Many people are enjoying the long-awaited recent release of the Ken Burns documentary, “National Parks—America’s Best Idea.” This production is a highly acclaimed, not just for its imagery, but for detailing the history of parks, the sense of place, and the role of National Parks in our culture.
At the outset, one of the documentary’s historians notes that “National Parks—America’s Best Idea” is an expression usually attributed to Wallace Stegner, although it is a paraphrase of what he once said about National Parks. The historian goes on to correctly make the point that National Parks are not “America’s Best Idea.” He says, and I paraphrase, that America’s best idea is expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
While his point is well taken, one certainly cannot argue that National Parks are one of America’s best ideas. America’s National Parks were the world’s first large, intact, unspoiled, natural landscapes to be legally set aside for conservation and enjoyment. Later, these large natural areas were followed by historic sites, cultural icons, battlefields, and intangible concepts of the American experience. The National Park System has been admired and emulated around the world. So much so, that the United States was encouraged to take the lead in drafting the World Heritage Convention which took the National Park idea to the world.
The link between Jefferson’s words and National Parks is more than a debate about which is America’s best idea. I contend that one of the things that makes National Parks one of America’s best ideas is that National Parks are uniquely democratic in the way they are set aside. Inscribed on a magnificent arch over the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park are the words “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” These words are from the legislation that established Yellowstone in 1872 and the National Parks Service Organic Act of 1916 subsequently set out the core mission of the newly established National Park Service. “…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life [sic] 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.”
In the late 1800s, the concept of setting aside large natural landscapes for both conservation and the enjoyment of the people was new. And the idea has its roots in the origins of the American conservation movement that had begun earlier in the 19th Century. Following the decimation of wildlife populations throughout much of the eastern United States and then extending into the once thought of as limitless West, Americans began to rethink the role of hunting. People realized that there had to be limits on harvesting wild animals or we would face more extinctions.
At that time in history, the only example of conservation Americans could learn from was the European model. Europeans had long before learned that wildlife was finite, but European conservation was conducted by the nobility. There were private reserves established and hunting was not just limited; it was exclusively available to the wealthy and elite classes. The peasants were not allowed to hunt or even gain access to these hunting preserves. Only those with the right connections and credentials, the worthy and privileged, were given the honor of enjoying these natural landscapes and the bounty within their boundaries.
Americans bristled at the idea of conservation if it meant wildlife would only be conserved for a certain class of people. That would be un-American and anti-democratic. Indeed, at that time, democratic principles such as freedom and manifest destiny trumped regulation and restrictions. Accordingly, to some, the very idea of conservation through a system of game laws, hunting seasons, and bag limits was considered to be undemocratic.
In response, the conservationists of the 19th Century proposed public ownership of fish and wildlife. Hunting and fishing seasons and licenses would be managed by States and generally available and affordable to the largest cross-section of the population. Revenues from hunting licenses would be used to manage fish and wildlife and to further conservation efforts. Large tracts of federal lands previously open to homesteading and commercial development were reserved to be conserved for the public in the form of National Forests and National Parks. It was in this unique American atmosphere of democratic principles that the idea of setting aside National Parks for both conservation and enjoyment was conceived.
This history is important because it is instructive today. There is a concerted and well-funded movement in the United States that would have conservation of National Parks trump enjoyment. This is a dangerous precedent and an undemocratic shift in policy. The drafters of the National Park Service Organic Act were very clear; the purpose of the Service was both conservation and enjoyment. Conservation of the resources is to “…leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Enjoyment is the heartbeat of National Parks that increases the understanding and appreciation for conserving these unique resources. Conservation and enjoyment are not in conflict. Indeed, they go together like a horse and carriage. Horace Albright, the second Director of the National Park Service said, “The National Parks are more than the storehouses of Nature's rarest treasures. They are the playlands of the people, wonderlands easily accessible to the rich and humble alike. They are great out-of-doors recreation grounds, where men, women, and children can forget the cares and the sounds of the cities for a few days.” Former Director of the National Park Service, Conrad Wirth, is attributed with saying (and I paraphrase), “…to manage parks emphasizing either conservation or enjoyment to the exclusion of the other is detrimental to the whole concept of National Parks.”
National Parks can be called “America’s Best Idea” because hundreds of millions of visitors enjoy National Parks every year. Visitors fiercely speak out in favor of conservation, but I suspect that they would never consider that “conservation” might mean they could not visit and enjoy their National Parks. But, that is exactly what certain non-profit organizations want to do. While Americans are trying to get back outdoors and get children engaged in nature, some environmental groups would restrict access by targeting commonly used modes of transportation. Their actions have the effect of shutting many classes of people out of National Parks, including the young, the elderly, and the disabled. Other groups favor severe limits to all forms of visitation through area closures and/or strict limits on the number of visitors allowed into a park at any given time. And the most elitist of all these organizations would go so far as to restrict access to parks to only those who are strong, healthy, enlightened in their philosophy of nature, and who agree with the premise that the biggest threat to mother earth is humankind. This is a dangerous kind of class warfare that would exclude many people from National Parks because of the way they think, their age, or their physical abilities. If implemented, National Parks would no doubt soon become known as “America’s Worst Idea.”
“America’s Best Idea” will only remain a best idea if National Parks are both conserved and enjoyed. Enjoyment should embrace the broadest cross-section of people, provide for diverse types of enjoyment, and accommodate appropriate modes of transportation in such manner and by such means as will leave resources unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. This requires an inclusive and democratic approach to park management. Management must be innovative, adaptive, and informed by the best available science. It means park managers should shun the elitists who want to keep America’s Best Idea as their exclusive domain, under lock and key if you will, while relegating the rest of America to peering in from the outside.