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Garrett Ahern is a Biology junior and Mustang News Liberal Columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
It began with an idea, a thought worthy of belief — first moored to our land by Thomas Jefferson, in a document that would later cast a nation from the grip of an oppressive monarchy — that all human beings, regardless of original circumstance, are equally entitled to a free and self-determined life.
Throughout the decades following the conception of said values, the proprietors of the nation they had grown to symbolize found their country’s land to be the source of their significance; time had proven that belief in individual life, liberty and freedom was forged in the American landscape.
In response by means of the democratic process deemed sacred within its borders, the United States established a system of national parks. Whether it was to preserve them as holy sanctuaries or develop them as resources to civilization, the national parks became proving grounds for American values and ideals.
Some see the parks as iconic landscapes, vacation destinations and even wild hideaways, while others see them as nothing more than wasted land. Amongst these varied perspectives on the parks and their value stands a perspective unifying all Americans: the belief that such places represent safeguards of American freedom, character and democracy. Since their inception, the parks have grown to exemplify the American spirit and embody the very same ideals set forth by Thomas Jefferson almost 240 years ago.
It was not until the year 1873, as Americans looked back on the continent they had been so readily subduing, that the United States Congress set aside a tract of land near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, a parcel that would later become America’s — and the world’s — first national park.
As time passed, the park idea grew, and by the turn of the 20th century, Congress had established a total of five national parks. Soon, the national parks gained prominence in American life and began to symbolize what many believed to be a fleeting American landscape: the pristine, undeveloped nation that had emboldened its people to be greater and to live purposefully. In fact, some believe the national parks were established for the very purpose of preserving such an American identity.
In his review on America’s national parks, Derek Gregory shares, “The first U.S. national parks were proposed as a way to protect the sublime and monumental landscapes of the American West, and as a reaction to the threat of the closing frontier and the pioneering spirit as a formative element in the American character.” As explicit as Gregory’s statement is, it is surprising to think the parks existed for quite some time before Americans began to resurrect the original view held for these places, as protectors of an otherwise lost chapter in the American narrative.
Such purpose is accomplished through the timeless scenes the parks protect. One cannot gaze at the magnificence of Old Faithful or be stunned by the enormity of the Giant Sequoias without realizing that in those very moments, they are experiencing the very same wonderment as those Americans who first set eyes on such places. Despite the awesomeness of our national landmarks, some believe they deserve no greater protection than the abundant estuaries Manhattan was built upon or the teeming river basin now sprawled by the city of Los Angeles.
It stands as a testament to the American character and the democracy of a mighty Union that the majesty of places perceived sacred by some can be translated into the action of preservation by many. Whether it be the advocacy expressed by George Dorr for the creation of Acadia National Park in Maine or the tireless devotion of William Steel to the establishment of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, each of our parks represents a place once hallowed by one or more individuals, people willing to turn their life into a crusade to protect the land they loved.
The battles waged by these individuals illustrate the colossal forces they faced, the forces of special interest groups hoping to exploit these landscapes, often for their own exclusive benefit. Around the same time that areas like Crater Lake and Acadia were being fought for, the founder of what is now the National Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, expressed the uncertainty of conservation’s future.
In his book “The Fight for Conservation,” Pinchot writes, “The American people have evidently made up their minds that our natural resources must be conserved. That is good, but it settles only half the question. For whose benefit shall they be conserved — for the benefit of many, or the use and profit of the few?”
It is the tension between private and public interests that Pinchot effectively depicts through his juxtaposition of the benefit of the many and the profit of the few. Once severed, this tension gives rise to the sentiment that our national parks represent the communal bounties of American democracy — places set aside for all Americans, irrespective of their class, race or social status.
If you visit Europe or Asia, South America or Africa, it is likely that you will visit castles, palaces, pyramids and temples, places created for the benefit and enjoyment of a few, often at the expense of a great many. But if you visit the U.S., chances are you and many others will flock to unimaginable valleys, spectacular geysers and immeasurable canyons, places established for the benefit and enjoyment of all Americans — the national parks.
The national parks impart distinction to American treasures not only for those who visit them as guests, but also for those who call America their home.
In his article on the enjoyment found within national parks, Ken Rogers explains, “National parks exist for good reason. They provide the means for all Americans, no matter the income level, to know the natural world.”
It is sometimes said, often by cliché, that knowledge is power. If this is true, power is surely distributed unequally among Americans.
However, if viewing the American spirit or the American character through the lens of the national parks, one undoubtedly finds equal opportunity and the equal distribution of power within its borders. As Rogers demonstrates the ability of the parks in providing all Americans with knowledge of the natural world, he ties the parks directly into the fabric of the American spirit by demonstrating the unity and equality the parks support. If the abstract nature of this belief does not satisfy the argument that the parks safeguard the American identity, chances are the explicit nature of the parks as safeguards of wildlife and environment will.
It is the conviction of some that, with exception to the political, social and economic principles this nation was founded upon, the abundance of resources inherited — or stolen, depending on the way you view history — by the U.S. is to credit for its contemporary identity as a world leader.
At the time our Constitution was signed, the U.S. was a teeming wilderness. Most of the land was inhabited by indigenous peoples living amongst herds of bison 5-million strong, old-growth forests unaccustomed to the ring of an axe and avian life so abundant that early pioneers describe flocks of birds blanketing the mid-day sky from horizon to horizon.
By the mid-19th century, everything had changed. All but a few hundred bison had been slaughtered and 98 percent of the old-growth trees on this continent had been felled. By the turn of the century, the passenger pigeon — once numbering 3 billion — would be extinct. This widespread destruction and utilization of resources led not only to stories of great wealth obtained by many Americans, but concerns by an equal number that soon there would be nothing of wild nature left.
As countless citizens organized in hopes of preserving the remains of America’s wild places, hopes began to grow that the character and spirit these natural landscapes had developed could be saved as well. In his book titled “Our National Parks,” John Muir made the need for government involvement in preservation and conservation abundantly clear.
Following a walk through what is now the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, Muir stated, “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed, chased and hunted-down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanche, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.”
Through his near-personification of trees and the establishment of urgency for their protection, Muir not only made a cry for conservation but established the reality that only the government, the law of the land, could save America’s wilds and all it had come to symbolize for society. It was of no mistake that Muir called upon the forces of natural destruction to illustrate the fortitude of trees and the wild places they had come to represent. By doing so, Muir had established an unbreakable connection between the resiliency of American nature and the resiliency of Americans themselves.
National Parks Today
Since their creation, the national parks have grown alongside the U.S. They remind us of our proudest moments, our most prized possessions, even our greatest mistakes, but in doing so they tie the American past, present and future to a unified consciousness, a shared experience.
The parks represent the American spirit and its ideals in both literal nature and abstract concept. They not only preserve the landscapes they hold, but the American ideals they encompass. Within their rocks, trees, rivers and wildlife, we find the American narrative — our nation’s identity — forged in the land. Today, just as in the past, the national parks face threats as numerous as those faced by the places they protect.
However, their strength lies in their ability to safeguard the very ideals that make such discourse a possibility. Embodied within America’s national parks are the principles of equality, unity, freedom and democracy — national treasures as dependent upon the parks as the parks are upon them.