After a year’s hiatus I have picked up the blog again, because a lot has changed in the last year. I admit that I have been discouraged during this time – about what it means, now, to be an American, about where the Parks fall in people’s sense of what’s important, about what our priorities seem to be today. What I have always loved about us here on this continent is our idealism. The genesis of the National Park movement from its beginning is the belief that we are going to get better at this – that the values we hold will carry us forward if we pay enough attention to doing good for the most people, being fair, assuming the best about others and not forgetting our mistakes so that we do our best to assure we don’t make them again. The response to this way of thinking was to start setting aside places that remind us of this so that the early Americans’ children could see them and know about the people and natural world that preceded them, and that they can, in turn, mirror that experience in protecting the important lessons and places of their time here so their own children can benefit.
So, the news that we are trying to un-protect some National Park lands that we have previously set aside seems to fly in the face of this noble idealism that so characterizes what I think of as my Americanism. Do we really believe that our future is so short that we sacrifice our antiquities, our landscape heritage, our future, for the sake of interests who are intent on exploiting resources on (or under) the land for short-term financial benefit for a few? If we really believe in a long-term future for this country, based on idealistic values that we established two and a half centuries ago, why are we forgetting about “America’s Best Idea” – the idea that the documentation and preservation of our history, culture and our iconic landscapes needs to be protected from short-term thinking and short-run benefit for a few. Has our sense of ourselves as an American community fallen prey to the individualistic sense of “live for today” to maximize personal wealth and power? Have we given up on the future, and on ourselves as an American community?
Even as we hear much news on the national level about a swing away from community-think and future-think, I am encouraged by my work with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and particularly the ATC’s engagement with a cadre of “Trail Communities”, local governments and civic groups in the Appalachian region surrounding the Trail – a program that provides a testimony to big thinking in the long term. As traditional rural economies shrink or disappear altogether, these communities – most of which are in poor counties in remote locations – have embraced the Trail and its visitors as their ticket to the future. The location of a 2100-mile system of connected open space within a half-day’s drive of 2/3 of the nation’s population draws millions from the major metro areas near the trail, even as their own natural spaces shrink with urban growth. People from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Raleigh, Charlotte, Knoxville and Atlanta flock to the mountain ridges and to the Trail that provides access to them, and the Trail Communities along this corridor are embracing their relationship with the Trail as economic development, and preservation of the lifestyle these small towns have established. Places like Damascus, Virginia, and Millinocket Maine have seen their traditional local economies shattered by changing global economies, only to rebound as centers of access to nature – with bicyclists, hikers, youth groups and families supporting hotels, outfitters, restaurants and, ultimately, tax base.
The ATC is embracing its role in bringing these communities together to share best practices, help support the preservation of the natural and settled landscape surrounding the Trail, and provide the volunteer base that essentially runs this National Park Service unit under contract. It is a remarkable system, started by Benton MacKaye, a city planner, in 1921 with his landmark challenge to establish the AT along the East Coast. He saw, using the characteristic American trait of assuming the future will come and we should all benefit, that the East would urbanize and this interconnected system of open land along our Eastern mountain chain would become critical to the millions who live near it. It took 150 years to completely protect the continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine, with no small assistance from the National Park Service and the generous contributions from Federal taxpayers. And now the challenge is to protect the landscape that is viewed from the trail – the forests, farms and fields that speak to an ever-shrinking rural America – an agrarian past that we still hold close in our national consciousness. The AT is the crown jewel of the National Trails System, that also includes the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Natchez Trace and many other linear experiences of history and landscape across the US. Through partnerships with volunteer organizations like the ATC and the Trail Communities along the Appalachian chain, the NPS manages the entire 2100-mile Trail with a staff of about 10. Like the establishment of the National Parks, MacKaye’s vision is truly a reflection of America’s best thinking, which otherwise seems startlingly lacking in a live-for-today world where we seem to be content to ignore that which would benefit us all in the future in our headlong rush to get ours while we can.
This year I received one of my best birthday presents ever, from my son Sam. I now have an America the Beautiful National Park and Federal Recreation Area Lands Pass – my ticket to the lands we have so wisely set aside, from Yosemite to the Everglades, from the Wildlife Habitats of the West to the recreation areas of the South. Now, I really feel like I’m an owner – I’ve got mine, but it’s everybody else’s too. I will end this with one of the best stories we’ve collected in Simon Griffith’s and my travels around the parks. National Park Ranger Gary Bremen addressed a group of new citizens – immigrants – at Biscayne National Park in Florida. In his speech he congratulated them for being new property owners in their adopted country. He got them excited about the Park they are sitting in, and then he told them that they now own it - 23 ½ square feet each. He said that most of them will get water (Biscayne is 95% water), but if they are particularly grumpy or complain too much some of them might get a portion of the bathroom or the parking lot. He also told them they not only own this park, they own 163 square feet of Everglades National Park, just 18 miles away, and 300 square feet of Yellowstone National Park, with its pools of boiling water, geysers and mud pots, its wolves and bears and bison. He told them they all own about 1 1/4 square inches of Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island where so many people just like them had their first view of this country and set foot upon it for the first time. He reminded them that this is ours, collectively AND individually, and the best ideas of generations long passed have resulted in these places being here so we can experience them – live in them for a short while and feel what it feels like to be American. I hope we don’t forget that. I hope we all find new ways to come together and think beyond tomorrow – to our children’s time, when they will set foot on a Trail set aside by their fathers and mothers, and in a desert preserve sacred to those even further removed in time, and remember what’s unique about this society – that we are all in it together and together it represents the best of all of us.
View the MyATStory production – Damascus: http://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/conservation/a-t-community-program