National Park System at 100


By Fr. Bud Grant

Happy 100th anniversary to the National Park System. Founded on Aug. 25, 1916, its 400 sites protect 84 million acres. This is the story of amazing visionaries.

In his essay “Nature” (1836), Ralph Waldo Emerson inaugurated a quintessentially American (if not particularly new) philosophy, arguing that nature is our moral and spiritual guide. This influenced Henry David Thoreau, our first naturalist — a student of nature as a whole, rather than of a specific species. Among his famous dictums is: “In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World” (Walking, 1861).

Fr. Grant
Fr. Grant

John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, explored the American West in 1869 and 1872. He revealed the natural wonders of unexplored territories to America. At his urging, Thomas Moran painted Yellowstone. His three colossal paintings, exhibited in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, influenced Congress to declare Yellowstone the world’s first National Park in 1872.


These explorers inspired John Muir to go for a walk … from Illinois to Yosemite Valley. His essays and poems inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to join him on a camping trip in 1903 (imagine the Secret Service: black suits, sunglasses, hands to their ears, lurking behind the Sequoias). Muir’s famous chastisement: “Mr. President, when are you going to grow up (TR was a famous big-game hunter) and start preserving habitat?’ His response would become the National Park Service.

Gifford Pinchot, influenced by Muir and a personal friend of TR, founded the U.S. Forestry Service in 1905. It now manages 193 million acres that belong to the citizens of America. He insisted that natural areas are best preserved if they are also demonstrably valuable resources (still controversial — Muir broke with him over that). Pinchot’s great protégée was Aldo Leopold (from Burlington, Iowa) whose “A Sand County Almanac” (1949) includes the first ever environmental ethic.

Signed into existence by President Woodrow Wilson, the National Park Service (NPS) would never have happened without Roosevelt, Pinchot, Muir, Powell, Emerson and Thoreau.

It would not have flourished but for environmental activists like Rosalie Edge. In 1929 she created the Emergency Conservation Committee to serve as a watchdog of governmental inefficiency and misguided conservation. She lobbied for “holistic” environmental preservation (as opposed to traditional, fractured, “endangered species” thinking). She helped create two national parks and grew Yosemite by 8,000 acres. Olaus and Mardy Muire helped create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in 1980 — the first entirely protected ecosystem (19 million acres). Celia Hunter, with Ginny and Morton Wood, founded the Alaska Conservation Society in 1960. Until her death she resisted the Bush administration’s efforts to open ANWR to oil drilling.

So, how healthy is the NPS today? Take Yellowstone, which environmental historian Roderick Nash famously asserts we are “loving nature to death” by taxing its resources and demanding services and amenities. Muir convinced us that we need wilderness as relief from what he called (somewhat derisively) “civilization,” but we want our cake and we want to eat it, too. More than 4 million people visited Yellowstone last year. The average visit is plus or minus six hours. Inside Yellowstone are 142 miles of road, seven visitor centers, nine lodges, seven restaurants, six gas stations and 31 shops.

Furthermore, Yellowstone Park is one-sixth of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The rest, managed by USFS, BLM, state, tribe or privately, is susceptible to agriculture, forestry, mining and tourism. We’ve saved the patient’s head but have ignored her torso. Such desiccated ecosystems tend to lose about one-half of their species. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative envision a grand migratory corridor. This is the next leap forward: from isolated “parks” to whole ecosystems.

And then there are climate change-related droughts, wildfires and diseases.

The NPS is a great triumph of human forethought, rooted in our relationship with our land. As with all relationships, however, it requires constant attention, empathetic solicitude and deliberate action if it is going to thrive. Here’s to the next 100 years.

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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