Geologic Column: The double-edged sword of commercialization

Everyone has a mental image of a “commercialized” geologic site — Niagara Falls, anyone? My vision includes crowds, noise, clutter, distracting visual stimuli, neon signs, traffic, and a price on everything from scenic views to water. Souvenirs, including T-shirts, snow globes, shot glasses and fudge, are usually for sale.

In the August issue of EARTH, I introduced this topic by questioning my colleagues about what they think is the most commercialized geologic site. Answers varied from Niagara Falls to Howe Caverns to the Grand Canyon. A lot of people also asked “What defines commercialization?” That question got me thinking. I tend to think of commercialization as a dirty word. But does it have to be? Does commercialization necessarily ruin a site? Or can it be part of preserving a site?

First of all, what I mean by a commercialized geologic site is one that is developed for the purpose of making money — whether for profit or simply to support the upkeep of the site. By definition, that’s neither good nor bad. National parks, for example, require admission, but because much of that money goes to preservation of the park and does not degrade the experience of the site, that form of commercialization — perhaps we should call it development instead of commercialization — is not a problem. Even having a modest gift shop or a restaurant on site may not be too commercial. Commercialization implies levels above development. I think the problem arises when we cross into advertising: putting up big, ugly signs, or charging money for everything from advertorial clothing and trinkets to carnival-type food and tchotchke-type souvenirs.

In the larger view of the role of nature in modern human lives, we all likely fall somewhere on the spectrum between those who want high-end resorts and condominiums centered around a scenic natural feature to those who prefer hikein- only access that limits the crowds and distractions. I’m much closer to the latter end, although I recognize the importance of ensuring access to nature and outstanding scenery to everyone, including people with physical limitations. The challenge is how to ensure that the experience of a great geological site is sustainable.

With that in mind, I have developed a rating system to assess the commercialization of a geologic site. There are 20 categories of commercialization characteristics, and each characteristic is rated on a five-point scale.

The least commercialized rating a site could get is 20, and the most commercialized would be 100. You can now judge sites for yourself.

Based on this approach, I’ve come up with a preliminary score for Niagara Falls of 82. I give the Grand Canyon a modest 55. Amicalola Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, located in a state park in north Georgia, scores a relatively noncommercialized 32. The ratings are subjective, but they provide a way to compare locations.

It’s certainly true that areas around interesting geologic features can be developed in ways that support a positive cash flow and minimal intrusion on a natural experience.

Preserving important geologic sites — while making them accessible to the public and being able to fund their preservation — is a basic goal of geoheritage sites. In the December issue of EARTH, we’ll look into how that form of commercialization can actually be a good thing.

Views and vistas Open       Obstructed by artificial features
Vehicular access Two-lane road, or less       Interstate highway nearby 
Parking Minimal, but adequate for the site       Extensive, and crowded with buses and vans
Openness of access No cost for access   Reasonable admission charge   Expensive tickets for admission
Crowds Few people; relatively isolated experience   Other people present, but not intrusive   Crowded to the extent that the experience is diminished
Trails  Natural       Paved trails
Buildings and structures Limited, if any, structures       Heavily developed
Mechanical Noise (cars, nearby roads, trains) No mechanical sounds       Highly intrusive noise
Human noise (crowds, radios, cell phones) Little        Highly intrusive human noise
Presence of artificial protection structures No evidence       Extensive structures (seawalls, riprap, retaining walls, etc.)
Artificial lighting None   Lighted at night, but limited light pollution   Light shows are part of the attraction
Sanitary facilities None   Portable toilets   Flush toilets
Availability of lodging Camping only nearby   Limited options nearby   Multiple options in immediate area
Availability of food None available nearby   Limited food options nearby   Many food options in immediate area
Safety features Minimal       Extensive railings and warning signs
Educational component Self-guiding (signs and brochures)       Guide required for a visit (for a fee)
Accuracy of scientific and cultural information presented Complete and accurate       Misleading, incomplete or inaccurate
Anthropomorphism (cute names for features) Limited or none   Names connected to the location (Yavapai Point, Swift Run Gap)   Names have no relationship to the location (“Fried Eggs,” “Pluto’s Chasm”)
T-shirts None available nearby   T-shirts available that are unique to the location (showing the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon, for example)   T-shirts saying “My grandma went to [this location] and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”
Snow globes and shot glasses None available        Featured next to cash register in gift shop


Lisa A. Rossbacher

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga. Email: The views expressed are her own.

Friday, October 7, 2011 - 18:00