The Significance of National Parks in America

Discover why national parks in America can be considered monuments that stand as a testament to hard work and aspirations of Americans over generations throughout history.

| April 2018

  • The first national park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872.
    Photo by Pixabay/mohamed_hassan
  • “Mountains Without Handrails” by Joseph L. Sax speaks about the importance of protecting our national parks.
    Photo by Moyan Brenn CC-BY

Mountains Without Handrails (University of Michigan Press, 2018) by Joseph L. Sax explores the everlasting importance of national parks in America. With a detailed history discussing the brutal battles over time for recreational use of our parklands, Sax shows why everyone should have a deep appreciation and respect for national parks. The latest issue of this book is a re-release, with a new Foreward by Holly Doremus that discusses the concerns of Sax as they relate to modern-day environmental issues.The following excerpt is his explanation behind the importance of the parks today.

1. The Parks Are Places Where Recreation Reflects the Aspirations of a Free and Independent People

They are places where no one else prepares entertainment for the visitor, predetermines his responses, or tells him what to do. In a national park the visitor is on his own, setting an agenda for himself, discovering what is interesting, going at his own pace. The parks provide a contrast to the familiar situation in which we are bored unless someone tells us how to fill our time.

The parks are places that have not been tamed, contemporary symbols for men and women who are themselves ready to resist being tamed into passivity. The meaning of national parks for us grows as much out of the modern literature of inner freedom and its fragility as it does our of traditional nature writing. “I tell thee,” Dostoyevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov, ”that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.”

2. The Parks Are an Object Lesson for a World of Limited Resources

In the national parks the visitor learns that satisfaction is not correlated to the rate at which he expends resources, but that just the opposite is true. The parks promote intensive experience, rather than intensive use. The more one knows, searches, and understands, the greater the interest and satisfaction of the park experience.

To a very casual visitor, even the stupendous quality of a Grand Canyon is soon boring; he yearns for “something to do.” The more the visitor knows about the setting, however, the greater its capacity to interest and engage him. He cannot exhaust its interest in a lifetime. In the same way, the more knowledgeable and engaged the visitor, the less he wants or needs to pass through the parks quickly or at high speed. The quantity of resources the visitor needs to consume shrinks as he discovers the secret of intensiveness of experience, and his capacity for intense satisfaction depends on what is in his own head. This of course is what Thoreau meant when in his famous essay “Walking” he said:

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though I have walked almost every day . . . I have not yet exhausted them. . . . The limits of an afternoon walk . . . will never become quite familiar to you.


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