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Marking the Centennial of the National Park Service

This year’s Independence Day marks the 240th birthday of the United States.

Now four decades past, I vividly remember watching the Bicentennial celebration of 1976 on TV with my dad as the Tall Ships of Operation Sail entered New York Harbor to mark the occasion. I remember the daylong fireworks around our community. I remember the barbecues and smiles. I remember wearing brand new red, white, and blue sneakers for the occasion, along with blue shorts and a hemorrhage red t-shirt. Even my white tube socks that day were striped with red, white and blue.

The Bicentennial was a big deal in 1976, and now, 40 years later, I think about what makes me feel most like an American, and what makes me proud about my country. And it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that it’s our nation’s occasional ability to demonstrate some measure of self-control over development that gives me pride and hope. Our surprising ability to safeguard large-scale ecosystems as Wilderness and National Parks and simply leave them alone is what makes me most proud of our nation.

And while imperfect, the record of the U.S. on conservation is laudable, and remains a model for the rest of the world. And it just so happens that in the U.S. we have the amazing landscapes and ecoregions worthy of National Park and Wilderness designations.

So this Independence Day is extra-special for those of us who revere our nation’s special places, because along with the nation’s 240th birthday, 2016 also marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service.

Yellowstone and Yosemite

Originally known as “Colter’s Hell,” Yellowstone was set aside as the nation’s first National Park in 1872. Named for John Colter, one of the explorers who participated in the Lewis and Clark expedition and later stayed behind to explore the Northern Rockies, Yellowstone was established, in part, because it couldn’t be utilized for any other practical commercial purpose.

Located in the middle massive, mid-continental volcanic caldera, the abundance of geysers, hot springs and otherworldly thermal reserves made railroad building, mining and other resource extraction extremely difficult. In the absence of a state government in the Wyoming Territory to manage the area at the time, the federal government simply assumed management of Yellowstone.

Here in California, Yosemite became the nation’s second National Park, but was first donated by President Abraham Lincoln to the state in 1864 for use as a park and to be managed in a state of “perpetual conservation,” the first time any such ideal was noted and acted upon not just in the nation’s history, but in human history. Chalk it up to Lincoln.

Yosemite was later returned to federal management as the nation’s second National Park in 1890, encompassing the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, though over the decades it has been significantly expanded to include Tuolumne Meadows, and perhaps notoriously, Hetch Hetchy – which was later defiled by dam construction in 1914 in a move that has often been blamed for the death of John Muir.

Nevertheless, as evidenced by President Obama’s recent visit to the park to observe the centennial of the National Park Service, Yosemite remains the crown jewel of the National Park Service.

Interestingly, the nation’s newest National Park is also located in California. It’s fitting California condors call the prehistoric crags of Pinnacles home. Made up of the southernmost extension of the Galiban Mountains, a small, inland sub-range of the larger California Coastal Range, Pinnacles National Park runs along the border of Monterey and San Benito counties, and is made up of the remnants of the ancient Neenach Volcano, which last erupted some 23 million years ago.

The Pinnacles area also appears to be alien to the rest of the Central Coast for good reason – it was transported to its current site by none other than the San Andreas Fault. Millions of years ago, the rock formations of the Pinnacles were created hundreds of miles to the south near Joshua Tree, but have taken a phantasmic ride north along the edge of the Pacific Plate to their current location.

The Brilliance of the 1906 Antiquities Act

While Pinnacles was established as the nation’s 59th National Park by President Obama in 2013, the park itself was originally protected as a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, during the golden age of the Antiquities Act – which is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year.

Signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1906, the Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create National Monuments on public land to “protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features.” It can also be used by the president to immediately protect areas that may be threatened or endangered, or areas which may not have the support or sponsorship in Congress to craft National Park legislation.

While the Antiquities Act enables the president to sidestep the often lengthy process of designating a National Park, there is no doubt of the effectiveness of the Antiquities Act as a conservation measure, which has preserved and even saved dozens of special areas around the U.S. which today are revered National Parks – including almost all of the National Parks in Alaska.

If it weren’t for the foresight of President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, neither the Grand Canyon in Arizona or the interior of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington would be preserved in the manner they are today as National Parks. Both were first set aside by Roosevelt as monuments in 1908 and 1909, respectively.

Here in California, Death Valley and Joshua Tree were similarly set aside as National Monuments in 1933 and 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt. Both were elevated to National Park status by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

While National Monuments can be managed by agencies other than the National Park Service, including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, monuments are generally afforded the same level of protection as National Parks. A recent example of this is the U.S. Forest Service-managed San Gabriel Mountains National Monument above Los Angeles, which was established by President Obama in 2014 after a lengthy campaign of regional support for a monument or National Park Service designation.

Creeping Threats of Commercialization and Privatization

Unfortunately, while 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of “America’s Best Idea” and 100 years of keeping parks public, 2016 also marks the year in which the National Park Service began to let corporate entities in. While this may seem like a functional solution to address the vast maintenance backlog afflicting our National Park system, the reality is congressional Republicans and Democrats have prevented funds from being allocated for maintenance for our National Parks for years, and are using the maintenance “crisis” to float the solution of corporate saviors for our public parks – especially at the federal level.

Many in today’s Congress would rather allow companies and corporations to “sponsor” park attractions and sites rather than leave our parks free of corporate logos and profit-motive influence.

On this 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we must remind our elected officials that National Parks are not designed to make money themselves, though they are certainly regional economic anchors for communities and areas near parks. National Parks are specifically intended to set aside uniquely American natural settings worthy of conservation for the citizenry to enjoy, to marvel over, to recreate in, to preserve, to cherish – and to be proud of.

As we like to say in the west, National Parks are not amusement parks. They should not be treated as such. This was certainly the intent of President Theodore Roosevelt, who said:

“It is vandalism to wantonly destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping grounds. We pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fish, birds and mammals – not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.”

As has been the case for the last 100 years, this can be done for reasonable, economic costs if the public demands it – as they have in the past – and if Congress would loosen the pursestrings to allow money to flow to our National Parks for needed maintenance of habitat, trails and existing facilities instead of just new construction. Certainly this was on the mind of President Woodrow Wilson, who signed the National Park Service Organic Act into law following its passage by Congress in August 1916. Wilson later said:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world – and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Let us not forget the grand errand of the National Park Service on this centennial occasion, and on our nation’s 240th birthday:

“The National Park Service preserves, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.”

As citizens of the United States, we are those partners of the National Park Service. So much heavy lifting and difficult legislation has been passed before our time so that our generation can experience our nation’s rich bounty of cultural and natural heritage, today protected by the National Park Service.

It is up to us to ensure that Congress does its basic job of ensuring appropriate and needed funding for the National Park Service, without having to resort to ads from Pepsi, Firestone, or CNN to ensure our National Parks remain beacons of American-style ecosystem conservation.

Yosemite National Park photo © 2009 Tommy Hough, all rights reserved.