Until I watched part of Ken Burns’ new documentary America’s Best Idea last night, I hadn’t given much thought to the “why” of national parks. Which is odd, because as many loyal MM readers know, I grew up in and around Acadia National Park in Maine, then the 2nd-most-visited park in the country. But I was a practical child. If I wondered why so much land was left untouched at all, I probably thought it had to do with preserving endangered species or capturing tourist dollars, or having more trees around to prevent holes in ozone layers–all good ideas.
So it surprised me to learn how much of the turn-of-the-century land-preservation efforts in this country were actually inspired by pure idealism–the transcendentalist fervor of John Muir, to be precise. Muir, a Scotsman who developed a near-ecstatic relationship with American wilderness, was the inspiration for drawing the lines on the map around Yellowstone and Yosemite, not to mention the petrified forest of Arizona and many other national forests and monuments. And he used the words “temple” and “cathedral” far more than the words “economic boon.” We should save such places, he thought, simply because they are so beautiful they deserve to be appreciated for generations to come.
It’s a simple idea, but sort of incredible by today’s standards. Of course, developers and ranchers made a fuss when President (Teddy) Roosevelt walled-off the Grand Canyon with one stroke of his pen. But, as one of Burns’ talking heads reminds us, no one in Arizona would think to protest the park now. It made me wonder: what else should we be preserving, now, despite the protests that would undoubtedly arise? Where are the new national parks, and who are the new Muirs?
Several months ago I read a small piece in the New Yorker about a new national park in Paterson, New Jersey, of all places. Though it may sound counterintuitive, Paterson has the 2nd-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi, and is the of Alexander Hamilton’s first planned industrial city. Obama, Roosevelt’s heir, signed the approval for the park. Still, it takes serious imagination to see through the post-industrial Jersey haze, and a lot of lawmakers just don’t have it, so they’re still fighting against the designation. The Muir figure with the imagination is Paterson lawyer Leonard Zax. Here’s hoping he gets his wish.
Thanks for this very interesting (as usual) post. I can’t tell if the NYT is being stupid or deliberately trying to stir things up by calling Paterson “the Yellowstone of the East,” but in any case there’s a semantic disconnect in this whole situation. The NJ location is not going to become a ‘national park,’ but rather a site administered by the National Park Service — the Great Falls National Historic Park.
Over the years I’ve visited almost 250 of the almost 400 NPS sites, fewer than 60 of which are actually ‘national parks.’ It would be truly ridiculous to create a national park in Paterson NJ; however, it makes perfect sense to establish a national historic park there. It will fit in well with other such parks and national historic sites important to America’s industrial history, like Saugus Iron Works NHP and Springfield Armory NHS (both in MA), and Hopewell Furnace NHS (PA). Paterson seems to have the most in common with Lowell NHP in Massachusetts, established in 1978 along the Pawtucket Falls of the Merrimac River.
Only four sites have become full-fledged national parks in the last 15 years, all of which were upgraded from lesser status in the NPS system. Three of them, like our beloved Acadia, spent some years as national monuments before attaining true national park status, and Acadia remains the only national park in the northeastern U.S. Wherever the next one appears, it’s almost certain that it won’t be in New Jersey.
p.s. Speaking of upgraded, you should look into the small select group of full-fledged national parks that later were downgraded, once their modern mythology apparently wore off.