You’ve probably heard that this summer marks the hundredth birthday of the U.S. National Parks. You’ve seen commemorative books, read about celebrities’ favorite park picks, and followed social media campaigns urging you to “Find Your Park.”
But they’ve spun it wrong, or at least misleadingly. This is not the parks’ anniversary year; the earliest U.S. National Parks―Yellowstone, Yosemite, Hot Springs, and others―were set aside beginning in the early 1870s. 2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service―that green-and-gray-clad corps of rangers, trail dogs, naturalists, historians, wildlife techs, mappers, artisans, librarians, archivists, interpreters, actors, ‘ologists, and others dedicated to the stewardship of our country’s treasured places and spaces. It’s the people’s birthday, not the places’, though it is easy enough to conflate the two, if the former are properly and lovingly immersed in the latter.
As a biotech and interpretive ranger I have lived in, worked in, and loved four distinct, wild parks, and I count them as my own―not by possession or footprint, but by attention and visceral memory. One park led me to the next; one left me with a scar and a husband. One kicked me in a direction toward grad school and creative writing. All have offered respite, challenge, and grace, and in each I have found heartful allies.
Rangering, sauntering, roving, gallavanting, patrolling, shepherding, story-telling. The best rangers I’ve known are not specialists but generalists, cosmopolitan in their knowledge, skills, attention. The best of the best will haul mountain rescues on Monday, write (or pardon) tickets on Tuesday, lead campfire programs on Wednesday and wield toilet brushes on Thursday.
The NPS Centennial corresponds with my own tenth anniversary in the parks. I set off on my first west-bound Greyhound trek late in the spring of 2006, headed for a Student Conservation Association internship in western North Dakota. I was hungry for unfamiliar terrain, eager to be tested against a rugged landscape. That summer I gorged myself on Rooseveltian history and timelines of conservation legislation, learned how to lead a hike, and practiced answering monotonous questions. At the end of the summer I visited Yellowstone, and was smitten.
Two Junes later a bus dropped me off at a dusty depot in Livingston, Montana. Thus began six summers and a winter of the most meaningful human and place-bonds I’m convinced I’ll ever know. And because a summer seasonal position requires a winter complement, I snagged an early-spring assignment on the Island in the Sky, near Moab in the Canyonlands of southeastern Utah. There, red rock hiking yielded bedrock friendships, and we quickly built a community (as place-based “Parkies” always do) in our fishbowl housing park behind the visitor center.
Most recently I’ve joined a saltier pool of rangers, reckoning with the urban life I wasn’t built for by subway-commuting to a seasonal interp job at Jamaica Bay, in New York’s Gateway National Recreation Area. While I miss the live-in-park experience and rue the epic commuting, I’m once again in love with a place―my place―and stirred up daily by the susurrations of birds and butterflies.
So―here’s howling ‘Happy Birthday’ to our country’s wild and wide-ranging rangerings―and to my own.
What wishes, National Park Service? As you blow out your candles, rangers, what do you hope and aim for, these next hundred years and beyond?
I wish for you―for us―that we might:
*Tell the heartbreaking story. Famed founders held slaves, and fought, killed and died in duels. First peoples were evicted from National Parks, and many of those parks have since been managed as they <maybe> looked and existed “pre-contact.” Early Yellowstone managers squashed pelican eggs, hunted top predators, and stocked lakes with fish species we’ve since brutally fought to eradicate. We kill, and kill often, in the name of conservation. We have made, are making, will make mistakes. Let us honor the American people’s dignity, intelligence, and capacity to forgive and grow, by telling the complete―and yes, the heartbreaking―story, at all of our parks and monuments.
*Walk humbly. To honor place is to recognize one’s relationships within vast ecological networks, and to tread lightly, with wonder and acknowledgment that we cannot know all Nature’s mysteries. Let’s challenge our knowledge and subject it to some serious and attentive ground-truthing.
*Examine our military origins. Though our stewardship of the parks was inherited directly from the U.S. Army, by now we are steady on our feet. May we shed our militaristic conservation approaches, relics of post-war industrial chemical affection, and instead watch weeds and blister rusts across their ecological cycles, rather than rushing to destroy. And must we bear militaristic uniforms, complete with badges and epaulettes―which, I’ve been told, resemble those of U.S. Border Control Agents? Dare I say it―might we examine the channels by which former service men and women are fast-tracked into Park Service positions? Simultaneously―might we expand and expound upon the existing programs to heal and re-integrate soldiers via immersive, adventurous experiences in our great wild parks?
*Invite multiple ways of knowing―particularly indigenous history, experience, and wisdom. The best interpretive spaces and experiences are those that refrain from “gilding the lily”―those which inspire contemplation, meditation, deeper thought, and analysis, without over-interpreting or concluding the story. May we avoid closed histories and solely scientific explanations. Might we be courageous enough to invite meaning, rather than declaring it, and may we finally and more fully share the place-rooted truths of Native Americans.
*Fight the good fight. As conservationists and environmentalists we are fighting both with and against the tide. Americans are coming to understand the direness of the situation: rising seas, bleaching coral, burning oceans, plastic gyres, blistering temperatures, scorching West. But we are still addicted to oil, and to stuff, and for these we are consistently in danger of ruining―for all time―the air, soil, viewsheds, ecosystemic wholeness, and contemplative experiences of our parks. Though exhausting, we must continue our vigil and vigilance in protecting these places and the wildness they contain against infringement by quick profit and energy development.
*Stay the gift shops. Adventures ought to be remembrances enough; let us phase out the consumerist, Disneyland elements of our National Parks.
*Let parks be parks. May we honor Joseph Sax, wilderness pioneer and author of Mountains Without Handrails, in resisting the urge to turn our great wild spaces into playgrounds, theme parks, museums, malls, or cinemas. With no malice toward any of these institutions, let us recognize that they are better left outside the boundaries of the National Parks.
*Root rangers in place. Parkies have been known to wander; perhaps it’s in our nature, but it would behoove the Service to recognize place-based skill and knowledge by working to retain rangers in place. Might we generate winter seasonal positions to help keep summer seasonals in parks (and off unemployment benefits) year-round? And what about offering health benefits more consistently, to the cohort of federal employees with the highest overall rates of illness and injury?
*Cut pants for ladies’ bottoms. I do not jest. If the National Park Service indeed embraces and appreciates its female rangers, I’d charge them to heed fifteen years of requests and cut trousers to fit women’s bodies.
Happy sauntering, rangers. Happy birthday 🙂