No, national parks are not America’s best idea.

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Photo by: Glenn Nelson

Published by: Association of National Park Rangers.

Written by: Alan Spears.

PERSPECTIVE: CULTURAL RESOURCES

When I was a boy, the annual summer pilgrimages my family made to Gettysburg National Military Park ignited my lifelong passion for American history. As a high school student, I experienced my first clean-up event at Fort Dupont, a National Park Service site across the street from my parent’s house in southeast D.C. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked for the National Parks Conservation Association, helping to fulfill our mission: to protect and enhance America’s national parks for future generations. I think it would be fair to say that America’s national parks mean a great deal to me.

But parks are not America’s “best idea” and describing them as such may be preventing us from creating and sustaining the diverse constituency our national parks need to survive and thrive in their second century.

Any African American worth his or her salt will tell you that national parks don’t crack the top 10 list of best ideas. The Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, respectively, all occupy a higher place in the order of best ideas than our national parks. Gay men and lesbians probably feel the same way about the recent and long overdue Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Asian Pacific Islander Americans might add to this burgeoning list the repeal of racist exclusionary laws. For women, it may be the passage of the 19th Amendment.

The “best idea” language has the potential to alienate more people than it attracts because it assumes we all regard national parks with the same unfettered and unequaled devotion. This is simply not the case. If asked to choose between the Grand Canyon or a landmark decision on Civil Rights that guarantees me equal protection under the law, Brown v. Board of Education wins with me hands down every time. And this isn’t strictly a racial and ethnic thing, either. Are we really prepared to say that national parks rank higher than the Bill of Rights, the G.I. Bill and the space program?

Park enthusiasts moved to hyperbole by the majestic splendor of our National Park System often fail to see the arrogance at the heart of the “best idea” sentiment. It’s the assumption that those who don’t get national parks have failed to embrace a universal concept. That they (we) need to be converted into believers not for the sake of park protection but to improve shoddy lives not yet blessed by a visit to Old Faithful. We see this expressed most perfectly by contemporary relevancy and diversity doubters who proclaim that in a democracy there’s no harm if black and brown people are staying away from national parks of their own accord. “If they don’t get it (parks) they don’t get it!” and perhaps don’t deserve it.

There is more to our history

Two large challenges emerge to this reasoning. First, it takes a completely historical approach to the development of the National Park System and our shared legacy as Americans. In 1916, the year the Organic Act was written and the National Park Service established, 55 African Americans were lynched. Discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities was the of the land. If you’ve ever wondered why black and brown people haven’t been seen at the national parks party in representative numbers, it’s because from the very start of the parks idea we’ve been preoccupied with other concerns.

Second, it ignores the current need our national parks have for broadening their base of political support. We need more wins on park funding, resource management and protection, and a stronger defense against harmful legislation and riders that, on a monthly basis, seek to undermine the health of our national parks. It is therefore critical to create and sustain the most diverse, informed and well-engaged constituency possible to influence our elected leaders to treat national parks with the respect they deserve. The best idea notion complicates that outreach by promoting the argument that the people need parks more than parks (and park advocates) need the people.

Fortunately, champions from diverse and underrepresented communities are stepping forward to take their rightful places at the forefront of the environmental, conservation and preservation movements. Those who marched from Selma to Montgomery and their descendants are now preserving that hallowed ground. The people who led the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn, and their descendants, are leading the campaign to have that historic site given its rightful place in the National Park System. This is progress.

But please let’s not attribute the rise of the underrepresented to a new found devotion to America’s best idea. Rather, I think that our national parks are like most of the other laudable, lofty ideals created by Americans; an ever-evolving concept filled with great promise and in need of constant stewardship. If our job as citizens is to help create a more perfect Union, then it makes sense that we should all have a role in creating a more perfect National Park System. I think people of color and underrepresented groups are ready to take on a larger share of that responsibility, but only if we can have an honest discussion about when, where and why we enter the national parks movement, and where those magnificent sites fit into the long list of America’s best ideas.

Alan Spears is the cultural resources director for the National Parks Conservation Association. He lives and works in Washington, DC. He can be reached at aspears@npca.org

 

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11 thoughts on “No, national parks are not America’s best idea.

  1. Pingback: No, national parks are not America’s best idea. | Yeah I Said It

  2. As a NPCA supporter, I completely understand your sentiment and emotional reaction to this “motto”. Perhaps the National Parks are not the only best idea America has had. However, it was a very good American idea, and one created for some amazing reasons: setting aside these places unimpaired to be enjoyed by all, including future generations. I think that saying that this goal is not one of the best ideas is insulting to the people like Stephen Mather and John Muir who worked so hard to create it, the ones who keep it going, and our nation as a whole. There were some other best ideas for sure, but many would argue that the emancipation proclamation and legalization of gay marriage should have come much sooner and were hardly American ideas at all (for example, France abolished slavery in 1794, Britian in 1833, and many countries recognized same sex marriage and equal voting rights long before the U.S.). I hope that people of all backgrounds can appreciate and honor the National Parks as maybe not the only best ideas America has ever had, but certainly one of the top.

