More Than Just a Pretty Place

Celebrating the centennial of a government agency isn’t exactly the norm in America these days, but the National Park Service represents something special. It has taken what Wallace Stegner called “the best idea we ever had” and made it a reality — a system of national parks that is both the envy of the world and the priceless birthright of every American.

Sierra Club members were excited when the National Park Service was created in 1916, and today we’re more than ready to celebrate this centennial. At the same time, though, we want to join the Park Service in using this milestone as an opportunity to think about what we want the next 100 years to look like for America’s national parks, monuments, and historic places.

That was a recurring theme during an online discussion I had last week with National Park Service director Jonathan B. Jarvis, Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp, Latino Outdoors founder José González, and Sierra Club Board director Allison Chin. You can watch it here if you missed it.

We covered a lot of ground, but a couple of themes stood out.

First, our national park system embodies not just our scenery but also our history. Director Jarvis talked about how the National Park Service has consciously chosen to speak more honestly about the Civil War, as well as the relevance of national historic sites such as Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Although President Obama has designated some spectacular public lands as national monuments, he’s also chosen to preserve important historic sites like the Pullman, César E. Chávez, and Honouliuli national monuments.

Second, history shows that we need to bring more democracy to our national park system. One hundred years ago, it was assumed that national parks were relevant only for a particular class of people, and that attitude has been frustratingly slow to change. That’s why the work of leaders like Rue Mapp and Jose Gonzalez is so important, but we can’t expect them to do all the heavy lifting. The responsibility also lies with established outdoor organizations like the Sierra Club. As José said during our discussion, America’s public lands are “both a responsibility and a privilege.” Every American deserves to enjoy them, and all Americans share responsibility for their stewardship.

How do we bring all kinds of people to the parks? One approach is outreach like the Obama administration’s Every Kid in a Park program, which seeks to get every fourth-grader in America to visit a national park this year by offering a free annual pass. Do that 12 years in a row (which is Director Jarvis’s goal), and you’ve reached an entire generation.

Another approach, though, is to bring the parks to the people — what we call “Nearby Nature.” A great example is the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. John Muir once hiked in these mountains, and today they’re within 90 minutes of 15 million people in the Los Angeles Basin.

So let the celebrating begin — for all Americans.

Dad, husband, executive director of the @sierraclub, writer, Jersey Shore native, Little League coach, #Yankees fan, climate hawk. Optimist. Love the Bay Area.

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