What do the national parks mean to you? Have you visited one? Such magnificent beauty and tranquility and violence and tenderness exist there in those wondrous places.
Wallace Stegner, a western historian, wrote in 1983, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
On May 11, 1910 Howard Taft signed the bill creating Glacier National Park, the tenth such park in our great nation’s history at that time. Yellowstone, befittingly, was the first in 1872.
At an archway dedication in his name at the northern entrance to Yellowstone, Teddy Roosevelt would give a speech in 1903 and utter the words, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Those words have resonated clearly in the American psyche ever since.
Our national parks, our land, our beauty, our “purple mountain majesties above fruited plains” preserved for us and our children, not for royalty or the rich but for everyone.
Teddy Roosevelt realized the greatness of the idea of national parks and in a speech given at the Grand Canyon in 1903 said, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you…”
The national parks story is one that reads all too similar to the birth of our great nation. The right men seemed to be at the right place and at the right time.
From John Muir to Iowa Representative John F. Lacey to Teddy Roosevelt to Stephen Mather to John D. Rockefeller and Franklin D. Roosevelt along with many others, all played crucial roles in the creation and development of the national park system.
John Muir’s legacy to the parks was his writing which influenced a nation with his lyrical prose. Muir could be called the environmental prophet of his day and would tirelessly work to see several national parks created including his beloved Yosemite in 1890.
In 1892 he would help found the Sierra Club. Muir also understood why the people needed places of their own and said of the parks, “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 alike. This natural beauty hunger is made manifest in our magnificent national parks…nature’s sublime wonderlands the admiration and joy of the world.”
U.S. Congressional Representative John F. Lacey from Iowa was instrumental the creation of several national parks and passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906 which gave the President the authority to create national monuments.
Teddy Roosevelt and following Presidents would use the Act to protect many scenic wonders and historical sites not entitled to Park status.
Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President and bigger than life outdoorsmen would create five national parks with congressional help, 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, 18 national monuments, and more than 100 million acres of national forests during his term as President from 1901-1909.
In 1908 he would use the Antiquities Act to create the 806,000-acre Grand Canyon National Monument. Not until 1919 would the Grand Canyon receive park status.
On Aug. 25, 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act which created the National Park Service. The first director was Stephen Mather, a self made millionaire who often used his own money to pay the salaries of some park service employees.
Mather and his protégé Horace Albright were responsible for the early success of the parks. They even designed the park ranger uniform which is still in use today.
In 1920, visitation to the parks numbered at one million people, through their dedication and promotion efforts there were three million visitors by 1928.
Mather would say, “The parks do not belong to one state or to one section…. The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.”
As a philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller’s contribution to parks came with land purchases which he then gifted to the United States to increase lands for Acadia and Grand Teton National Parks. He would also donate five million dollars towards the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, though physically impaired by polio which severely hampered his ability to enjoy the parks, was a staunch supporter and promoter of them. By 1939 over 15 million people visited the national parks.
Roosevelt, under his “New Deal”, would create the Civilian Conservation Corps and use those workers to build and expand trails, bridges and cabins in the parks. During his Presidency the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina was established in 1934.
To date there exist 63 national parks and 360 national monuments and historical sites encompassing some 84 million acres. In 2007 there were over 275 million visitors to the park system. If you’ve never been to a national park, you should. It’s yours, it’s mine, they are ours.
John Muir offered the best advice of why you should visit a park when he wrote, “As long as I live I’ll hear the birds and the winds and the waterfalls sing. I’ll interpret the rocks and learn the language of flood and storm and avalanche.
“I’ll make the acquaintance of the wild graders and the glaciers and get as near to the heart of this world as I could. And so I did. I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell.
“I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality.”
We must be ever vigilant to protect our rights. As bright a spot as the national parks are in U.S. history, the parks have been briefly closed in the past when Congress failed to pass budgets in 1995 and 1996 with President Bill Clinton and in 2013 with President Barak Obama.
Obama would use the opportunity to send a harsh message to the public for Congress failing to pass a budget which would fund his national healthcare program. All parks were closed and he even had barricades erected to bar the public from visitation at war memorials.
At Yellowstone National Park, after its closing, a senior citizen bus tour was allowed to enter but tourists were kept confined to the park hotel and not allowed to venture outside. Several foreigners even thought that they were under arrest.
One American citizen said she and others on her tour bus witnessed an ugly spectacle that made her embarrassed, angry and heartbroken for her country.
Perhaps there should be legislation which states no national park, monument, or preserve can ever be closed to the public unless the threat of harm to the public in mass is so great that it outweighs the value of access.
Nevertheless, Happy Birthday to the National Park Service and our national parks, the best idea we ever had.