“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” — President Theodore Roosevelt
The timing is coincidental but today is the 102nd anniversary of the National Park Service, the federal agency founded by Theodore Roosevelt to manage the national parks, monuments and other natural properties designated for conservation and preservation.
As Americans, we are the beneficiaries of a legacy that kept North America from becoming a patchwork of British, French, Spanish, and Native American colonies. The founders of our country battled – literally – to bequeath us this rich chunk of the planet bordered by oceans east and west, mountains on the north, and sub-tropical deserts to the south.
It’s impossible to overstate the beauty of the American landscape or the importance of preserving and protecting its rich resources.
I was lucky. As a child my parents took me to several national parks, introduced me to park rangers, and helped me understand that these lands were owned by the American people and open for all to enjoy.
When I was younger I loved to adventure in them – rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon, floating for 18 days through the Grand Canyon, tent camping at Cinnamon Bay in the Virgin Islands, sleeping sauvage behind the Awahnee Lodge in Yosemite, scrambling up the Grand Teton with Dick Dorworth, climbing the Camp Muir snowfield on Mt Rainier to meet Doug, riding mountain bikes on the White Rim, Slickrock, and Gemini Bridges in Moab, and camping by the Road to the Sun in Glacier Park.
In recent years, M and I have spent time exploring some of the cultural treasures included in America’s national park system – the Washington Mall monuments and museums, Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam, John Adams House in Quincy, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial along with the Arlington National Cemetery – solemn reminders that our freedom came at a cost.
The National Park Service is an agency in the Department of the Interior (often referred to as the Department of Everything Else), and while it may not be in the news every day, it, could well be the most important agency in terms of long-term impact on the country? It’s not the biggest or the smallest of the cabinet level departments, but it oversees 75% of the land owned by the federal government (Department of Agriculture controls the remainder) and regulates the activities on all that land. Its management responsibility includes the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement. It manages oil and mineral resources and grants permits for offshore drilling.
Even before I was aware of the NPS anniversary, I planned to write about our responsibility to the land, to its parks, managed lands, and natural resources, because the current Secretary of the Interior and a covey of grifters and political hacks have taken over the agency and are moving to cheat us of our inheritance by opening these lands and waters to exploitation by extractive industries.
I find grandstanders repugnant, so it’s impossible to hide my disdain for the current Secretary of the Interior riding a Park Service horse to work his first day on the job. I know he’s from Montana (so am I), but when I see a fool on a horse in downtown DC I’m reminded of a friend’s comment about the stockbrokers and real estate developers who showed up in Sun Valley watering holes in the ’80s and ’90s sporting cowboy boots and Stetsons saying, “Yup, I’ve always worn ‘em.”
What was he thinking, this ex-Navy Seal, now Secretary of the Interior, on a Park Service nag in downtown DC? I think I can hear him now, “Yup, I’ve always ridden a horse to work.” You should also check out the Native American beadwork on those gloves – recently purchased, no doubt, at the Flathead Indian Reservation store in Polson, just south of his “homestead” in Whitefish. “Yup, I’ve always worn ‘em.”
I would still laugh at him, but I wouldn’t be so critical if I thought he was protecting America’s natural resources, but Zinke is a Trump-style raider unlike his predecessor, Sally Jewell, the former CEO of REI (Recreational Equipment Inc), who was an avid hiker and mountaineer as well as a zealous guardian of our national parks and natural resources.
Since taking office Zinke has granted Red-State Florida an exemption from offshore oil drilling while denying Blue-State California the same exception. But, perhaps his most egregious act was reversing the Obama administration’s protection of 1,000,000 acres of pristine red-rock canyons in Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument––to allow uranium and oil interests to drill and extract minerals.
As with all government agencies, budget cuts are pinching the NPS, stretching manpower resources, and mandating increased fees. M and I have Golden Age Passports (now called the America the Beautiful – Senior Pass), lifetime passes that cover entrance and amenity fees to over 2000 federal recreational sites and available to anyone over 62. It’s a bargain by any standard but upsetting that Zinke raised the cost of the pass by 700% last year, making it much more expensive for Americans to enjoy and explore the parks and wild places they own.
On this 102nd anniversary of the National Park Service, my thoughts go back to Theodore Roosevelt who never lost his reverence for the land but lived to see the effects of overgrazing, the exhaustion of specific natural resources, and the need to preserve and protect what remains.
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
TR preserved them for you. You own them now. When was the last time you visited a national park, monument, or museum? You owe it to yourself…and TR. Do it.