I’ve just finished Ken Burns’ multi-part PBS documentary about the National Parks that tells the story of “America’s best idea,” which happens to be the story of America itself over the last 150 years. I genuinely got emotional during parts of all six of the episodes, both happy and sad emotions. That is why today I am expressing my gratitude for the pioneers of the United States National Parks system.
There are too many individuals who played significant roles in the creation of parks and preservation of some of America’s greatest treasures to mention them all, but four stand out. They are John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. They are all remarkable men who understood that retreats to nature could be healing, restorative, inspirational, spiritual and transcendent, and they understood that this privilege shouldn’t be afforded to the wealthy only.
John Muir – A Scottish immigrant who fell in love with a section of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and fought to have it preserved as the natural cathedral it was. The most prominent portion of this was a valley named Yosemite by the army regiment that “discovered” it. Muir used his love of nature, his scientific knowledge and discoveries, his impassioned writing and speeches to preserve not just Yosemite’s wonders but numerous others. He tiringly fought against those who commercialized the valley and ruined the surrounding high country and those who sought to destroy it through building dams and more. He lost his last battle of Hetch Hetchy, but his legacy spurred generations of conservationists to save stretches of America for its posterity.
Teddy Roosevelt – An avid outdoorsman, a national hero and the most powerful man in the free world at the time, President Roosevelt used his authority to protect numerous places around the country that were quickly being ransacked, pillaged and otherwise ruined by those seeking a quick buck. Many may oppose what he did with his executive orders, but without his actions we probably couldn’t enjoy the Grand Canyon’s grandeur or experience the history and culture of Mesa Verde like we do today.
Stephen Mather – The first Director of the National Park Service and someone whose life truly exhibited the healing power of nature. He wanted to preserve America’s wonders and treasures, but understood he wouldn’t gain the support needed if people weren’t taking advantage of what had already been preserved. Through his marketing and PR prowess he exponentially grew attendance at the National Parks and helped create new ones. Granted, the consequences of his actions weren’t all the best, but without what he did and his passion the first parks we had may have been lost to private interests. (I can’t wait to visit the Grand Canyon soon where I’ll be camping at the Mather Campground on the South Rim.)
Horace Albright – Stephen Mather’s assistant at the genesis of the NPS, first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and second Director of the NPS. Albright continued not just the legacy of Mather but also of Muir. He began the balancing act, which would take several decades, of getting visitors to the parks while attempting wildlife conservation and sound practices of science and preservation. Under his tenure, the National Parks entered adolescence beginning to understand their purpose, establish standardized management practices and more.
So, today I say thank you to (for) these men and their legacy and to all the other men and women who helped protect and preserve some of the best that America has to offer.Side note: I loved the documentary and highly recommend it! The cinematography is absolutely stunning, and the stories are beautiful, awe-inspiring and occasionally heart-breaking. I found it interesting that history, as far as the conservation goes, keeps repeating itself. The same power from the Antiquities Act that President Theodore Roosevelt used to save the Grand Canyon is the same authority President Bill Clinton used less than 20 years ago to protect the Grand Staircase in Utah. Perhaps in 50 years, the people there will come to appreciate it as much as most people appreciate that the Grand Canyon was saved. Another observation is the similarity between what our National Parks went through and what I witnessed China’s parks are going through. Right now they’re at the point we were at after WWII when people flooded the parks because they had the means to. Maybe in the next couple of decades they’ll begin applying the lessons we learned when things we were killing our parks by overcrowding and other issues.