Last week, I had to step off the trail I was on to let a band of bighorn sheep rams go by. It was a beautiful route. No matter which way it turned, it led through wildflowers that all but buried the mountainsides in avalanches of color. Golden eagles sailed among the summits. Patches of sun spotlighted waterfalls on the cliffs below. The world seemed in mint condition. I breathed it in deeply and felt recharged. Topped off with hope. Unbounded. And all I’d done was go for a walk in the park.
Much of the pleasure of being there lay in knowing that everything within view belonged to me — because this was Glacier National Park, a U.S. national park. We the people essentially own 58 national parks. Gifts from previous generations, these special reserves of public land encompass nearly 52 million acres of the country’s most spectacular natural settings and intact wildlife communities. They will be one of the most valuable legacies we bequeath in turn to those who follow in an increasingly crowded world.
People say that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. National parks are an exception. If you were the richest, most powerful person on Earth, nothing you could ever possess would outshine this treasury of permanently protected canyons, rivers, prairies, beaches, ancient forests and ice-sculpted summits that the most ordinary U.S. citizen inherits. There may be a more perfect expression of democracy. Offhand, I can’t think of what it would be.
When I stayed on Isle au Haut, part of Maine’s Acadia National Park, I liked to glide along the coast in a rowboat with only my thoughts and silent tendrils of fog for company. My favorite thing to do, though, was ramble the shores with my wife, showing our infant daughter the universe of creatures in a tide pool or eider ducks and gray seals out among the waves.
In Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, we explored orange sandstone mountains eroded into a maze of fins. Our daughter was leading the way now, with a younger brother in tow, scouting for crevices wide enough for us adults to squeeze through. At a visitor center, we found out that the crust atop the desert floor wasn’t formed by minerals but, instead, by a webwork of fungi, algae, bacteria and other microbes. What looked like dark varnish on sun-struck rocks turned out to be a product of bacterial colonies that concentrate manganese. The lesson? Even the barest-looking ground can be teeming with wildlife — it just happens to be mostly too small to see.
As the kids transformed into organisms hardly anyone understands — teenagers — we flew halfway around the world to the South Pacific Islands and one of the U.S. park system’s more recent and innovative units — the 10,500-acre National Park of American Samoa. A little more than three-quarters of the park is lush rain forest and cloud forest. The rest is underwater in the form of a multihued marinescape of coral.
There is virtually no federal property on American Samoa, an unincorporated U.S. territory, so the park exists through 50-year renewable leases with residents on sections of three islands. Local villagers retain the right to tend small garden plots and gather wild foods, fibers and medicines within the reserve. On other South Pacific isles, commercial agriculture has stripped away woodlands and then degraded surrounding reefs and fish populations through the runoff of silt and chemicals. American Samoan families embraced the park agreement as a formula for sustaining the natural bounty that underpins their traditional way of life.
To my family, the setting was an open-air classroom where our curious teens could snorkel among butterflyfish and turtles, then clamber up the jungle slopes of a dormant volcano. We hiked into an overgrown crater to observe a roost of fruit bats big as hawks. The visit even allowed us to participate in a traditional Samoan welcoming ritual, known as a kava ceremony, in a remote village.
To be honest, the knowledge we absorbed about natural history and Polynesian culture came as a sideline to the adventures. No apologies. Bureaucrats may balk, but I could see renaming the U.S. National Park Service the U.S. National Learning a Ton While Having Fun Service. In addition to national parks, the agency manages more than 330 other locales covering about 32 million acres. Many are national historic sites, such as battlefields. Others are national monuments, rivers, seashores, scenic trails or recreation areas. Like national parks, they are primarily public domain managed with three main goals in mind: preservation, education and, yes, sheer enjoyment.
Although the U.S. National Park Service wasn’t formed until 1916, Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Glacier and other national parks had already been set aside. The earliest was Yellowstone, established in 1872 as the first national park in the world. Similar to the U.S. vision of representative government, this concept of designating park land to benefit not merely the inhabitants of a city or region but the populace of a nation as a whole sparked the creation of similar systems in other countries. Today, travelers looking for a national park to visit can choose from several thousand in nearly 100 countries around the globe.
Wherever these reserves are located, they excite, astound, inform and inspire. They kindle a sense of wonder mixed with well-being. They serve as sources of clean air and water. They safeguard native plants and animals that are far more than a prime attraction for tourists. Those species’ genes, chemical compounds and physical characteristics add up to an irreplaceable stockpile of time-tested survival equipment. With advances in technology, scientists are increasingly able to tap this lode for new medicines and materials to aid our own kind.
The undisturbed settings of national parks also yield important discoveries about the workings of ecosystems. At the same time, the reserves serve as benchmarks, or baselines that help us gauge environmental changes elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest value of national parks is their promise to ensure all of these opportunities and rewards for generation after generation.
These days, my children are off on their own, and I’m, well, older. Let’s say “pre-geezer,” with a backpack that still gets plenty of use. Not long ago, I was searching for snow leopards in and around Hemis National Park, one of the many reserves in India with conservation measures modeled after the U.S. park system. Although I turned up tracks, scrapes and droppings at altitudes up to 17,000 feet, I never glimpsed any of the big, frost-colored cats. What I did see on the outskirts of Hemis, however, was one of the last brown bears in India’s portion of the Himalayas.
Brown bears and North America’s grizzlies are the same species, Ursus arctos. As I watched the Himalayan version swim an icy river and power up a series of ledges, my mind flooded with memories of watching grizz in the national parks of Alaska and the Canadian and U.S. Rockies. During the 20th century, the silver-tipped bears declined south of Canada under heavy pressure from shooting and backcountry development. By the 1970s, only Glacier and Yellowstone held noteworthy populations, much as Yellowstone once sheltered America’s last wild bison herds. With added protection under the Endangered Species Act, the grizzlies of the lower 48 are currently increasing in number and expanding into some of their former range.
As newlyweds, my wife and I made our home in Montana, close to Glacier and its array of great, untamed mammals. Ever since, we’ve been members of a rapidly changing modern society that values the ability to escape into scenes that could be from any century in the past 10,000 years. This is more than a habit. It’s a balance I can no longer imagine living without.
We went a step further, signing up for the Volunteers-In-Parks program, and were soon spending days on end deep in Glacier to assist wildlife experts with groundbreaking research. A related program termed Citizen Science connects people with park-sponsored studies that require extra people power — counting mountain goats, for example, or searching for rare harlequin ducks. What do folks get in return for the time and effort they contribute? At the very least, a taste of field biology in good company. With training from park personnel, some citizens emerge with the kind of naturalist skills that enrich every outing for the rest of their lives. Not a bad swap.
I can think of one solid upside to growing older: While a pass to a national park is cheap to begin with, as soon as I hit 62 years of age, I qualified for a senior pass. It cost $10 — a one-time payment that guarantees me entry into every national park in the United States for as long as I draw breath. I’ll leave you to ponder renowned nature writer Wallace Stegner’s statement that national parks are the best idea America ever had. To that I would add they’re also the best bargain.
Douglas H. Chadwick is a wildlife biologist and the author of 11 books — most recently, The Wolverine Way (Patagonia Books, 2010) — and hundreds of magazine articles on natural history and conservation. He conducts research on wolverines as a volunteer in Glacier National Park and serves as a founding board member of the conservation land trust Vital Ground.
Chadwick also wrote Keystone Species: How Predators Create Abundance and Stability for MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
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