Today marks 100 years since the inception of the US National Parks Service. Normally I’m not much more than a passing history buff, certainly not when it comes to government programs, but this one in particular not only represents some truly great moments in my life, but is tasked with preserving and representing what are to me some of the greatest and most important parts of the country. In a time of burgeoning industrialization and expansion we had the foresight to not only set aside these places against our own talent for destruction, but to recognize that they needed an agency to continue their defense and to educate new generations about what makes them truly remarkable.
My introduction to the wilderness of the US actually started in a state with very little federal parks presence, but with an extremely visible delineation between protected and unprotected land. As I was growing up whenever we would travel from the valley into the hills and mountains we would pass vast areas of barren hillsides, denuded by logging. The contrast to the rich, lush green of the still untouched forests of protected wilderness areas was as stark a lesson as any children’s book, more lasting even than the pastel pages of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. This was very real loss happening before my own eyes. Growing up around logging and mills and with my dad working for a stint as a reforestation tree planter I knew that this destruction was not undertaken frivolously, but it was nonetheless a visible scar, the hills a Frankenstein patchwork of tree growth and the obvious sweeping hand of industry.
Ironically my first real exposure to the national parks was Volcano National Park, a place notable for a significant lack of trees. But the most important aspect of this park wasn’t necessarily preservation, but education. This was one of the best places in the country to see the earth itself function as a living, changing thing and see how we came to understand it. This park was also a prime example of protecting us from ourselves, as without guidance a shocking number of people would try to wander into a live volcano.
In 2005 I set out on my first ever multi-state road trip that spanned a significant section of the northwestern US in just under 2 weeks. Initially I had intended to hit a few highlights on my way from Oregon to Colorado and back, but the further I went the more I realized just how many parks I passed, some I had never even heard of. When I saw a park or monument on the map near my designated route, I had to detour to it. Some were iconic, like Devil’s Tower or Little Bighorn, others were simply grand and could only be sampled in relatively small portions like Rocky Mountain National Park. Each place was a unique and humbling experience.
On this trip I began my habit of keeping every National Park Service map as a souvenir, marking off the seemingly endless number of parks. While not representative of all the places I’ve been, for instance just last month my dad and I visited Crater Lake National Park however I neglected to get a map as we walked in off the Pacific Crest Trail, it reminds me of all the fantastic places in the US I’ve been and have yet to see, and for most cases would love to go back to. Before I even moved back to the US from my time in Australia I began compiling road trips to nearby parks, eager to see more of these amazing places I’d only experienced secondhand through glowing and breathless accounts and ethereal footage.
These parks to me represent not just the icons of America, but a gateway to appreciating the greater whole. They are a guiding hand into enjoying and understanding the larger world around us, its past and its future, and by proxy our own. And for those of us with the curiosity and enthusiasm, they represent the opportunity to rejoice in the best of what the natural world has to offer.
“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. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”
– Theodore Roosevelt