“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in, where nature
may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
— John Muir
The first family vacation I remember taking (age five, I think) was to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Little did I know then that my parents were introducing me to what Ken Burns has called “America’s best idea” – our national park system. As we approach Memorial Day weekend, the official, mental beginning of summer and vacation time, we should plan how we are going to take advantage of our irreplaceable, shared heritage – and support it with our visits.
In January, President Obama extended the park system into all fifty states by authorizing First State National Monument, a collection of historic sites in Delaware. The park collection began under President Ulysses S. Grant. A geological survey of what is now Yellowstone National Park convinced Congress to withdraw that land from public auction. Fearing that the area might suffer the commercialized fate of Niagara Falls, Congress set the area aside for preservation and protection in 1872.
At first Yellowstone and subsequent parks were managed individually “with varied success.” (You can imagine the range of possibilities!) It was not until 1916 that all the parks were brought together under one umbrella agency, the National Park Service. Our national park system’s original mandate was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” (Wikipedia)
Preserving a place is one thing. The government could just fence and lock up a designated area. Making it available for enjoyment by the public and future generations is where the sticky parts begin. Balancing competing interests requires ingenuity, resourcefulness, diplomacy, and resolve. A college student aspiring to be a park ranger might have thought that botany, geology, or history studies would be most useful. Rangers in the 21st century need to be as skillful in handling large numbers of people as any city officer. With the added pressure of being an agent of the federal government (subject to sequestration but without the commercial leverage of TSA employees), it is clear that people acting as park rangers deserve public and personal support.
With summer upon us and sequestration cuts now reaching deeper tissue of the “body” of government, national parks will be negatively affected during their busiest season. Campgrounds, ranger talks, and guest services of every sort will be cut back just when they are needed most. As owners and guests of the national parks, we are entitled to urge Congress to take better care of their charge.
Beyond urging Congress to fund the National Parks, we can join partnership organizations to provide financial and personal support to favorite programs. (You will be amazed at the range of possibilities.)
Equally important, we can support the parks with our attendance. The Boston area has an amazing range of sites under NPS control, fifteen all together, from the Cape Cod National Seashore to Lowell’s industrial revolution sites.
My assignment for you this summer is to visit at least one national park site which is new to you. They belong to you; shouldn’t you be checking up on them?
What is your favorite national park? Or what special park memories does your family hold dear? I would love to know.
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
23 May 2013