A Century of the Playgrounds of America
Posted on May 12, 2016
As we celebrate 100 years of America’s national parks on August 25, 2016, I have been reflecting on the interesting story they tell about our countries history, recreation & conservation. It’s hard to imagine our country without the national parks–the habitat they provide and the animals they contain–as well as now the huge (you could say overwhelming) volume of tourists they accommodate every year. A summer not long ago, I sat sweating in stopped traffic as far as the eye could see, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the grand canyon behind a solid mass of people & I wished for a unspoiled time when my trip would be more about rocks and less about crowds and vehicles. What I did not realize is that allowing cars to drive through the parks was initially a brilliant marketing move by Stephen Mather in the early 1900’s that changed history –opening them up for everyone to experience as well as raising money that allowed for maintenance and sustainability.
Yellowstone was established in 1872 and was the first national park in the world. The writer Wallace Stegner called America’s idea for the parks “the best idea we ever had”— but by the early 1900’s the dozen national parks & 30 national monuments were unspoiled and vast while at the same time being used and abused by opportunists and desperately in need of infrastructure and maintenance. So begins the work of artists and conservationists towards the preservation of these public playgrounds.
Ken Burns calls the period between 1890–1915, The Last Refuge, the time when a group of people began to care about the future of these amazing places. As they describe this chapter, “A lack of congressional protection for the parks sparks a conservation movement by organizations such as the Sierra Club, led by John Muir; the Audubon Society, led by George Bird Grinnell; and the Boone and Crockett Club, led by Theodore Roosevelt.” TVG
This early work of conservationists, as well as the romance and freedom of the automobile changed the future of the parks, but it was another war that was being fought in the court of public opinion through the amazing work created by artists, photographers and designers who marketed the parks through art, that created an undeniable and permanent romance that has lasted generation after generation.
In addition to all the wonderful fine artists, the artful posters in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s attempted to lead people to “explore America first” and keep tourism in America. In honor of this 100th anniversary they commissioned a series of posters collected in a new book that mirrors the style of the posters that propelled the popularity of the parks.
As I attended a Nature Conservancy lunch today, I was struck by the speaker’s message because it was so closely related to what I was thinking about for this post. Nature is a delicate system, and sometimes it is hard for humans to keep the system from getting out of balance. It is easier to see in hindsight that we sometimes do what we need to do to correct an imbalance–cars and advertising to save the parks for example–and end up creating a situation that is harmful for the very reason that it succeeded so well. People are both harmful and helpful, and our interaction with the natural world is–and always has been–a complicated one.
One of the most important things I realized about the national parks is that they belong to everyone. People are united in our ownership of these parks, despite any other differences we may have. This pride in shared ownership drives many people to feel the importance of exploring, protecting and treasuring them. While I spend a lot of time enamored with human architecture and art, it is also amazing to remember how inspiring and important the architecture of nature is–how much it enriches and gives back to the human spirit and all our endeavors.
“The idea has been constantly debated, constantly tested and is constantly evolving, ultimately embracing places that also preserve the nation’s first principles, its highest aspirations, its greatest sacrifices – even reminders of its most shameful mistakes. Most of all, the story of the national parks is the story of people from every conceivable background who were willing to devote themselves to saving a portion of the land they loved.” The National Park, A Film by Ken Burns