A pretty amazing thing happens when you Google “National Parks.” Right at the top of the page appears a series of thumbnail images: A bison on the edge of a steaming mineral pool represents Yellowstone; a dome-shaped rock colossus thrusting up into a dark blue sky represents Yosemite; twin waterfalls plunging from red, rocky cliffs into a green grove of vegetation represents Grand Canyon. They’re all there, identified almost instantly with the slimmest of information – a tiny thumbnail image. Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Teton, Zion, Arches, Bryce, Everglades...it only takes one quick glance at only one small representative image and we know exactly where we want to be.
For some of us, just hearing their names – Glacier, Yosemite, Grand Canyon – pulls us back to a cherished memory, still fresh and real even if it’s decades old. For others, these names – Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Denali – propel us forward into a fantasy where we cast ourselves as a park ranger steeped in natural history, a self-financed nomad living the #vanlife or a weatherworn backpacker striding out of the backcountry after a weeks-long ramble. Few other landscapes bind themselves to our psyches like our national parks.
All told, there are more than 470 “units” managed by the National Park Service. They are places as varied as Grand Canyon and the Vietnam War Memorial, and they are places that celebrate the best of America and remind us of our worst. All of these are significant and important, but it’s the 59 national parks that really inspire us as outdoorists. It’s particularly telling that in a nation that helped win two world wars, that pioneered countless medical and scientific breakthroughs and sent men to the moon, that the preservation of our most wild and most scenic lands for all to enjoy in perpetuity is widely recognized as our “Best Idea.”
Truly unifying, America’s national parks harbor a special place in our shared identity. In part, our parks represent our wealth – even in this most commercial of nations, where everything is a commodity, we have chosen to set some areas aside to remain as they have always been, regardless of the mineral wealth they may contain or the timber that may grow in their boundaries. In part, they represent our history – America as it was before we moved ever steadily west (of course this view completely ignores the rich native cultures that existed in these areas for millennia). And in part, the parks represent our democratic ideals. In Europe, a landed aristocracy controlled all of the land, which it used for its exclusive benefit. Here, at least some of the land belongs to everyone.
It’s hard to imagine America without its national parks. No doubt visitors would still flock to see the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, but instead of sweeping vistas and unspoiled views at a scale that makes one feel wonderfully insignificant, they’d encounter crass commercialization and run-away development. Ironically, even though it seems so self-evident that Glacier and Yellowstone (and Zion and Arches and Rocky Mountain and Yosemite and ...) were worth preserving as they are today, local and national sentiment hasn’t always supported parks. Locals fought both Yellowstone’s and Glacier’s establishment; the Grand Canyon was nearly drowned by two giant dams (this in the 1960s); the Everglades are still considered an utterly useless swamp by some.
But despite pockets of protest and the remarkably durable attitudes of the 19th century that still persist in our country, most of us love our national parks. L.O.V.E. them. 2016 was, of course, the Centennial of the National Park Service, the agency that manages our national parks. A well-funded marketing campaign brought out the visitors. Great Smoky Mountains has long been the most-visited national park, and it retained its status in 2016 with more than 11.3 million visitors. Grand Canyon hosted 6 million of us in 2016 followed by Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yellowstone, Olympic and Acadia. Even small, little known Congaree National Park in South Carolina hosted the most visitors it has seen in its 15-year history: more than 600,000 in 2016. To put that in perspective, in one summer, the two most visited parks in the country drew as many “spectators” as all the NFL games for the entirety of the 2016 NFL season.
The first national park was, of course, Yellowstone. President Ulysses S. Grant withdrew the lands from public auction and set them aside in 1872. In what would become a familiar refrain in public lands protection, locals protested the Yellowstone’s establishment fearing that, without the ability to exploit the area’s natural resources, their economy would suffer. An unpaid superintendent with no budget and practically no staff managed Yellowstone for its earliest years. But poaching, timber cutting, looting, and other degradation plagued the park. Eventually the Army stepped in to help manage and protect the park for a few decades, and slowly Congress started allocating funding and drafting legislation that actually protected the park. In 1918, the Army gave control of Yellowstone to the freshly minted National Park Service.
