May 20, 2013
Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Special for USA TODAY
Among the annual rites Americans undertake this spring — from cleaning the garage to prepping the garden to analyzing the schedules of their favorite baseball team — we’d like to suggest one more. Prepare to inspect your property.
In particular, promise yourself to visit some part of the 84 million acres of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth and most significant sites from our collective history: our national parks.
They belong to you, after all. Isn’t it about time you checked on the inheritance bequeathed to you by previous generations?
There’s some good news and bad news for this year’s inspection tour.
The good news is that your holdings have expanded. In January, when President Obama signed the legislation creating Pinnacles National Park in California, he ended a 10-year drought, during which Congress had failed to create a new national park. That’s the longest fallow period since the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, was set aside in 1872.
In addition, the president dusted off a 1906 law and put it to use saving even more places with the mere stroke of his pen. Invoking the unique, unilateral authority granted presidents since the time of Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act, Obama created nine new national monuments.
These monuments commemorate people and places important to American history:
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad that ushered slaves to freedom across Maryland.
A Civil War site at Virginia’s Fort Monroe.
The Ohio home of Charles Young, the first African-American U.S. Army colonel who commanded the famed Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippine-American war and then led them in protecting Sequoia National Park at the turn of the last century.
The California home and workplace of civil rights and farm labor leader César Chávez.
A collection of sites in Delaware called First State National Monument, meaning the Park Service at last has a presence in all 50 states.
In addition to Pinnacles, these four other new monuments protect vital landscapes and ecosystems:
1,000 acres in the San Juan Island archipelago in Washington’s Puget Sound.
4,700 acres of sensitive archaeological sites at Chimney Rock in Colorado.
7,200 acres of central California coastline at Fort Ord.
240,000 acres around the Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico.
All in all, that’s something to cheer about, an exercise in what Roosevelt called the “essential democracy” of the national parks, “the preservation of the scenery, of the forests … and the wilderness game for the people as a whole instead of leaving the enjoyment thereof to be confined to the very rich.”
This grand experiment, applying the Declaration of Independence to the land and proclaiming that our most majestic and sacred places should be preserved for everyone and for all time, has been renewed and refreshed by these additions. Every American is a little richer for it — and not just in the total amount of acres each of us co-own with one another.
And the bad news? The budget stalemate in Washington, known as “the sequester,” is hitting the national parks especially hard. Right at the moment when these treasures are preparing for the busiest part of their year, the mandatory across-the-board funding cuts mean park managers won’t be able to hire all the seasonal workers needed for the tourist season. Some campsites will have to be closed. Some interpretive programs led by the nation’s most popular government employees, National Park Service rangers, may not be offered. This will diminish the educational and inspirational potential of what Stephen Mather, the first NPS director, correctly called these “vast schoolrooms of Americanism.”
Some in Congress, complaining about Obama’s flexing of the Antiquities Act, have threatened to repeal what has proved to be our nation’s most important conservation tool over the course of a century.
Sadly, as we learned in making our PBS documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, congressional indifference to the health of our parks and shortsightedness in regards to their lasting value is nothing new. The earliest parks had to be protected by the Army (including Charles Young and his Buffalo Soldiers) because Congress didn’t get around to creating an agency to do the job until 1916, when the National Park Service came into being.
That same year, when it set aside what is now Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Congress declined to appropriate any money for the new park’s preservation on the belief, one senator explained, that “it should not cost anything to run a volcano.” And when Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to save the Grand Canyon from being despoiled, many in Congress howled that he had overstepped his executive authority. Does anyone now doubt he did the right thing?
But spring is not the season of discouragement. It’s the season of hope. From Acadia in Maine to the Everglades in Florida, from California’s Death Valley to Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic, there are more than 400 sites in the national park system.
Visit one this year. Take your family. Show your children — or your parents — part of the magnificent inheritance that belongs to every American.
Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns are creators of the PBS documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. In 2009, they were named honorary park rangers by the director of the National Park Service.