Most, if not all, of my favorite memories in my entire life take place inside a national park. There was the time I climbed a 14,000-foot mountain located in a national forest in Colorado, or the time I spent multiple days hiking in beautiful Zion National Park in Utah. One of my most surreal experiences occurred laying on a beach in Acadia National Park in Maine, staring up at more stars than I had ever seen at one time, connecting them to form constellations and seeing the Milky Way shine brilliantly across the expansive night sky. My times in the national parks are what have driven my passion for the outdoors and my relationship with the environment. It is difficult to see these places and not leave with a profound discovered respect for the natural world.
This is not a unique sentiment. The national parks are visited each year by hundreds of millions. Summer is one of the most popular times for the parks, especially among students looking for a more adventurous spring break than the typical beach trip.
There is no doubt that today the National Park Service is one of the most beloved and enjoyed government agencies and is often something supported by both major parties. The first national park was Yellowstone in Montana and Wyoming, established in 1872. It wasn’t until Woodrow Wilson came around that the National Park Service was created under the “Organic Act” in 1916.
Before going further, I feel it is important to talk about something often overlooked in the history of the national parks: the indigenous people who inhabited the land. Parks such as Glacier, Badlands, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon and Death Valley were, as an article by Hanne Elisabeth Tidnam in Medium describes, “taken from the Native American communities that lived within them as part of the United States government’s larger efforts to relocate and remove them.” The establishment of Yosemite drove out the Ahwahneechee people who had inhabited the land for thousands of years prior.
This is just one example in a laundry list of injustices carried out against indigenous nations by the United States government throughout history. It is important to include this part of the narrative when talking about the national parks. Current campaigns like Stop the Con are aimed at raising awareness around issues involving conservation and indigenous people globally. The parks are beautiful monuments to nature that millions of Americans enjoy every year, but to disregard their complicated past would be irresponsible.
Recently, President Donald Trump’s administration surprised many by signing an expansive public lands bill that actually expanded the amount of protected land and permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports efforts to conserve and promote outdoor recreation nationwide. Environmentalists hailed this as a major victory in an administration that has historically championed slashing as much environmental regulation as possible. National Geographic keeps a comprehensive running list of how the president is affecting the environment, and it is mostly all bad news. Could this be a turning point for the president?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this is the case. President Donald Trump released the Department of the Interior’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget this week, and it deals devastating blows to public lands and the national parks. Thankfully, as Wes Siler for Outside said, “the president does not set the official budget — Congress does.” While it is extremely unlikely that this version of the budget ever gets passed, it still highlights where the current administration’s priorities lie.
All of this comes just a few months after the longest government shutdown in history, which left many of our beloved national parks unprotected for days — if not weeks — on end. During the shutdown, many of the parks suffered damages as staffing was drastically reduced. Joshua Tree in California, for example, suffered damages to its ecosystem that could remain for over 300 years as vandals came and cut down the protected trees from which the park gets its name.
Headlines like these are extremely concerning to those who value the parks. What can be done?
By all means, I highly encourage traveling to national parks. Michigan is actually home to a few nationally protected areas such as Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes, which are each breathtaking in their own way. But we collectively need to do a better job of caring for these lands and treating them with respect. That means recognizing their complicated history and actively cherishing the land. It also means providing adequate funding for conservation and maintenance needs.
If you do find yourself traveling to one or multiple locations in the future, it is crucially important to be mindful of your surroundings and take care to not disturb the environment around you. As the old saying goes: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and kill nothing but time.” In line with its original directive, we need to make sure to leave the parks unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
Timothy Spurlin can be reached at email@example.com.