One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating the National Park Service. While other nations do have national parks, no other nation has used the idea to also tell interpretations of the nation’s history, protecting not only battlefields and a few other nationally famous places, but also relatively obscure places that tell different stories, often outside of the mainstream of national narratives. During the last 8 years, with bills to create new national parks out of the question in the face of hostile Republicans utterly outraged by gay people’s existence, not to mention their acceptance in American society, President Obama has used the Antiquities Act to create national monuments, usually to add to the diversity of experiences told by the NPS, including the Stonewall Inn. Just yesterday, Obama created a new national monument, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine. There have been calls for a national park in northern Maine for a very long time, but the lack of federally controlled land combined with the hostility of local residents who believe the timber industry is going to make a comeback to make it very difficult. Finally, the founder of Burt’s Bees gave nearly 90,000 acres of pristine land to the government to make it happen. Hopefully, this sets the groundwork for an expansion of the park over the years, especially as tourist dollars start flowing to the region. Expect more national monuments between now and January, particularly the Bears Ears in Utah and unprotected areas around the Grand Canyon in Arizona, as well as more land in Nevada as Harry Reid has sought to cement his legacy in that state, in part by making the land where Cliven Bundy was illegally grazing a national monument.
Of course, the National Park Service also faces major problems, including that all these new monuments do not come with additional funding and there is a ridiculous backlog of basic maintenance projects that is forcing the agency to seek corporate funding and therefore sponsorship, which is a form of pollution. But who can blame them? Another major issue is of course climate change, where the parks are having to adapt to rapid changes in often very sensitive locations. The parks are trying to educate the public about climate change, despite continued hostility from Republicans who refuse to fund any of it. They are also making infrastructure changes where they can, especially in coastal regions. That’s going to be a continued struggle. Maybe someday Congress will actually properly fund the agency again.
Even with those problems, the national parks are also national treasures and it’s exciting to see President Obama so proactive in creating new ones, protecting American lands and telling American historical stories for the future.