A Common Treasure
Originally published August 25, 2016
“What could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? …In America, magnificence is a common treasure. That is the essence of our democracy.” – Carl Pope
These words were spoken in reference to America’s national parks, highlighting the uniqueness, and the inherent democracy, of the idea that a country’s natural wonders could be collectively owned by its citizens. The national park idea was born in the United States 150 years ago, with the creation of Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872. The theory and philosophy behind the parks idea, and its manifestation in the parks themselves, spurred the birth of the modern conservation movement. The idea that there are wild places worth preserving, places that are better off left unaltered by human influence, was succinctly conveyed by President Theodore Roosevelt upon his first view of the Grand Canyon. He said, “Leave it as it is. Man can only mar it.” This expresses the initial philosophy behind the parks, and upon its creation, the National Park Service took up the cause of maintaining that credo. This philosophy was not universally shared, however, and debates about the best use of these resources continue to this day.
The early years of the parks were marked by disjointed and unorganized oversight carried out by three different departments within the federal government. There was no system of cohesive management or singular source of authority, no common laws governing their use or standard guidelines for their maintenance. It wasn’t until 1916, 44 years after the establishment of Yellowstone, that the bill was passed creating the National Park Service.
“On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act creating the National Park Service, to oversee five and half million acres of some of the most beautiful scenery on earth”.(1)
A year prior, a man named Stephen Mather was employed by the Department of the Interior to oversee the parks. He advocated the idea of a single agency dedicated specifically to their management. In championing his cause to a group of influential friends, he said, “Now I want you to know that our job is not over. It is just beginning. Remember that God has given us these beautiful lands, but none of this will mean anything unless we have a safe haven for these wilderness places. We must have a national park service.”
Mather was witnessing first hand the economic and political forces that were seeking to exploit the parks and prevent the kind of legislation that would create a system under which they could endure. A disturbing common thread was becoming apparent to him. Many of the parks are places that were only recognized as needing to be saved because they were already under direct and immediate threat of destruction. Pair with that the opposition that inevitably arose to the proposed establishment of almost every park, and it seems beyond belief that we succeeded in creating 58 of them. As difficult as these obstacles were, they fueled the fire that motivated the parks’ advocates. If they had not faced such staunch opposition, the parks probably wouldn’t have received the adamant protection that has allowed them to endure all this time. Their intense passion began a tradition of conservation.
As a company, our cause of conserving wild places, wildlife, and their habitat is rooted in the love for the natural wonders of this continent that inspired the creation of the parks; the love that consumed John Muir, compelled Theodore Roosevelt, and stirred so many others to work so tirelessly and devotedly to the preservation of these magnificent places. Like the generation that fought and won our freedom as a nation, they championed a cause that they passed on to us as a living legacy. They preserved these places for posterity. We are the benefactors of their work, and the parks are their gift to us. They also bequeathed to us the concept of conservation as we know it, and the model for balancing preservation and wise use; ideals that transcend the parks, and guide our management of all the resources entrusted to our care, public as well as private.
The parks and the philosophy behind them are as much a part of our national inheritance as democracy itself. We must pass these same gifts on to those who come after us. It is our duty to the generation that fought so hard for them, it is our duty to our children, and it is our duty as Americans. That sense of duty is our motivation and our purpose, and it is simultaneously our contribution to that inheritance.