National Parks: America’s Best Idea

Hendricks Boys 1986 (Rocky Mountain National Park Style)Last week I picked up the National Parks documentary by Ken Burns from the library. I heard about it when it was first on PBS, but who has time to sit down and watch 12 hours worth of documentary on PBS? I’ve been watching it for the past week and falling in love (again) with America’s best idea, the National Park Service.

It’s amazing what it took to create the National Parks. It started in the 1860s with the preservation of Yosemite and officially began in 1872 with the world’s first national park, Yellowstone. The idea of preserving something for the people was a uniquely American idea. But that doesn’t mean it came easily. People fought against the National Parks, not just in the 1800s, but even recently.

And once we had the parks, we had to fight even harder to save them. The idea that the animals should run free and wild wasn’t a natural conclusion. It was something people had to fight for.

After watching the entire documentary and learning about the history of the parks, I learned a few things.

First, practically every park was saved because somebody stood up and demanded action. They rallied the troops and wrote letters and raised money and did the hard work that had to be done to save a section of land from developers. It’s hard to find a park that was saved without a fight, without somebody wanting to develop the land and somebody else wanting to save it for our children and our children’s children. We owe much of our national heritage to these kinds of heroes. And not just national parks. If there’s a state park or beautiful city park in your area, somebody had to fight for that. Be thankful.

Kevin & Abby with the RMNP SignSecond, we stand on the shoulders of giants in terms of accumulated knowledge. I kept finding myself dumbstruck by the people fighting against the parks and the silly things people would do in the parks, from exterminating predators in Yellowstone to grazing sheep in Yosemite. There was no understanding of the value of nature or the way an ecosystem works or that feeding a bear isn’t good for the bear. These are simple ideas that seem like common sense to me. But I realized that’s because I was raised and taught those ideas. Nobody had those ideas 50 years ago and it seemed like a good idea to throw out food so the tourists could watch the bears. Rather than be frustrated with our ancestors who didn’t know anything, I’m grateful for my inheritance of accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

Third, I want to go back to the National Parks. Growing up we spent nearly a decade doing the traditional summer vacation and hitting up the National Parks of the American West. We hit Rocky Mountain National Park nearly every year, but each year we’d go somewhere else different and I’ve racked up quite a hit list: Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Bryce, Zion, Monument Valley (which isn’t actually a National Park, but a Navajo Tribal Park), Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Canyon De Chelley, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns, Whitesands and probably more (and OK, some of those are National Monuments or whatever other designation they have, but they’re still in the National Park system).

In 2003 Abby and I went back to Rocky Mountain National Park and it was the greatest camping experience of my life (and campfires weren’t allowed thanks to a wild fire raging nearby). I want to take my kids to the National Parks, just like my parents took me, and my grandparents took my parents.

6 thoughts on “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

  1. Kev,
    Excellent commentary! I’m so glad and appreciative that your grandma and grandpa took Doug, Trish, and I on those vacations which made it easy to figure out where to go on our vacations.
    Dad

  2. I watched it on the original airings, and I’ve caught some of the segments again when they’ve been repeated. Before it aired, I thought it was kind of a dull, travelogue-y topic, but I think I enjoy it as much as “The Civil War,” and in some ways — which you’ve stated quite well — I think it’s more relevant than just about any of Burns’ other documentaries. I think it also speaks to the importance of long-range thinking, and the ways in which government sometimes consists in trying to balance short-term needs, wants and demands with what’s going to be important in the long term.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. Yes, John! I was struck by the political balls it took to create and protect some of these parks.

    My favorite line was how hard the state of Wyoming fought against the expansion of Grand Tetons (the compromise included an exception for the state of Wyoming to the president’s power to declare national monuments) and now they put the Tetons on their license plates.

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