Pass to be valid in all four forests (Angeles, Cleveland, San Bernardino, Los Padres), similar to purchasing a Disneyland park pass and then having carte blanche once inside the park.


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The Angeles National Forest, along with the other three national forests in Southern California … formed the Enterprise Forest--a Recreational Fee Demonstration Project called the National Forest Adventure Pass, which is based on the premise that all national forest recreational experiences have a basic value. The project tests whether the fees paid will result in improvements on the ground and improved customer satisfaction.

--Michael Rogers, Angeles National Forest Supervisor, in a statement to the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Bellflower, California, July 1998




There is a serious underlying agenda present in the fee-demo program. It is a disturbing, hidden recess where corporate recreation interests are working together to transform the way in which Americans view nature and wilderness. It is a troubling trend, one that treats the forest visitor like a customer, branding nature into a commodity. Behind the fee-demo program is the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), a Washington-based non-profit organization formed in 1979. Since its inception, ARC has sought to "catalyze public/private partnerships to enhance and protect outdoor recreational opportunities and the resources upon which such experiences are based." [1]


ARC's corporate partners include:


·        American Council of Snowmobile Associations

·        American Hotel and Motel Association

·        American Motorcyclist Association

·        American Suzuki Motor Corporation

·        American Water Ski Association

·        The Coleman Company

·        Good Sam Club

·        Kampgrounds of America (KOA)

·        Personal Watercraft Industry Association

·        United Four Wheel Drive Associations

·        Walt Disney Company


The Recreation Fee Demonstration program is an ARC initiative, a program imposed upon the American public in collaboration between ARC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service officials, and a group of corporate-financed, anti-environmental congressional leaders. The "user fee" initiative affects four federal agencies:


1.      United States Forest Service (USFS), which oversees 192 million acres;

2.      Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 264 million acres;

3.      U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW), 92 million acres;

4.      The National Park Service (NPS), 83 million acres.


We are very pleased that the National Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, which is the direct result of our efforts, will produce more than $150 million this year in new receipts for the four agencies covered, including an estimated $20 million for the Forest Service.

-- Letter to Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture dated 9/2/98 signed by: Wally Smith, Chairman of REI; Kym Murphy, Vice President, Walt Disney Company; plus 14 other corporate executives from the ARC Recreation Roundtable


The fee program allows these agencies to experiment in partnerships with private corporations in an attempt to privatize, develop, and commercialize public lands. ARC's ultimate objective is to acquire for its corporate members the right to develop and operate recreational facilities on public lands. Fee-demo was created to demonstrate to federal government and big business that outdoor recreation on public land is a marketable product and that the American public is willing to pay for it.


ARC's goals are to insure continued and increased access for its many recreation members, and to promote a climate ripe for new and expanded opportunities for public/private partnerships between federal land management agencies and the coalition's commercial development interests. As there is not money to be made in allowing the public access to nature simply as a passive and contemplative amenity, traditional rustic recreation will yield to highly developed recreation. Free access will be eliminated as it competes with commercial ventures. The program is being managed by the U.S. Forest Service merely to generate revenue for the benefit of private industry.


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It baffles me that the Department of Agriculture tracks the value of soybeans, corn, or wheat to the penny by the day, yet, rarely is recreation and tourism on federal lands understood as a revenue generator. Instead it has been perceived as an amenity - something extra that we are privileged to enjoy. Fortunately, that's beginning to change.

--Spoken by: Michael Dombeck, Chief of the Forest Service, December 1997.




Henry James commented in 1888 that "When Americans went abroad in 1820, there was something romantic, almost heroic in it, as compared with the perpetual ferryings of the present hour, the hour at which photography and other conveniences have annihilated surprise."[2] A technological invention, a camera, captured a realistic portrait of places once only imagined by the traveler through word of mouth, paintings or engravings. The element of surprise was at once taken away. Tourists were now able to travel to a specific locale with preconceived ideals. This was a significant change in the way people traveled nearly sixty years earlier, where "many sites suddenly appeared to an unprepared traveler, and had considerable force precisely because they were not anticipated."[3]


By the turn of the 20th century two other technological innovations would cement the way people viewed the world, the motion picture camera and the railway. Not only could travelers sample a snapshot of a far away place through the drama of the moving image, but they could also travel there in mechanical motion designed to whiz past landscapes, creating picturesque, sweeping views. "The railway journey erased the foreground and the local disappeared from the traveler's experience, while only a few scenes appeared worthy of notice."[4] As a consequence, the traveler's experience would become selective, fragmented, and the visitor isolated, enclosed behind plate glass. Passengers would experience places in an animated way, "eliminating a landscape's details, distinct sounds, smells, and tastes, and preventing any direct contact between the traveler and local inhabitants."[5] The concept of keeping the visitor entertained was coming into its own.