Today, these 59 national parks cover roughly 89.4 million acres in 27 states, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Alaska alone has more than 55 million acres of national parks, nearly 60% of the acreage. California boasts the most parks of any state with nine, followed by Alaska, which has eight. The largest park, Wrangell St. Elias (8.3 million acres) is located in southeast Alaska, and the smallest, Hot Springs (5,500 acres) is in Arkansas. Our parks have global significance: 14 of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites and 21 are UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Preserving everything from bone dry saguaro deserts to technicolor coral reefs, from creeping glaciers to mangrove forests, from active Hawaiian volcanoes to sandstone cliffs shaped by eons of wind and rain, our national parks provide a short list of the world’s splendors.
Of course the Park Service and the Park System aren’t entirely about “parks” that contain incredible vistas and charismatic wildlife. The agency manages historical and cultural sites like the National Mall in Washington D.C. and Stonewall National Monument in New York City, which celebrates the LGTBQ-civil rights movement. So, yes, you can be a park ranger and live in Brooklyn. All told, the agency manages (or co-manages) 88 of the nation’s 129 national monuments, including the Statue of Liberty. The Park Service administers battlefields like Gettysburg, historic sites, natural preserves, national memorials and a host of other sites that recognize and preserve valuable American stories and places. As if that wasn’t enough for the agency, it also manages some our most popular long-distance hiking trails, like the Appalachian Trail and the North Country Trail.
Despite the inspiration and devotion our parks engender, not everything is perfect. Serious and damaging sexual harassment allegations have recently emerged at several parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Commercial development – everything from industrial mining just outside park boundaries to helicopter tours to shopping complexes to tramways threaten the integrity and natural values of many parks. Overuse and shrinking maintenance budgets have rendered most parks understaffed, in need of significant repairs, and severely over-crowded. Few things take the joy out of immersing yourself in nature than thousands of other people jointly immersing themselves just a stone’s throw away.
And, despite a century of proven prescience and empirical benefits to the long-term economic and cultural stability of local communities, some politicians continue to question and undermine the value of parks and other public lands. Many of America’s most beloved national parks gained their first protection under the Antiquities Act, including the Grand Canyon, Katmai National Park, Petrified Forest and Grand Teton. This piece of legislation allows a president to apply national monument status to federally owned lands of significant historical, cultural or scientific value. Many times, Congress eventually turns national monuments into national parks, but the Antiquities Act is essentially a unilateral decision made by the president alone. It has always been controversial, and it is yet again under attack by cynical and backward looking politicians who hope to manipulate legal and governmental machinations to gut the law and rescind previously designated monuments they don’t like.
Those issues drift away when you stand on the South Rim, gaze in awe at Denali, or catch a sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain. When the Park Service was founded in 1916, it was tasked “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." And that’s pretty much what it’s been doing for 101 years. Yes, commercial development (both inside and outside) of parks is a dangerously slippery slope. But on the whole, America’s national parks are much the same as they were 100 years ago when the idea first took root.
Maybe at the end of the day our parks represent a kind of immature wisdom. We’re smart enough to realize that we would ruin even the most incredible places we have if given the opportunity, so we erect barriers (literal, philosophical and legal) to prevent us from the inevitable: ruining the best of our geography with the worst of our private motivations. Through our national parks, America has proven that a central government can hold and manage huge landscapes for the benefit of all people, regardless of status, wealth or class. That’s got to be one of, if not the, “Best Idea” any nation has ever come up with.
Access to national parks is not free. According to the Park Service, 117 of its “units” charge an entrance fee, and most of the national parks are on that list. Daily entrance fees range from $3 to $30 and do not include camping, commercial tours, or other costs. Of course with an $80 America the Beautiful Pass you’ll be able to access just about any public land site. Discounted passes are available for fourth graders, senior citizens, active duty military, and people with disabilities. This pass is good for national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, as well as Bureau of Land Management sites. There are also a handful of “fee-free” days that offer free entry to all public lands that typically charge entry fees.
We all want to visit and enjoy these beautiful spaces that offer reprieve from the day-to-day grind. We have a duty to do so responsibly. By following the Leave No Trace ethic and making memories not tracks, we can ensure these gorgeous environments will be available for future generations.
Consult these articles for additional information on U.S. public lands:
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