2016 is nearly gone, and so I want to give one last tip of the hat on their 100th anniversary to what I consider to be the crown jewels of America: our national parks. Our country is blessed with some amazing landscapes that are world renowned. When you visit some of the flagship parks such as Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, at least half the people you run into are from another country. Our forefathers were wise enough to make us the first country on the planet to set aside and protect special places for the people to enjoy. That last part is crucial, because historically special places were set aside for the privileged ruling class, kings and such. But this time it was done for all of us, which is about as American as it gets. It’s “we the people” at its best.
The keepers of our national parks, the rangers, historians, interpreters, scientists, have a pretty daunting task. They are charged with preserving the parks to “keep them in their natural state” while also providing access so they can be used and enjoyed. Those two mandates can sometimes clash. Really popular sites can be “loved to death” through overuse. Roads that provide public access can also be a detriment to some wildlife habitats, so it can be an uneasy balancing act. But we need both, especially in these modern times where folks, especially the young, are out of touch with the natural world. I believe we are hard wired to enjoy natural beauty and need “wildness” to immerse ourselves in, even if it’s just from the windshield of a car or a stop at an overlook So having places set aside to do these things is very important.
Besides protecting landscapes and ecosystems, the National Park Service also protects historic places. History is collective wisdom that is lost unless we remember it. Pearl Harbor, Little Big Horn, Gettysburg, Independence Hall, and many other historic sites help us remember where we came from in order to hopefully show us where we should go.
American writer Wallace Stegner is credited with saying that “national parks are the best idea we ever had,” a quote made famous by Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the park system. Some years ago I was hiking in the back country of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, and ran into an Australian that took it a step further. With a strong aussie accent he said: “your national paahks are not just Ameereeca’s best idee, they’re the best thing about Ameereeca”. Happy 100th NPS, and thank you!