    • I’m sure Native Americans would have a different say so in this debate as well. Nature is in no way mans creation, so the notion that it belongs to man, is a misnomer in itself. But we are all entitled to our opinions. As a person of color, I would put more creed in abolishing slavery than labeling “an idea” as having a greater impact on society, especially when people of color are the least likely demographic to visit a national park site.

      • Ms. Baker,

        I’m sure you are aware that many Native American tribes are heavily involved in the managemnt of the NPS sites that are a part of their culture. In point of fact, the management of Death Valley NP is mandated by law to consult with the elders of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe on most every decision made that affects the park. No one is claiming ownership of any of the National Parks. The NPS holds those lands in trust for the “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The founders of the National Park Service had the foresight to preserve these places. Without the selfless efforts of many, some of the most scenic and important places in our country would not exist as they do today. Furthermore, one of the characteristics I esteem most highly, in the National Park Service, is the unflinching representation of our history. Many of the events and places remembered and preserved are emblematic of our failings as a country. Certainly there are events in our history more important, more life changing and more integral to our collective history than the creation of a national park service. However, what that act did was express our best ideals. Those ideals of freedom for everyone, without reservation, and protection of these parks for generations as yet unimagined. We are the fortunate recipients of the most expansive and well protected park system in the world. If we can get more people to visit, cherish and protect these places we should, by all means. The question is how are we going to accomplish this? That is a far more important discussion than this one.

      • Thank you for your comments Matt. Why is it up to you or anyone else to decide what is and isn’t important for someone else to discuss? There are several topics around our national parks that are relevant to people of color. And those who are responsible for policies around our national parks, are not addressing, so it’s up to me and others who deem this topic important, find our own ways to address them, this is one such way. Are you aware that the NPS is 82% white? You can’t point out one park and make it seems as if the stats there apply across the board. I would encourage you to check out this video where NPS employees and others, are addressing matters around diversity and inclusion: Diversity and inclusion in our wild spaces

      • Ms. Baker,

        I’m sure you are aware that many Native American tribes are heavily involved in the managemnt of the NPS sites that are a part of their culture. In point of fact, the management of Death Valley NP is mandated by law to consult with the elders of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe on most every decision made that affects the park. No one is claiming ownership of any of the National Parks. The NPS holds those lands in trust for the “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The founders of the National Park Service had the foresight to preserve these places. Without the selfless efforts of many, some of the most scenic and important places in our country would not exist as they do today. Furthermore, one of the characteristics I esteem most highly, in the National Park Service, is the unflinching representation of our history. Many of the events and places remembered and preserved are emblematic of our failings as a country. Certainly there are events in our history more important, more life changing and more integral to our collective history than the creation of a national park service. However, what that act did was express our best ideals. Those ideals of freedom for everyone, without reservation, and protection of these parks for generations as yet unimagined. We are the fortunate recipients of the most expansive and well protected park system in the world. If we can get more people to visit, cherish and protect these places we should, by all means. The question is how are we going to accomplish this? That is a far more important discussion than this one.

  3. “America’s Best Idea” means the United States created the idea and formed the thought into reality, first. While eguality is the best idea of all, it was not original the United State. The UK ended slavery across the British Empire by 1833, the Netherlands had same-sex marriage equality by 2000, women had the right to vote in New Zealand by 1893… the United States created the world’s first national park in 1872. The United States cannot take credit for every “best idea,” we should still be proud that we saw the value in following the good example set by other nations. As they have followed us– there are nearly 7,000 national parks world wide today.

      • “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
        – Carl Sagan

        Obviously the United States did not make the grass, trees, animals, or caldera of Yellowstone National Park. They created the legal protection it.

  4. A really good and thoughtful piece, emphasizing process, evolution, and historical context. Even Ken Burns’ film took issue with this phrase about 10 minutes in for some of the same reasons.

  5. National Parks are not just natural places – they are also man made places – by law, by boundaries, by brick. mortar, hammer and nails. Our historic sites, monuments and memorials exist to remind Americans of our ideal ideas – freedom, equality, justice – and they also remind us that ideas are just ideal concepts if we don’t actively work to implement and sustain them. Perhaps “Best” wasn’t the best descriptive, it is the quote. I do believe that a National Park System is certainly one of America’s better ideas, an ideal idea that should be neither exclusive in concept or practice.

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