After 100 Years, the National Parks Still Define Us as Americans

tags: National Park Service

Heather Fryer is the Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ Professor of history at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., where she is associate professor and director of the American Studies Program.

As a grand experiment in freedom, individualism, and democracy, America is a place where complexities and tensions abound, especially in a summer marked by political and social unrest. The National Parks, celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, are both a monument to and an escape from those tensions. Founded at the intersections between the earnestness of American progress and the grandeur of the natural world, the 409 locations under the National Park Service remain sites of dynamic interplay between worlds of nature, peoples, and technologies.

In 2015, a record-breaking 305 million visitors used the Parks as an outlet from the turbulent flow of everyday life and a place to rediscover what is essential in the American experience. Among geysers, buffalo herds, other-worldly geologic forms and impossibly tall trees, many of the things that divide people seem less evident or less important. People don’t talk political grievances at the National Parks; they compare notes on where they saw coyotes and bears that day.

But this is not to say that the parks are utopian spaces set apart from “the real world.” The parks are carved from the same landscape and woven together with the same historical threads that form the substance of America today.

One of those threads is America’s colonial past, which makes the Parks contested sites, even now. The provisions of the Organic Act that strengthened existing protections against the looting of Native ruins, graves, and “artifacts” also legally recast sacred sites as “parks” for tourists. For many indigenous people, these places are no less sacred today. The National Park Service (NPS) works to integrate indigenous culture into park culture, creating a connection to the “people here before,” even though the concept of “before” is problematic for people who are still here, living with the consequences of unfair treaties. And although it is not spiritually sufficient for people whose ceremonial, ancestral, and community lives are centered in these confiscated places, the Parks do promote a reverence and respect for the sacredness of the land that is hard to find elsewhere in Euro-America. They call attention to the first Americans to encounter these extraordinary landscapes, encouraging reflection about what America is and who “Americans” really are.

That struggles of American identity bleeds into the age of industrialization, and the history of American industry is, perhaps counterintuitively, inseparable from the creation of the National Park System. The NPS’s somewhat contradictory mandate was to protect the sites from—and make them available to—industrial-age humans. With the closing of the frontier scarcely a generation prior, there was some remaining feeling in 1916 that industrializing the west would secure U.S. claims to its newest holdings. This gave rise to some of the early experiments in a fledgling resort industry at places like Yosemite.

The railroads made them accessible national treasures and came to rely on ticket sales to would-be park visitors to stabilize their profits. The Great Northern Railroad sold access to Glacier National Park; the Union Pacific offered Bryce Canyon; the Santa Fe Railroad was “the train of luxury” that took travelers “to the rim of world wonder,” the Grand Canyon. 

At the same time, grit in the face of rough, untamed landscapes was seen as vital to the national identity. From the turn of the century to the 1920s, the public grew concerned that development would do away with the challenges of America’s natural landscapes—challenges that made Americans resilient, innovative and equipped to lead the march of progress. Many saw well-preserved national parks as the only way to re-instill American grit and toughness among the expanding managerial class, whose office-job men were thought to be vulnerable to a sort of “softness” that threatened the “national character.”

Though no longer billed the savior of American national character, the Parks continue to give Americans a connection to the past that reorients our view of the present. Born in a moment when America strove to project its economic and political efficacy, the Parks still raise the question of who, exactly, we as Americans ultimately wish to be, and what we as a nation wish to effect.

Even in summers of divisiveness that have escalated to disheartening hostility and violence, the parks reflect America’s ideal of inclusivity. It is usually not apparent how much money each person has or what their jobs are when they’re hiking the Grand Canyon or looking up at El Capitan. Those shared experiences of awe are rare in a forward-looking country like the United States. Our national culture is based on a series of urgent and immediate questions of “What’s next?”, making these unchanging spaces vital. The Parks are the center and cradle of American heritage, and one wonders what we would be like as Americans if, for the past 100 years, we hadn’t had these beautiful places to stop and stay and just be.

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