“There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principal.”
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt
It is another presidential Roosevelt, the aggressively outdoorsy Theodore, who is most commonly associated with the establishment and promotion of America’s National Park System. It was Theodore’s 1903 camping trip with legendary conservationist John Muir, after all, that led to the long-term protection of the Yosemite Valley. And it was Theodore who created five national parks during his presidency.
The younger Roosevelt, however, also had a deep understanding of what the parks meant to the American psyche. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration used the Civilian Conservation Corps to better the national park system even as the country was mired in the Great Depression. As president, FDR made frequent public trips to the national parks. So did Americans. Even as the country grappled with economic crisis, park attendance skyrocketed.
The elder Roosevelt was a Republican, his younger cousin a Democrat. Both, however, understood how important creating and preserving the park system was to the American experience.
This year, the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and while challenges lie ahead, the system still captures the imagination and support of a vast majority of Americans. At a time of great political discord, we still agree on the importance of protecting our heritage.
A study released earlier this year calculated that Americans put a total value of $92 billion on the nation’s national parks, monuments and recreation areas. The estimate, which included a wide-ranging survey, took into account not only those citizens who use the park, but those who did not but felt it was important they be protected for current and future generations.
“Overall, nearly 95 percent of responding households indicated that protecting national parks, including historic sites, for current and future generations was important to them,” professors Linda J. Bilmes of Harvard and John Loomis of Colorado State University wrote in their report. “This was largely independent of visitation; 85 percent of respondents felt that they personally benefited from National Parks, regardless of whether they visited the parks or not.”
Today there are 412 parks of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the wide-open expanses of Yellowstone in Wyoming to Acadia in Maine to the Everglades in Florida. But the parks offer more than an opportunity to camp. New York’s Ellis Island, which saw the arrival of millions of immigrants to these shores, is part of the system. So are the Bunker Hill Monument and Old Ironsides herself, the U.S.S. Constitution.
And it would be difficult to envision present-day Salem without the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, a which sprawls from the highly traveled visitor center off Essex Street to the Custom House -- the country’s first “national historic site” -- and Derby Wharf on the waterfront.
There are challenges, to be sure. Funding is a constant problem. Bilmes and Loomis report that Congress has cut funding for the Park Service by 15 percent over the past 15 years, even as the number of visitors climbs (In 2015, 307.2 million people visited at least one national park). That puts a stress on the service and the natural resources they protect.
And there are fears many Americans are interacting with those resources in an entirely inappropriate way. The Associated Press reports that the country’s major parks are dealing with increased instances of illegal camping, vandalism, theft and wildlife harassment (including trying to take selfies with buffalo and bear). The paper reported that in July, law-enforcement rangers handled more than 11,000 incidents at the 10 business national parks.
These are significant problems to be sure. But they are solvable, and Congress and the Obama administration should take note of the deep support the parks hold among the American people. Our history and our natural heritage are part of what makes this country great. It is one thing upon which we all agree.