This Father’s Day weekend, President Obama and his family plan to visit Yosemite National Park to get an early start on celebrating the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, which officially happens in August. I don’t know exactly what the president will say, or which trail he and his family will hike when they visit the park, along with thousands of other Americans, but I hope they find some solace in the extraordinary beauty that is Yosemite. The past few years have been tough ones for victims of hatred and violence, and it’s been a heart-breaking week for our friends and loved ones in the LGBTQ community in Orlando and everywhere.
Violence and divisiveness have long marked our history like a recurring fever, yet as a nation we have survived. Ultimately, our republic has done more than survive: It has emerged wiser, stronger, and fairer. By hard-won degrees, we have edged nearer to fully realizing the idealistic principles on which our democracy was founded. For all our current problems, we live in a country that is indisputably more just and equitable today than it was 50, 100, or 150 years ago.
At the same time, though, no one could argue that America is as just and equitable as it should be. The question we face every day is how can we come closer to bridging that gap? But the president’s trip to Yosemite puts me in mind of a different question: Where can we come closer to bridging that gap? Part of the answer, I think, is where President Obama and his family will spend this weekend — in our national parks, the crown jewels of our public lands.
“Nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” wrote John Muir just over 100 years ago in The Yosemite. That was his gospel. Today, we put it more prosaically: Spending time outside lowers stress, strengthens health, improves academic performance, and builds community ties. But the basic message is the same. Our national parks and public lands are not a luxury — they are vital to our well-being. And the days they can help us most are our darkest ones. To experience their healing power is to rediscover our shared humanity.
From the day it was founded, the Sierra Club has worked to protect these precious resources from the inhuman forces that threaten them. Over time, though we’ve gained the wisdom to know that simply protecting them is not enough. Now, more than ever, we need to work just as hard at ensuring that the benefits of these public lands can be shared by all Americans.
President Obama and his family clearly love the outdoors. Even more important, though, is that no other president — not even Theodore Roosevelt — has shown a deeper understanding of the real value of our national parks and monuments to all Americans. Certainly, no other president has done so much to make them more inclusive. Simply by choosing to bring his beautiful family to places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite for summer vacations, the president has made a difference. His national monument declarations also reflect this sensibility, but my favorite example is his administration’s “Every Kid in a Park” initiative. It set the goal of providing every single fourth grader across the country the chance to visit America’s great outdoors free of charge.
Every kid. All Americans. That’s who our public lands belong to, and that’s who we’re protecting them for.