Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy 100th Birthday, NPS!

View from atop Hightop Mountain on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

One hundred years ago today, the National Park Service was founded. Although the first national park, Yellowstone, had been created by Congress in 1872, no formal administration of the park was ever set up. Even as other parks, like Rainier, Yosemite, and Sequoia, were created, there still was no one agency in charge of them. In addition, funds were rarely allocated to the maintenance and staffing of these parks, often relying upon the U.S. Army to fill in the void and protect the natural beauty and critically endangered wildlife found in the parks.

After 44 years of little to no management, it became evident that the time was right to start managing the parks in a manner befitting their status as national treasures. Thus the National Park Service was born, and it has been in charge of the United States national parks since. All in all, they've done a wonderful job of managing the parks, balancing the sometimes contradictory mandate of preserving our natural heritage and providing for the recreation of all Americans.

Sure, the NPS has had its share of controversies, and like all government agencies it's had moments of bureaucratic idiocy. Far too often, particularly in its early days, it erred on the side of "recreation", at the expense of preservation. It's history in acquiring land for some of its parks, particularly Shenandoah, is not especially noble. And in large part due to how much we love our parks and enjoy visiting them, they have a hard time keeping up with maintenance and care of amenities.

Nevertheless, without the NPS, our nation wouldn't have quite the excellent set of National Parks, Monuments, Memorials, Seashores, Lakeshores, Scenic Rivers, Recreation Areas, and Historical Parks as we do. Without the involvement of the NPS, it's unlikely the Appalachian Trail would be as complete or as stable as it is today. Treasures like Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah might have small state parks or private resorts around the most important areas, but most would be divided amongst retreats for the wealthy, unavailable to the vast majority of Americans (such as what has happened in areas along the Appalachian Blue Ridge not protected by the the NPS or other protections). Historic sites of all types would be lost, or would be covered in cheap, gaudy tourist traps. Important species and subspecies, such as the Florida panther, the bison, the gray wolf, and many others, would have been lost. While less important in some sense, millions of memories and stories would have been lost, as fewer people would have been able to witness sites like Glacier Point, Old Faithful, or the mosquito clouds of the Everglades (OK maybe that one some people would rather not remember).

Last year I enjoyed hiking a sizable chunk of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. In addition, I hiked through Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in WV, and along a stretch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Trail in Maryland. I also visited, but didn't hike, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I enjoyed most of my time in the parks (save for the mishap with the swiss army knife), and am looking forward to a trip to some of the big parks of the west next month. That it's the 100th birthday of the NPS played a major role in this decision, although it doesn't take too much prompting to get me to visit Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, or Grand Canyon.

Of course, I'm not the only person to have that idea. Many of the parks are busy, which is creating a major challenge for the next hundred years, one which isn't helped by the effects of global climate change. As the parks attract more visitors, they put a strain on the resources of the park, threaten the experience for everyone, and can cause great strain to the animals and plants that need these parks to survive. In addition, solutions to open up parks to everyone in America, and not just those with the incomes to fly or drive to parks that are often quite isolated from population centers, will have to be solved as we continue to urbanize and diversify as a people. This also will require the NPS to continue to adapt its interpretive materials to tell the whole story of the peoples of America, even if often times it isn't exactly a reflection of the best of us. For the most part the NPS will have to do this with far too few dollars coming from the federal government, relying mostly upon fees and the generosity of donations both small and large to educate, entertain, and inspire.

All in all, I'm looking forward to the next 100 years!

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