/UM class explores politics of national parks 
Members of the National Parks and Public Lands class in front of a fallen tree. Photo courtesy of Dr. Scott Turner.

UM class explores politics of national parks 

By Lucy Frost-Helms, Copy editor 

If you’re a fan of the outdoors, national parks, conservation or the systems that manage it all, then you may enjoy Dr. Scott Turner’s National Parks and Public Lands class. Turner, a professor of political science at the University of Montevallo, is a lover of the outdoors, and after visiting national parks out West with his family, he began to think of the political implications of national parks and lands. 

“I was traveling with my family—we were visiting some parks out West—where there are long drives, wide open spaces,” said Turner, continuing, “I got to thinking—I guess I was starting to learn a little bit more about parks besides just beautiful open spaces—and started thinking about them as political units.” 

Turner says that national parks are an interesting concept when thought of in a political sense, and that he thinks “most Americans who visit parks love them, you know,” adding that, “It’s not specifically partisan, right?” 

National parks are owned by the federal government, which immediately makes them a part of American political systems, but are unique because they are not divided by partisanship. Turner decided to investigate the topic further, wondering if this could be a potential class at UM. 

Turner initially pitched the idea of a national parks class to Mike Hardig, a retired biology professor at UM. The pair began doing research and piloted the class in 2014. During the 2014 pilot, the class made a trip to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. 

After piloting the class, Turner said, “I wondered, is anyone else doing something like this?” Turner found that a seminar, located at Yellowstone National Park, was being offered by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities—The American Democracy Project: Stewardship of Public Lands.  

“I applied for that, and attended it,” he said, continuing, “I learned a whole bunch about bison, and how they are managed by the park and what a unique and important species they are. But, how there’s also all kinds of controversy with ranchers who live outside the park, and when the bison leave the park and come onto their land and interact with their cattle, they are very displeased. There’s a lot of conflict there.” 

Turner then applied for a sabbatical and spent his time researching that topic, where he formulated a role-playing activity focused on the management of bison. The role-playing situation, which is a focal point of the class, allows students to understand relationships between national park personnel, cattle ranchers, Native American tribes—who have a strong cultural stake—and environmentalists, which includes hunters. 

Turner recognizes national parks as interesting units of political science, but he also acknowledges the context of designated forest and wilderness areas. Trees, for example, are considered a crop, and in forests, such as the Talladega National Forest, lumber companies can lease and harvest trees if they are replanted, creating sustainability. Designated wilderness areas, however, such as the Sipsey Wilderness in Lawrence County, Ala., remain untouched and wild except for unpaved trails. 

Aside from the bison role-play activity, Turner also has the class participate in group discussions, hikes, visits to sites such as the Legacy Museum in Montgomery and a week-long trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over students’ spring break. Activities in the class are supplemented by readings about the historical contexts of public lands. 

In a class with emphasis on both political and environmental systems, Turner also aims to be optimistic among environmental conflicts and controversies. 

“I love to look for positive stories, you know. A lot of times, environmental studies is so negative and despairing. I like to remind people that there have been, really a lot of instances of things being very bleak, and, like, there’s been intervention, and, you know, we’ve turned things around. So, it can be done. It can be done,” he said. 

The class’s trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park aided in reinforcing environmental positivity. 

In regard to visibility at the park, Turner said, while standing in the high country of the mountains, “The park ranger who was speaking to us said ‘Okay, our visibility is, like, 34 miles today.’” In the late 90s, the visibility rested around 14 miles. Regulations of coal-fired power plants surrounding the mountains are one factor in this positive result. 

However, this year’s trip also had some surprises. During the class’s stay in the Smokies, which is in partnership with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and funded by the Denson Scholarship, one of the worst storms to ever pass through the park occurred. 

Turner remembers seeing a notice about crosswinds before feeling the weather pick up while exploring a cemetery at the park. The class headed back to their accommodations early. 

“That night was a very restless night. I didn’t get a whole bunch of sleep,” he said.  

He continued, “At some point, everybody was awakened by a crash of some sort. So, the next day, it turns out that this was one of the most devastating storms in decades.” 

The class saw the damage the next day, which included healthy trees ripped from their roots, one fell on the cafeteria and another blocked the road.  

Despite the weather and some modifications to the itinerary, the class continued to explore the park, eventually finding an old, historic homestead. They even had an old-fashioned spelling bee outside of the house, one where you needed to spell by syllable. Turner said, “I actually lost on business.” 

The class not only saw the surprise of the storm in their physical surroundings, but also in the faces of people. After hiking a couple of miles on The Appalachian Trail, Turner said, “We saw some thru hikers coming in, looking very frazzled.” 

Emergency response vehicles crowded the park the next day as action was quickly taken to clean up the mess of the storm. 

Turner recalled seeing “Vehicles pouring in immediately—chainsaws. I remember Oak Mountain being closed for weeks after a bad storm.” 

He added, regarding the Smokies, “They’re gonna get that park back open ASAP.” 

Despite the changes to the schedule, Turner enjoyed taking the class to the Smokies and giving students a unique, fully funded opportunity to visit our national parks.  

If you are interested in the outdoors, conservation or the systems that manage parks and lands in the United States, National Parks and Public Lands will be offered next in spring 2026. 

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Lucy Frost-Helms is the copy editor of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in social science and minoring in philosophy. She enjoys being a goober, eating chicken salad for breakfast, watching “National Treasure” and telling you that she will “definitely pay you back for that.” Lucy has the worst memory of all time and will forget major, important details of stories you tell her.