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.