Sunday, August 21, 2016

Happy 100th Birthday to the National Park System

This Thursday will mark the one hundredth birthday of the National Park Service, whose enabling legislation was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916. The first National Parks and National Monuments had come into being decades earlier, but the National Park Service aimed to bring all such institutions under the sole direction of a single agency. It has proven to be one of the great successes in the history of American governance. I hope that, at some point that day, all Americans stop for a moment and reflect on the importance of this anniversary, for the National Park System is one of the great achievements of the United States of America and one in which every citizen should take great pride.

What comes under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service is enough to boggle the mind. Fifty-nine National parks, eighty-two National Monuments, one hundred and twenty-eight National Historical Parks or National Historic Sites, twenty-five historical battlefields, thirty National Monuments, not to mention seashores, recreational areas, nature preserves, and other things. In effect, the National Park Service takes all that is most priceless in America in terms of nature and history and casts a protective shield over it, preserving it for ourselves and our posterity. Most important, it makes all of this easily accessible to American citizens and visitors from around the world.

I count myself among those people who think the federal government does too much and should be scaled back a bit, leaving more matters to state and local authorities. But I certainly don't put the National Park Service in this category. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the best things that the federal government does.

I'm extremely blessed to have been able to visited dozens of units of the National Park Service and it is one of my dreams to eventually check all of them off of my list. When I was a boy, my parents took my sister and I on long road trips across the country, determined to visit as many of the National Parks and see as many of the National Monuments as possible. I have kept up this passion as an adult and am lucky enough to have found a wife who loves the pursuit as much as I do. Some of my happiest memories were formed at these places. My love of history, and especially the history of the American Civil War, was largely sparked by a visit to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park when I was eleven-years-old. Were it not for that trip, I never would have become a writer of historical fiction.

The National Parks are awe-inspiring places. The majesty of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Teton. The haunting mysteriousness of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and Bandelier. The strange otherworldliness of Big Bend, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. The lush life of the Everglades and the warm beauty of the Shenandoah. These places are national treasures that must be preserved at all hazards. The National Park Service is not only vital for making these places accessible to us, but for preserving them for future generations.

The same is true for those sites crucial to our understand of our own history. The National Park Service makes it possible for us to walk the very hills where our forefathers fought and died at places like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Saratoga, and even the tiny battlefield at Palo Alto in the south of Texas. It preserves the homes and birthplaces of most of the men who have served as President of the United States, as well as other men and women who played crucial roles in our nation's history, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Edison, and Carl Sandburg.

Places where great events took place have been preserved, such as the Golden Spike National Historic Site that marks the spot where the Transcontinental Railroad was finished or the Jamestown National Historic Site that marks the site of the first English settlement in the New World. Many historical sites protected by the National Park System are devoted to larger concepts than specific events, such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which teaches about the conditions in which poor immigrants lived, or the New Orleans Jazz National Historical park, which explores the history of perhaps the most influential American musical contribution to the world.

I think that the efforts of the National Park Service to preserve the mysterious cliff dwelling sites in the American Southwest are especially worthy of note. Of all my trips to NPS sites, my visits to Mesa Verde National Park and Bandelier National Monument especially stand out in my memory. There is something strangely haunting and beautiful in those places, which reminds us that all things eventually pass away.

Then one has the National Forests, National Seashores, and other such designated areas. One sees them all along the highways of this great nation, identified by the light brown signs that always make me smile. There is a narrative telling us that urban sprawl and the clearing away of ever-larger amounts of wilderness is an inevitable, unstoppable process. I like to think that the opposite is true and the efforts of the NPS to preserve wilderness give me hope. Indeed, I see no reason why we can't have more wilderness, rather than less, as time goes on.

The work of the National Park Service is vital to our national identity and natural conservation efforts. In celebrating the centennial of this amazing organization, which has done so much for our nation and the world, we are only acknowledging what should be obvious to everyone. This Thursday, raise your glass to the NPS.

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