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During the 1950s, Walt Disney created Disneyland, an amusement park that would provide middle class families a place that they could all enjoy together. This was a novel concept as amusement parks up to that time had the reputation of being unsafe and on the seedy side. The initial concept for Disney's Magic Kingdom came when Disney took his two daughters on Sunday mornings to the amusement park. He would observe the boredom of other parents, took notice of the dirty grounds, litter, and paint cracking on the carousel, and thought it a shame that there was nothing for families really to do once they arrived in Los Angeles.[6]


Although Disneyland was created innocently enough, sanitizing the carnival concept and providing a safe haven for families, Disneyland's neighbor, California Adventure, had no such naivete. Disney's newest park was designed as a business, an opportunity to take control of the visitor experience and sell, sell, sell. California Adventure is essentially a West coast version of Disney World, a resort complex where vacationers spend a few days and a lot of money hopping back and forth between the parks and Disney-owned hotels and restaurants.


To bridge the two parks, Disney developed its largest shopping and dining experience ever, Downtown Disney. By doing so, park visitors are enticed to remain inside the borders of the Disney Kingdom, taking a respite from the bland park food and Disney-themed character shops. Yet while dining on barbecue shrimp at the elegant New Orleans-style Jazz Kitchen or grabbing a caramel latte and apple pastry at La Brea Bakery Café, guests are never further than a stone throw's away from both theme parks.


Once inside California Adventure, guests are offered the choice to visit three areas - The Golden State, Paradise Pier, and the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. Inside the Golden State are six districts - Grizzly Peak Recreation Area, Bountiful Valley Farm, Pacific Wharf, Condor Flats, The Bay Area, and Golden Vine Winery. Unlike Disneyland, where its themed lands are imaginary, California Adventure attempts to recreate the California experience. Disney hopes that by condensing and Disney-izing California's most popular spots that tourists will forgo the real thing and opt for Anaheim instead.[7] On opening day, one child was heard saying on one of the local news stations that he thought Disney's recreated version of Monterey's Cannery Row was better than the real thing because it was faster to get through.


California Adventure's highlighted attraction is Soarin' Over California, a simulated flight experience where viewers are hoisted into an 80-foot-diameter IMAX dome, feet dangling free above the screen. The high-resolution movies are projected at 48 frames per second, twice the rate of normal IMAX films. The experience of flight is authentic enough that guests come away feeling as though they flew over California's most notable landmarks -- Napa Valley, Yosemite Falls, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Malibu. A fragmented, tightly edited construction of California's most wondrous attractions without the hassle of driving there or bothering with the locals along the way.


Grizzly Peaks Recreation Area, an eight acre recreated wilderness, is described by Disney as "a slice of California's natural resources . . . representative of Yosemite and the California Redwoods."[8] Grizzly Peaks contains two major attractions, Grizzly River Run and Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. The Challenge Trail is an opportunity for adventure, to experience the beautiful, wild California outdoors as guests climb, scramble, and slide through trees, streams, hollow logs, caves, and rock cliffs. For those who would rather take it slower, guests can learn more about California's rich heritage through live Native American story circles and wildlife demonstrations.


After a full day of exploring Disney's vision of wild California, guests can then turn in for the night at the pricey luxury resort accommodations nestled inside California Adventure, Disney's Grand Californian. Constructed in the craftsman style, reminiscent of the romantic California inns of years past, the Grand Californian reflects the values of nature as Disney envisions it, through exploration, control, and individualism. Its design is intended to bring the forest indoors. Elaborate stonework scenes, tapestries, and a soaring ceiling and natural woods in the lobby accentuate the mood. While parents check in, kids can pop into an adjacent video alcove and watch a Disney DVD, supervised by a hotel baby-sitter.


