Tomorrow, August 25, 2016, is the one hundredth birthday of the U.S. National Park Service. Founded on August 25, 1916, the United States has had national parks since 1872. But the NPS as we know it, as an agency within the Department of the Interior, only came fully into being and modern legitimacy in 1916. The history of the NPS is beautifully, if slowly, recounted in Ken Burns’s six-part 2009 sweeping documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. It is a fascinating look at the history of the idea and evolution of national parks, starting with Yellowstone, Yosemite, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and other less familiar names, and ending with present-day concerns and speculations as to the future of the NPS. It is one of my favorite long-form documentaries and I highly recommend it.
National Parks have held an important place in my life and well-being for as long as I can remember. The NPS is vast and spans military battlefields, seashores, parkways, homes, and, of course, areas of natural beauty that are earmarked (more or less) to be left in their original state. Over the course of my life and travels I’ve visited the battlefields of Gettysburg and Valley Forge, the homes of Edgar Allan Poe and FDR, the National Mall, Lake Mead, and the Statue of Liberty, to name a few. I’ve spent more than a little time in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore, birding, swimming, watching wild ponies, and testing salinity, temperature, and cyclic changes to the salt marsh ecosystem. Living in King George, VA, my wife and I have had the privilege of being within easy striking distance of four major battlefields of the Civil War, to say nothing of the countless historic homes of Presidents of the US, their families, and Signers of the Declaration of Independence, many of which are managed by the NPS.
As I said, national parks have played a very important role in my life, both for education and entertainment. But it wasn’t until this anniversary came around that I realized that, while I’ve visited many sites managed by the National Park Service, I’ve really only visited two of the fifty-nine “crown jewel” National Parks, set exclusively aside for their beauty: Acadia and Shenandoah. Acadia, in and about Bar Harbor, Maine, I’ve visited twice: once alone and once with Nancy several years ago. Oh, that blueberry ice cream! Shenandoah I’ve visited more frequently; dined, slept, and most importantly, introduced my son John Adams to the wonders of nature there. Together we’ve seen bears, hiked down to Dark Hollows Falls, been on a piece of the Appalachian Trail, and witnessed all manner of natural wonders. Oh, that black raspberry ice cream! I look forward to many more visits to Shenandoah in the coming years, and I can’t wait to see how he takes to the Great Outdoors as he grows and matures, or what outside activities strike his fancy. Nancy and I envision family camping trips!
But that said about Shenandoah, I now realize how many other national parks there are to explore, and I can’t wait to see some new ones. Great Smoky Mountains NP, for instance, spans both North Carolina and Tennessee and is the most visited national park of them all. We’ve had friends visit there, but maybe someday soon we can see the park for ourselves. Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky is reportedly the largest cavern system in the world. That might scare the little guy right now, but someday…someday. There’s Pinnacles NP, the most recent park added to the system by President Obama in 2013 in California. Of course the biggies – Mount Rainier, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Crater Lake – are bucket list favorites. Or how about Congaree NP, fairly close to us in South Carolina, and a park I’d never even heard of?
There are so many wonderful places to visit throughout the United States, and now I have a new list of misadventures to plan with my family. And of course, there are always those politicians who see no value in preserving such places of beauty; that would rather make a buck, grease a palm, or line a pocket, than preserve for posterity. Ken Burns’s epic is replete with such types, and they’re still with us today. I can only hope that those men and women never achieve high office, or get put in a position to make policy, so that my son can travel off road and see America’s pristine beauty without it being cannibalized for resources and needless profit. I’m watching you D.C. But for now, the National Park Service is alive and thriving, if underfunded, and I have big dreams of sharing as many of them with my family as anyone can pack into a lifetime.
For all the memories past and all the new one’s yet to come I say “Thank You National Park Service” and, on behalf of my family,
“Happy 100th Birthday!!!”
Here’s to many, many more.
What’s your favorite National Park or National Park memory? Let me know in the comments below.