Amidst the wall of noise around today’s government shutdown, the closure of Yosemite on its 123rd anniversary has garnered special attention. In his prolific series “The National Parks” filmmaker Ken Burns expertly documented how our parks system embodies the soul of American democracy. It is understandable, therefore, that many find it ironic that the Parks are among the first “non-essential” government services to be rescinded during a shutdown. Before jumping the bandwagon to sarcasm, we should reflect on whether Americans still command the same democracy that once yielded our National Park Service.
It’s really not ironic, in an America where corporations have been elevated to the status of individuals, that our National Parks, the people’s parks, are relegated the minor role of non-essential subsidiaries. The loss of access to our Parks is our reward for allowing the interests of the elite to subjugate the interests of the majority; the very antithesis of the charter of the National Park Service.
Although today commemorates President Harrison's 1890 designation of Yosemite as a National Park, federal endorsement of Yosemite actually began with Abraham Lincoln in 1864. At the height of the Civil War, Congress and the President took the time to craft and pass legislation to reserve Yosemite Valley “for public use, resort, and recreation… inalienable for all time.” Federal protection of Yosemite Valley came not a moment too soon, as private interests had begun to exploit the area for minerals and timber. One-hundred-fifty years on, the region surrounding Yosemite, once known as the Mother Lode, ever bears the scars of these frenzied conquests.
In a report on Yosemite commissioned by President Lincoln, Fredrick Law Olmstead invoked the Declaration of Independence, putting forth the idea that it is the “political duty” of a government representative of the people to set aside these free open spaces to facilitate our “pursuit of happiness.” It would seem that each iteration of U.S. Government between Lincoln and FDR agreed with Olmstead, as Yosemite, and the National Park Service, received increasing endowments over this period.
In the throes of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of his New Deal. The CCC was a source of income for over three million young, unskilled men otherwise unemployable in the Depression economy. Under the supervision of the United States Army, in adherence to guidelines created by the National Park Service, the Corps achieved improbable feats of conservation and responsible development in our nation’s parks. The CCC accomplished over half of all reforestation in the history of the United States during the less than ten years it operated. The Civilian Conservation Corps not only benefited the men it employed, but built an infrastructure still in use in today’s National, State, and local parks.
It has been less than one month since the western entrance to Yosemite reopened, after the Rim Fire consumed over 200 acres of forest, 70 thousand acres within the park. Last week, travelers were once again permitted to stop at Rim of the World viewpoint, situated in the Stanislaus National Forest, on the last stretch of Highway 120 leading into Yosemite. From the Rim of the World, visitors can see for miles, and no visible portion of the surrounding area was spared from fire that burned so fiercely that 40 percent of the burn area is now barren.
Scenes at the Rim of the World were similar to a funeral for a dignitary; ranging from intense displays of sadness by those who intimately felt the loss, to solemn observation by those seeking an outlet to experience the gravity of such an important event. There was little of the relief and jubilation normally associated with a welcome break from a long car ride, the inescapable smell of charred timber mingled with the air of shared sadness. Everyone speaking in low tones, couples approached the edge of the viewpoint and instinctively pulled each other close. A mother quietly turned her face away from her children, trying to hide the tears in her eyes. Many people said nothing at all, staring silently at the blackened hills, listening to the rattling embers of trees that shaded the path of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt.
Those Americans who zealously believed that within our borders the very best places should belong to everyone, felt that every person in America was “endowed by their Creator” to have access to these lands—nowhere before had citizenry ever been entrusted with such a bounty. There was no precedent, in any country on earth, to the U.S. National Park Service. Our Parks, arguably more than any aspect of our government, symbolize what makes U.S. democracy worthy of aspiration; only in the United States of America could this idea have been conceived of, nurtured and realized.
The Parks were made possible not only through popular will, but through the dogged initiative of the very wealthy. Barons of industry from Stephen Mather to John D. Rockefeller donated the equivalent of billions of dollars from their own pockets to develop the National Parks Service. Nearly every officer and landscape architect in the formative years of the Parks Service was a graduate of Harvard. Each adamantly believed in the idea that these lands must be reserved for the good of the people, understanding that refining the quality of life for the masses was to the benefit of all.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin chastised the United States for our hubris cautioning it is “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Some American voices, concerned with the possibility of military action in Syria, accepted this notion that the influence of “American exceptionalism” on government leads only to folly. However, in our National Parks we maintain a living testament to the worth of such thinking when properly employed.
Each U.S. citizen bears ownership of the granite cliffs of Half Dome and the prehistoric sequoias of Merced Grove. National Parks are a symbol of our national identity, but they are more than that, our Parks are part of the fabric of ourselves. Americans claim a wide variety of ethnicities, traditions and values that make us individuals, but we all share equally the privilege of tracing our lineage to a common living ancestor: our National Parks. In a world of 7.1 billion people, this entitlement makes Americans very exceptional.
The current government shutdown is only temporary, our access to Yosemite will likely be restored in time for anyone so inclined to deliver a belated birthday greeting. The lasting trouble is wrestling with the reality that our government, lacking the acumen to even keep itself open, is hopelessly inept. The bleak truth is that quality of life has stopped improving for the majority of Americans; the United States is no longer equipped to realize dreams as big as a National Park Service. Our landscape is charred, and it remains to be seen whether we will ever recover the fertile ground for innovation and democracy that once made the United States of America great.