The Significance of National Parks in America

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The first national park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872.
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“Mountains Without Handrails” by Joseph L. Sax speaks about the importance of protecting our national parks.

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.

The parks perform their function without being used up at all. We do not increase our enjoyment of an alpine meadow by picking its flowers, but by leaving them where they are. The more we understand that they are part of a larger system the more we appreciate them in their setting; and in their setting—rather than being perceived as things to possess or to use up—they are inexhaustible.

3. The Parks Are Great Laboratories of Successful Natural Communities

We look at nature with awe and wonderment: Trees that have survived for millennia; a profusion of flowers in the seeming sterility of the desert; predator and prey living in equilibrium; undiminished productivity and reproduction, year after year, century upon century. These marvels intrigue us, but nature is also a model of many things we seek in human communities. We value continuity, stability, and sustenance. And we see in nature attainment of those goals through adaptation, sustained productivity, diversity, and evolutionary change.

Ideas are perhaps the scarcest of all resources, and nature is a cornucopia of ideas in a vast laboratory setting. With a discerning eye, one can see in any park a multitude of examples of efficiency and adaptation—in architecture, in food production and gathering, in resistance to disease, in procreation, and energy use—all of which have counterparts in human society. Our interest in preserving natural systems is not merely sentimental; it rests on preservation of nothing less than an enormous knowledge base that we have no capacity to replicate. To some these are merely practical benefits; to some, they suggest ethical imperatives. Whatever our final characterization, nature provides an unequaled storehouse of material for human contemplation.

4. The Parks Are Living Memorials of Human History on the American Continent

For the most part, the national parks demonstrate the continuity of natural history measured over millennia. The less dramatic span of human settlements is an equally essential part of that history, and the national park system is a richly endowed showcase of our history as a people. Here too adaptation and succession, struggle and continuity, diversity and change are revealed. The settlements of Native American peoples at places like Mesa Verde and Bandelier National Monument; the great sites associated with the American revolution, such as Boston National Historical Park and the principal Civil War battlefields; the communities of early settlers—Cade’s Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains and the mining at Death Valley; the Robert E. Lee home and the Booker T. Washington birthplace.

These places are essential to the aspirations of a free people, for without our history we are at large and vulnerable in the present. In 1984, George Orwell’s great novel of freedom and its loss, one of the most poignant scenes is that where the hero Winston searches for a perspective against which to measure the life in which an all-powerful state had immersed him. But the past had been obliterated: “He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this . . . it was no use . . . nothing remained . . .”


Reprinted with permission fromMountains Without Handrails (2018), by Joseph L. Sax and published by University of Michigan Press.