100 Years of Our Best Idea: A Patriotic Celebration of the National Park Service
On August 25th, 2016, the National Park Service marks a full century of action, of use, and of preserving the natural and historic wonders of the United States of America. Although there are National Parks that are older than the system itself, the watershed moment in saving and preserving these sites occurred a hundred years ago and was the action of committing to these landmarks, themselves. The creation of the National Park Service is the true keystone to understanding the importance and significance of both the physical and the judicial act of setting aside public lands, while encapsulating the legacy of these special places. The legacy of our National Park Service is that it has been grandly called “America’s best idea”, and rightfully so.
For 100 years, they have been a reflection of our best spirit and our best philosophy: Upon hearing the phrase “America’s best idea” used in conjunction with the national parks, it would be understandable to question that assertion. How can the National Parks be called America’s best idea when perhaps America’s largest contribution to the world is putting into practice representative and democratic government? America’s revolution for independence sparked and inspired a wave of social and political paradigm shifts across the globe during the Age of Enlightenment that resulted in the common citizenry taking on the reigns of self-government.
How do the National Parks fit into that? Or live up to that? I believe that the National Parks are a reflection of that self governance as we, the people, have taken it upon ourselves to safeguard and honor our most sacred natural wonders and our historic landmarks. The National Parks are a representation and manifestation of our government- that the people are free to do with their resources as they choose, and saving them for enjoyment and preservation and saving them from overuse and profit, verily bolsters that commitment. What makes a nation more an example of freedom and personal choice than having lands and landmarks dedicated to recreation, self-discovery, exploration, and even spirituality? If land is free, so must be its people. In an age when the frontiers of human liberty and civil rights are challenged and looked at (rightfully!) to be broadened, the National Park Service serves as an example of the egalitarian spirit that should guide our political discourse more often. Our best idea is to make our natural wonder and our historic sites available for all and on display to all.
For 100 years, they have served as a reminder of the egalitarian nature of America and the multinational creed of this country. The story of America is a story of all cultures and of all races and people of all backgrounds blending together. So is the story of the National Park Service. John Muir, the father of the National Parks idea, was a Scottish immigrant. Lancelot Jones, the man who pushed for the preservation of Miami’s Biscayne Bay was the son of a former slave. Teddy Roosevelt, the president who began to lead the charge in creating National Parks and National Monuments, hailed from an aristocratic and politically powerful family from New York. Conversely, Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Parks Service was a self-made millionaire before he became a naturalist and used his business acumen and his own funds to buy land for the National Park Service so that it might be saved for posterity. Juanita Greene and Marjory Stoneman Douglas did not have vast political machines behind them, but used the power of the press and grassroots organization to save Florida’s River of Grass, the Everglades. The National Park Service draws from the vast and diverse wellspring of American culture; that out of many we are one- both the parks serve as individual units in a collective National Park System and that individual citizens from all walks of life and all background contribute and protect and serve the efforts of conservation and preservation. Our best idea reflects the importance of inclusivity and diversity.
For 100 years, the National Park Service has preserved a bevy of American and international superlatives. The NPS protects the world’s deepest canyon in Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The continent’s highest peak is found in Alaska’s Denali National Park. The world’s largest collection of volcanic geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, and hot springs are found in the wilds of Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. The only ecosystem of its kind, where both crocodiles and alligators can be found in the same habitat is Florida’s Everglades National Park. The world’s tallest trees are in California’s Redwood National Park. The world’s largest trees are in Sequoia National Park. The world’s oldest living organisms are found in California and Joshua Tree National Park. Our best idea showcases the oddities and the wonders of the exceptional natural world we live in.
For 100 years, our National Parks have been places of solace, places of contemplation, places of hope, and places of personal memories, histories, journeys, and adventures. Travelers from across the world have trekked to see public lands and famous landmarks that define American culture. Countless American families have dedicated summers to the quintessential road trip, piled into a car, and seen what the American landscape has to offer…. And in the process have had an adventure together. Memories have been forged, connections have been made, and bonds have been deepened out in the wilds of our National Parks. Staring up at the stern and powerful face of the Statue of Liberty or into the cavernous Great Hall of Ellis Island is a reminder of my own personal heritage- the story of the Polish immigrant who dreamed of coming to America, despite leaving behind the familiarity of a home country and a family, across the Atlantic in Europe. Hikes into the backcountry of any National Park, deep into the wilderness of Yosemite or Acadia, offer a true disconnect from the rest of the world and the truest and most pure form of peace that I have ever found possible in a frenetic and always-connected world. Staring out at the vastness of space and sky and air and water and grass that is found at Everglades National Park’s Payhayokee Overlook is a tacit reminder that there is some peaceful and serene spaces left in the world. Gazing out at the Crown of the Continent from Glacier’s Logan Pass affirms a feeling of spirituality, be it in terms of mysticism or religion, or awe in seeing the science of Planet Earth, first hand. The depths of the Grand Canyon or the torrential waterfall at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has the capacity to absolutely humble you and illustrates, through sheer grandeur alone, the persistence and power of nature. Standing next to a Redwood in Muir Woods is a testament to the longevity and resiliency of nature; when you were born, this tree was already centuries old, and still growing, and still in its “youth”. Inanimate, but still living, these aspects of our best idea relate to our humanity and our history, put things in perspective, and transform our outlook on life.
So, as the National Park Service boldly strides into a new century, their commitment to preserving the best parts of our nation, be they natural wonders or places of historic and cultural importance, deftly qualifies the endeavor to be called “America’s best idea”. In so doing, “America’s best idea”, the accomplishment and act of saving land for future generations might just not be a solitary idea, but a guiding philosophy that has connections to the very deepest and most sacred parts of American culture.