The first National Park – Yellowstone – predated the Park Service by 44 years. Others followed, managed individually by local groups or in some cases by the U.S. Army. Once the Antiquities Act passed into law in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt exercised his new powers to declare National Monuments to the government’s scientific, cultural, and recreational land holdings – and soon other designations followed: National Military Parks. National Historic Sites. National Parkways. National Seashores. National Memorials. National Recreation Areas, and more.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act into law, establishing a National Park Service to oversee the management of these newly sprawling public lands and to provide a clear and consistent direction for a unified, National Park experience.
“the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations . . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Sometimes it’s hard to remember just how revolutionary — and strange — those ideas and values were when the National Parks were being formed. Yes, parks exist around the world. And yes, many countries now have their own national parks. But the United States was really the first place to set aside huge areas of (mostly) un-industrialized land (although certainly not untouched) for the benefit of the public. And it’s also important to note that the mission statement in the law that founded the Park Service makes it very clear this is not just a here-and-now amusements thing — this protection and enjoyment is meant to last generations.
Over time, the Park Service has been able to broaden its range and abilities while maintaining the focus outlined in that 1916 Organic Act. The Park Service no longer just protects wild ranges of spectacular terrain like Yellowstone or Yosemite. Now Park Rangers are also stewards of our National Seashores at Point Reyes, Cape Cod, and the Hawaiian Islands. They are beacons of invaluable green space at National Recreation Areas near dense urban centers like the Santa Monica Mountains, Golden Gate, or New York Gateway NRAs. They preserve the stories of the people who were here long before Europeans at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. They tell the story of our nation’s founding. They tell the story of our nation’s struggles. They tell the hopeful story of our nation’s future.
And they do it all on a shoestring budget.
The deferred-maintenance backlog for the Park Service hovered just under $12 billion in 2015 and shows no sign of shrinking anytime soon. And even though Congress provided a larger budget to the Park Service in 2016, it’s not keeping up with the cost of running the parks or the cost of visiting the parks themselves. A High Country News story found that after adjusting for inflation, the Park Service’s budget shrank 8% between 2005 and 2014. Combine that with issues like overcrowding, graffiti and vandalism, the challenges of reaching out to younger and more diverse audiences, and the sweeping unknowns of climate change and there’s a lot to be concerned about. Should we even keep preserving places when we can’t seem to afford the ones we already have?
In the High Country News piece, the author writes about another time the Park Service was under dire funding threat. In the 1950s, Parks were not equipped to deal with the onslaught of post-war vacationers, and the infrastructure took a beating. In 1953, Bernard DeVoto wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine titled “Let’s Close the National Parks,” which said the government should close-off the Park System until it could pay to keep them in adequate shape. The result was a massive ten-year, $1 billion investment in the Parks called Mission 66.
Donations are up during the Centennial Celebration, but even though Parks and Monuments generally become huge economic engines for their gateway communities, the fact of the matter is they still need cash to keep them going. Some Parks are looking toward corporate sponsorships now that the rules of displaying individual and organizations’ names have been relaxed. Others are upping their entry fees while others are spending more resources on fundraising to stay afloat. But a more lasting solution has to come from Congress, and that means it’s up to us.
Think about some of your favorite memories in National Parks.
I still remember the first time I saw the Yosemite Valley. I remember gasping at the blue waters of Crater Lake, of staring across millions of years of rock formations at the Grand Canyon, of the joy of running barefoot down a giant dune at Great Sand Dunes. I remember the first time I smelled rain-activated sage scrub in the Santa Monica Mountains and when it felt like I had the entirety of Canyonlands all to myself. I remember my campsite at Bryce Canyon getting buried in snow and I remember crawling on my belly through a tiny gap in Arches, emerging with a thick layer of red rock dust on my clothes. In trying times, I found immeasurable solace in the deserts of Death Valley and Joshua Tree. At Rocky Mountain, I felt on top of the world.
It’s tough to put a price tag on moments like those, isn’t it?
That’s why, during the Centennial fee-free weekend (August 25-28) we want you to find someone who hasn’t been to a National Park before and take them to one of your favorite places. See if you can light a little outdoor spark in them, too. At best, you’ll help inspire a future steward and at the very least, you may pick up a new hiking buddy for your next trail adventure. More people who care about our parks and green spaces means more people who can contact their representatives for more park funds, and more people who understand what’s at stake when, say, someone wants to put a giant landfill on the border of Joshua Tree or blacktop acres of the Mojave for a solar power plant.
And since your entry fees were waived, maybe you’d consider donating them to a park’s Friends group or the National Park Foundation? I mean, it is their birthday, after all.
What are some of your most memorable National Park moments? Share them in the comments below!