Several years ago I wrote about the nation’s national parks. My wife, Beverly, and I are currently touring several in southwestern Utah. We’re accompanied by one of our children, Erika, and her family, including two precious, precocious grandchildren, Bailey, 9 and Riley, 13. We are currently in Zion National Park. Our next stop will be Bryce.
I couldn’t help but resurrect and update that old article. In times like these, when so much negative feeling is directed at our government and its processes, much of it justified, it’s helpful to obtain some sense of balance by considering areas where our government has gotten it right. The National Park Service is one of them.
For me, a visit to our national parks negates all the day-to-day furor about health care reform, bombings in Iraq, the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the shenanigans of North Korea. These are replaced by the wonders of nature and a sense of peace and tranquility.
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill designating 2.2 remote, but spectacularly scenic acres as America’s first national park. It was Yellowstone. In 1895, when official counts began, 5,400 people visited the site. In 1915 it received its first visitor by automobile. Last year more than three million people enjoyed the park’s wonders, and almost all came by car.
Sequoia and Yosemite were designated national parks in 1890, followed by Mount Rainier in 1899 and Crater Lake in 1902. Then the number started to increase dramatically, virtually all in the far west (including two in Hawaii). Finally, in 1919, along with Zion and Grand Canyon, Acadia in Maine joined the growing park system. Today the nation has 58 national parks, with 11 east of the Mississippi River.
Interestingly, Zion is currently celebrating its 100th birthday, based upon its 1909 designation as a national monument, 10 years before becoming a national park.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill establishing the National Park Service. An agency of the Department of the Interior, it is responsible not only for the National Park System, but for many other sites which have been identified for their scenic or historical significance. These include national monuments, battlefields and military parks, scenic rivers and trails, historical sites, lakeshores, seashores and a number of other categories -- even the White House.
There are 391 individual properties covering 84 million acres. They can be found in every state with the exception of Delaware, plus American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands. The largest, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, is in Alaska and covers 13.2 million acres. Death Valley National Park, with 3.3 million acres is the largest in the contiguous 48 states. The smallest is a modest house in Pennsylvania, the Thaddeus Kosciusko National Memorial.
Twelve of these sites are in Georgia. They include: Andersonville, Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Sites; the Appalachian National Scenic and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trails: the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area; the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Parks; the Cumberland Island National Seashore; and Fort Frederica, Fort Pulaski and Ocmulgee National monuments.
The path has not been easy. Developers have fought battles with preservationists. Animal protectionists have gone up against ranchers and farmers trying to protect their herds and crops from the ravages of hungry animals. In some cases the battle lines have been drawn between groups that have had similar goals of preserving America’s beauty, one wanting to restrict access while the other seeking greater accessibility. Poachers and archeological scavengers have been a perpetual problem.
Throughout the process, political compromise has been the key, but it has often involved difficult negotiations and political compromise.
Today the park service has more than 20,000 employees and a budget of $2.7 billion. Significantly, 154,000 people have volunteered their time to help out. And last year the park service recorded 270 million visitors (almost equivalent to the entire population of the United States).
Aside from the wonderful benefits for Americans who take advantage of the sites, sights, adventures and experiences offered, the park service performs another significant service for the nation. As we wandered the trails at Zion many of the conversations we overhead were in German. Japanese and Chinese. The national parks contribute to one of our largest “export” industries, tourism, while at the same time putting one of our nation’s best feet forward. They are wonderful meeting places for people from all over the globe, building friendships and positive impressions. Additionally, estimates of their economic benefit to local communities are in the vicinity of $10 billion.
In my earlier article, I included a personal note which follows. “Many years ago, when my daughters, Erika and Susan were pre-teens, we took them on a month-long car trip, visiting a fair number of these sites, camping out at times and ‘motelling’ at others. They left home kicking and screaming, preferring to spend that summer month with their friends. Today as they look back, they think of the trip as one of the most rewarding of their childhood experiences, not only because of the family interaction, but because it exposed them to the wonders of this great nation.” As a postscript, one of the reasons we are currently on this particularly journey is because Erika said, “I want to do the same thing for my children.” And in our course on “Grandparenting 101,” nothing could be of higher priority for Beverly and me.
So when you are tempted to rail against the excesses of government and political leadership, just remember that there are a large number of bright spots in the broader picture, particularly if you are one of the many who enjoy the outdoors, value the nation’s history and appreciate its cultural heritage. At the time the steps were taken to establish this great legacy that we have now, American citizens were probably as frustrated with their government and it leaders as they are today. But from a historical perspective, what remains is magnificent. Let’s hope that future generations can say the same as they look back in time to today.
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.