The narrative expressed in California Adventure is told in a commercial sense, through elaborate design and concepts. It tells the story of hardship and adventure, but does not require its guests to possess a particular set of skills to enjoy the experience. This is anathema to the real life commitment needed to enjoy and protect true wilderness, which involves a deep connection to place. To be committed to wilderness requires a sense of spirit and adventure, it takes sweat, dirt, and good conditioning. It takes time. The wilderness experience told through the eyes of Disney is in the form of gift shops, design features, promotional gimmicks, and technological wizardry. Disney replaces the real world with an imaginary one, and, in the process, has transformed reality into themed entertainment.


This transformed reality aids in displacing a visitor's expectations when they actually visit a real National Park or forest. The perception becomes that the wilderness experience is one where little effort is required, where restaurants are plentiful, lodging comfortable, and park rangers greet you with a smile. Programs are created to entertain, gentle walks are guided, and questions come in the guise of "how much can I see in the few hours that I'm here?"


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Grand Canyon National Park walks on a tightrope in trying to accommodate its five million visitors yearly while at the same time keeping environmentalists at bay by incorporating ninety percent of the park as designated wilderness. While ecologically-minded administrators want to maintain the Park in its most natural state, many visitors see the site as either man-made or requiring human improvements.8 Typical visitor questions assume that human beings constructed the natural wonder by either digging out the canyon or that it ought to be improved so that it might be viewed more quickly and easily. Some ask that the Canyon be lit up at night, others ask for their money back if the canyon views are obstructed by fog. Still others trek down the canyon's main corridor trails ignoring signs that warn of the dangers posed by dehydration and lack of physical condition, assuming that the warnings don't apply to them. As a consequence, hundreds of visitors each year become stranded below the rim.


If people don't get out of their cars, they are robbing themselves of experiencing wilderness in its own right and they will never escape the stress and turmoil of suburban-city life which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.

--Edward Abbey


Today the assumption is that the natural world should always be made over for convenience. National parks are viewed as icons, seen by the public "through a cultural lens shaped by advanced technology."[9] This shift in tourist sensibilities directly correlates to the rise of amusement parks, the growth and development of creating simulations of natural wonders embedded in technological structures. The main issue, as Edward Abbey suggests, revolves around accessibility. Developers insist that the parks must be made fully accessible not only to people, but also to their machines. By developing the concept of Industrial Tourism, Abbey asserts that there is an assumption that the majority of Americans expects and demands to see their parks from the comfort, security, and convenience of their automobiles.[10]

Papillon helicopter over Grand Canyon


To pack in even more tourists, Grand Canyon National Park has transformed its skies into thrill ride entertainment, instant wilderness at a price, in the form of scenic air tours that fly over the Canyon at an astounding 88,000 per year. Air tours are a stunning example of how the preservationist’s viewpoint that national parks were set aside and are a central symbol in this country regarding the relationship between humankind and nature is being sacrificed in the name of access for all. Photographer and activist, Ansel Adams, seriously questioned packing in the tourists by comparing a national park to a concert ... if the theater is only able to seat 500, you don’t jam the place in with twice as many people. In other words, National Parks should provide an antidote to urbanized living rather than be a reflection of it. Or as Benjamin would characterize it, "Quantity has been transmuted into quality."[11]


The air tour industry in collusion with corporate recreation interests have consistently challenged attempts made by the NPS to establish natural quiet as a resource, thereby restricting the impact of air tours over the Park.[12] The majority fly out from Las Vegas, carrying weary business travelers from foreign destinations who have a few hours to spare, and soar over the Colorado River and Grand Canyon backcountry, disrupting and disturbing the contemplative and reflective recreation of the true wilderness traveler. Instead of the drama of nature in terms of the sublime or of experiencing the landscape in quiet, static contemplation, what the air tour passenger experiences is a penetration of the site. What is created is a series of quick edits, of speed and immediacy, the 7-Eleven mentality of driving to a place, jumping out, and getting back into the car. What has developed is a mass consumer mentality or, in the spirit of Edward Abbey, Industrial Strength Tourism.[13]


Scenic air tours are part of a system of technological conveniences located outside of the Park conceived to deliver "the experience" of the Grand Canyon more quickly and easily. [14] Besides the scenic overflights, there is the IMAX theatre, where park visitors can view a 34-minute film while expanding their knowledge of the Canyon's considerable expanse from different vantage points. Screenings are not presented as substitutes for the direct experience, but as "technological compressions of the many possible views into a tightly edited form. The slow acquisition of knowledge that once required several days is now packed into a half hour."[15] This is not unlike the technologically superior Soarin' Over California simulation flight, where guests are presented with tightly compressed edited views of the best of California. It may not substitute for the real thing, but its does impart a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time which would take considerably longer if experienced in reality.


