National parks: window on America

Original Reporting | By Abby Ferla |

Oct. 19, 2011 — It was an idea that has since been called “America’s best,” and it was radical for its day: set aside the most majestic and important spaces in the country so that they would be preserved for coming generations, made accessible for all Americans, and serve as a living laboratory of, and testament to, American history. There are still staunch and enthusiastic supporters of the parks — both within the National Parks Service and outside. But there are also regular reports of the constraints impeding the ability of the Parks Service to meet its mission, and anxiety that the parks have become, or might become, irrelevant to the majority of Americans.

The agency and its supporters are focused on developing creative plans to cope with chronic underfunding. In their effort to make ends meet, however, bigger dreams have gotten lost. In the quest for adequacy, virtually no one is asking — and fewer are prepared to answer — the question of “what could we do to make our parks excellent?” Could we enhance the vision so that we run a system that meets its fullest potential?


Early vision

When Congress passed the Organic Act of 1916 establishing the National Park Service (NPS), it provided that the new agency would preserve the parks and make them accessible for public enjoyment while still leaving the natural beauty and distinctive grandeur of each  unimpaired. “Congress never described what ‘leave unimpaired means,” however, says Dwight Pitcaithley, a former NPS chief historian. “It’s been a struggle ever since to figure out what that means.” He suggests that to get a better idea of the original vision, we look at the words of the early park promoters.

Monument Valley, a series of large sandstone buttes lies within the Navajo Nation along the Arizona-Utah border.

“I think the essential vision was first of all to preserve them from destruction by private entities for tourist purposes or mining, destroying them in large industrial ways. And two, to provide enough accommodation — and enough is the key word here — so that people could spend a couple of days or a week in the parks to appreciate what makes them significant.”

“We may be the only federal agency that has ‘enjoyment’ in our fostering legislation,’” David Barna, chief spokesperson for the Park Service, adds, explaining that fostering the experiences of leisure, relaxation, and a sense of the wonder of nature for the general public “were of paramount importance in the creation of the National Park Service and are still important today.” Behind the creation of NPS was a belief that places of grandeur, contemplation, and relaxation should be available to all Americans — both to maintain a collective history and to encourage an engaged and healthy citizenry.


A history of ups and downs

In the years after the Organic Act of 1916, the parks were expanded significantly. In the 1930s, historic landmarks such as military sites and national monuments were brought under the umbrella of NPS, and infrastructure — such as roads, bathrooms, and hiking trails— was increased during the New Deal.

Though the parks deteriorated during the lean budget years of World War II and into the 1950s, they experienced a renaissance in the 1960s. Between a burgeoning environmental movement and “Mission 66” — a ten year initiative to increase the funding, infrastructure, and quality of the NPS — the parks thrived.

In the early years, railroads had brought visitors to Western parks that were remote from urban areas, but these opportunities were only available to wealthier Americans. In the 1960s and 1970s, the interstate system opened park access to a larger percentage of the population, and the number of visits swelled.

Seeking stability in the midst of change

In the park system’s rousing creation myth, the members of the 1870 Washarm-Langfoard-Doane Expedition to explore the Yellowstone wilderness crouched around a late-night campfire, and, still breathless at the sights they had just encountered, excitedly debated how to divide their claims to this land.

Cornelius Hedges waited patiently for his turn to speak, and when it came, pitched a radical idea: set the land aside in the spirit of altruism and conservation and preserve it as a communal resource for all United States citizens. And that is how the National Parks idea was born, the story concludes.

As it turns out, the campfire conversation never happened, but if does provide a glimpse into the kind of stewardship, community, and shared history that the earliest supporters of the national parks wanted to foster. Those supporters — like the country as a whole — began to grapple with the changes to American society in the late-1800s and early-1900s brought on by forces of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It was into this climate of anxiety amidst change that the idea of the national parks was born. The the vision of the parks sought to hold onto an idealized sense of the United States as a commonwealth of free and rugged citizens, exceptional in all of world history. President Theodore Roosevelt famously declared the natural beauty of the parks a “national asset” because he believed that recreation in the outdoors fostered good citizenship. Franklin D. Roosevelt echoed his uncle when he said, “There is nothing so American as our National Parks…The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

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