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America's greatest idea

POSTED August 12, 2015 8:49 a.m.
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For the past few weeks, we’ve been doing what can only be termed "the Great American Road Trip."

Heading out from Minnesota, we’re midway through a monthlong, giant loop of the western states, chewing our way through corn fields and canyons and along beachside cliffs.

When planning this trip, we strategized a sort of “national parks greatest hits.” We wanted to give our kids a sense of the beauty and grandeur of America. The hardest part was deciding what to leave out.

There were some heavy losses. The Grand Canyon didn’t make the cut for this particular adventure, and we had to skip some highly lauded favorites, such as Bryce Canyon and Mesa Verde.

But we’ve managed to feast our eyes on some amazing sites, from the red rock of Arches and steep canyons of Zion to the sheer granite cliffs of Yosemite and massive trees of the Redwood forests.

And that’s just the first half.

The novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called the national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Standing in the shadow of Yosemite’s El Capitan, it’s easy to agree with his declaration.

In the mid-20th century, Stegner saw a world rapidly changing, expanding and commercializing. In “This is Dinosaur,” he wrote:

“It is a better world with some buffalo left in it, a richer world with some gorgeous canyons unmarred by signboards, hot-dog stands, super highways or high-tension lines, undrowned by power of irrigation reservoirs. If we preserved as parks only those places that have no economic possibilities, we would have no parks. In the decades to come it will not be only the buffalo and the trumpeter swan who need sanctuaries. Our own species is going to need them, too.”

Sixty years after he wrote these words, the pace of life has only quickened, and the respite found in the national parks is needed now more than ever. In fact, I found one of the most freeing (and, OK, sometimes frustrating) parts of our visits is that we got no cell service. We couldn’t call, text, post to social media or look up the nearest hamburger joint. It was just us and the rocks and the trees.

That the national parks were created at all, back before the word conservation was part of our everyday vernacular, is to me a part of their wonder. These wide swaths of land are rich in natural resources and, like much of the East, could have easily been exploited for economic purposes.

Yet as early as the mid-1800s, several key naturalists began to worry about the effect of logging, grazing and westward expansion on America’s pristine landscape. While Yosemite was designated as the first protected land by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, it was the influence of writers such as John Muir and heavy-hitting politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt that led to the park’s ultimate establishment decades later.

Even today, the influence of Muir, who co-founded the Sierra Club, can be felt throughout California from the 211-mile stretch of John Muir Trail to the towering trees of Muir Wood National Monument.

In 1872, under the direction of Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone was established as the first national park. For a while, the parks were managed by a random assortment of agencies, including the U.S. Army. Conservationists struggled with deciding what protected land would mean. Some argued for complete protection, while others argued for sustainable use of resources.

For instance, even with Yosemite’s national park status, San Francisco officials came in and dammed its Hetchy Hetch valley despite efforts and outcry from Muir and other members of the Sierra Club.

It wasn’t until 1916, with the official formation of the National Park Service, that these protected lands fell under a cohesive organization.

I’ve spent many summers of my life visiting the national parks. This time, perhaps because of the lateness of the season, we found ourselves surrounded by thousands of Europeans on their grand tour of the American West. It was like a mini United Nations hiking through Zion’s Narrows as we chatted with people from as far away as Australia and the Netherlands.

There was also no shortage of crowds. Despite the heat, we were joined in Zion by what one worker said was close to 35,000 people. While it’s easy to get annoyed with the crowds, it’s also heartening to see people flock to nature like it’s Disneyland. We are all, as Stegner wrote, still looking for that sanctuary.

Next year, the National Park Service will turn 100 years old. In part to celebrate, this fall the park service is rolling out Every Kid in the Park, an initiative that will allow every fourth-grade kid in the United States free access to the national parks for an entire year. This means the parks will be more accessible than ever to our young people.

In 1912, Muir wrote the following in the publication “The Yosemite”: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”

The words ring truer today more than ever.

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