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In wildness is the preservation of the world.

 --Henry David Thoreau




Henry David Thoreau wrote of place "where the land, the flora and fauna, the people, their culture, their language and arts were still ordered by energies and interests fundamentally their own, not by the homogenization and normalization of modern life." [16] Walter Benjamin examines the quality of place as a culminating experience resulting into a synthesis of "aura" -- a presence in time and space, "its unique existence at the place where it happens to be."[17] Benjamin analyzes the processes that diminish aura, which he believes is "related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction."[18]


Photography, motion pictures, trains, cars, scenic overflights, and amusement parks contribute in bringing both the natural and cultural worlds closer to mass tourism. Half Dome in Yosemite remains the same natural edifice it was centuries ago, but its aura, its unique presence at the place where it happens to be is diminished by the throngs of inexperienced hikers that jam its dizzying cables to reach its zenith or by the bus and carloads of tourists who park at tunnel view to momentarily get out, snap a picture, and proceed quickly down to the Valley floor to seek the comfort and confines of the Ahwanee Hotel. In this sense, Half Dome has turned into an object on display, an icon manufactured to paste on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and key chains. It is what Turner describes as "the passage of an object from ritual to exhibition."[19]


One feature of this ever-changing spectacle never changes—its eternal silence.

--Zane Grey, Grand Canyon visitors register, 1906



Grand Canyon's five million yearly visitors rarely see more than what can be seen by way of the South Rim's designated scenic overlooks. Rarer still do tourists spend anymore than a few hours at a time inside the park. The majority of tourists to Grand Canyon are dropped off at the Bright Angel Lodge, directed to the gift shop, and then are guided just outside, overlooking the Canyon's massive gorge, so that they can snap pictures to prove that they were there. To experience the canyon's awesome quiet is nearly impossible, marred by the sights and sounds of cars, people, and developed concessions. Escaping below the rim on the Bright Angel Trail is not much better. Hundreds of people crowd this main corridor trail, wave and yell up to their friends and family above, and walk down casually, coffee cups in hand, purses held tight, no better prepared than if they were headed for the mall. Like Half Dome, the Canyon has transformed into an object on display, its aura compromised by the technological innovations that have been created in the name of accessibility.


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In fiscal year 2000, of the $133,626,00 collected in fee-demo receipts by the National Park Service, $3,378,000 was spent on resource protection while another $12,643,000 was spent on visitor services. By way of contrast, $27,687,000 of these fee-demo dollar receipts was spent on collection costs. What is missing in the report is that over half of the receipts currently represented as fee-demo dollars are, in reality, National Park entrance fees that were already being collected prior to the introduction of fee-demo is 1996.[20] Fee-demo obligations for fiscal year 2000 for the U.S. Forest Service broke out as follows:[21]


Fee Collection


Annual Operation


Law Enforcement


Repair and Maintenance


Resource Preservation



What this data indicates is that the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program is not allocating its revenue chiefly to resource protection and maintenance, but to operating costs and fee collection—essentially costs that did not exist for the U.S. Forest Service prior to the implementation of fee-demo. Yet corporate recreation interests are unwilling to let the program die and support the appropriation of already existing tax dollars to maintenance backlogs. Instead, on March 14, 2001, President George Bush announced his National Parks Initiative designed to use the authority of fee-demo to replace congressional funding for national parks with user fees collected from paying customers. Money collected will be spent to provide infrastructure that will facilitate increased park visitation and will, in turn, generate additional revenue receipts. Additionally, The American Recreation Coalition has already written draft legislation that would create Fee-Demo Phase II, extending recreation user fee authorization until September 2004.[22]


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As we move further away from the natural environment and accept its manufactured recreation, we also manage to transform the masses into a preference for the fake. As Turner observes, "perhaps the saddest part of this story is the rationale that nature entertainment and recreation help the environment."[23] Nature as defined in terms of value for it to have worth. "In short, the welfare of wild creatures, wild cultures, and wild environments must be useful to modern humans, must fit into our social and economic programs, or they will not be supported."[24] This is the argument ARC uses in pushing its concept of pay-to-play recreation onto the American public. Nature isn't free. It costs, so, therefore, intimacy with the fake will raise our awareness and save the real. As Turner argues, intimacy with the fake "creates an illusion of intimacy that masks our true ignorance and leads to apathy in the face of true loss. We are inundated by nature, but we do not care about nature."[25] To set aside wilderness for its own sake is not an elitist or selfish goal benefiting the few.  “The diversity of incomes is getting wider and wider in America, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argued during a recent visit to Seattle. “We are moving away from a progressive tax structure in this country and toward a more repressive system of fees. User fees place an extra large burden on people who can less afford it.”[26] What Reich is concerned about is that “family values and community values” are being sacrificed during a time when the need to escape the intrusion of a busy, technological world is more vital. [27]

By managing nature in national parks and forests similar to the management of a Disney resort complex will not result in benefiting the American people. The beneficiary will most likely be the tourism industry that will market and sell our national parks as attractions. As a consequence, it will be harder to understand what it is like to hear the trees speak, or know "the sensuous, mysterious, emphatic, absorbed identification" that wilderness inspires.[28] No matter how impressive the display, supplanting technological innovations into areas considered pristine cannot manufacture the value expressed as aura.

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[1] American Recreation Coalition; available from http://www.funoutdoors.com/facts.html; Internet; accessed 10 March 2001.

[2] David E. Nye, "Constructing Nature: Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon." In Narratives and Spaces (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997): 13.

[3] Ibid: 14.

[4] Ibid: 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original (New York: Pocket Books, 1980): 225.

[7] Danielle Herubin, "Golden Glory of California," Orange County Register (February 20, 2001).

[8] Disney.com; available from http://www.disney.com; Internet; accessed 10 March 2001.

[9] Nye: 19.

[10] See Edward Abbey, "Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks." In Desert Solitaire (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971): 48-73.

[11] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968): 239

[12] United States Air Tour Association; available from http://www.usata.com; Internet; accessed 10 March 2001.

[13] For more on the concept of Industrial Strength Tourism, refer to: Wild Wilderness; available from http://www.wildwilderness.org; Internet; accessed 19 March 2001.

[14] Nye: 21.

[15] Ibid: 22.

[16] Jack Turner, "The Maze and the Aura." In The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996): 12.

[17] Benjamin: 220.

[18] Ibid: 223.

[19] Turner: 14.

[20] E-mail from Scott Silver, Wild Wilderness, to the author, 14 March 2001.

[21] The fiscal year 2000 Recreation Fee-Demonstration Program Report to Congress is available from: http://www.doi.gov/nrl/Recfees/2001Report.PDF; Internet; accessed 18 March 2001.

[22] E-mail from Scott Silver to the author, 5 March 2001. To request a copy of the proposed Fee-Demo Phase II, e-mail Wild Wilderness at: sssilver@wildwilderness.org

[23] Jack Turner, "The Abstract Wild: A Rant." In The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996): 35.

[24] Ibid: 36.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Joel Connelly,“Middle class should be aware of who will be used in park user-fee debate,” Seattle Post- Intelligencer (March 9, 2001); available from: http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/connelly/joel09.shtml; Internet; accessed 18 March 2001.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Turner: 36.

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Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.

American Recreation Coalition. http://www.funoutdoors.com

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Connelly, Joel. "Middle class should be aware of who will be used in park user-fee debate." Seattle Post-Intelligencer (March 9, 2001).

Herubin, Danielle. "Golden Glory of California." Orange County Register (February 20, 2001).

Nye, David E. "Constructing Nature: Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon." In Narratives and Spaces. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997.

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Pocket Books, 1980.

Turner, Jack. The Abstract Wild. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Walt Disney Company. http://www.disney.go.com

Wild Wilderness. http://www.wildwilderness.org

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