The National Park Service
I had never seen the Grand Canyon until recently. A surprise to many after learning I grew up in Colorado, which is considerably closer to the canyon than Massachusetts. This wonder of the world was something I didn’t want to miss during our travels. It would be like going to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids. This was a must see for me. But why? Why would 6 million people travel from all over the world to view this giant chasm? But before that question can be answered, I feel we need to step back and ask why do we even have the National Park Service?
But what is the National Park Service? Surprisingly, it is much more extensive than I thought. The National Park Service includes: International Historic Sites, National Historic Sites, National Historical Parks, National Military Parks, National Battlefield Parks, National Battlefields, National Battlefield Sites, National Memorials, National Monuments, National Parks, National Parkways, National Preserves, National Reserves, National Recreation Areas, National Scenic Trails, National Lakeshores, National Seashores, National Rivers, and National Wild and Scenic Rivers!
What determines a National Battlefield from a Battlefield Park or Site, or even a Historic Site, or Historical Park is beyond me. I’m sure our government has clear and defined qualifications, regulations, speculations and determinations on how these decisions are made.
As complex as the Park Service seems, its mission statement is simple: “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations”.
Yet perhaps this statement is too simple, and the word “unimpaired” has different meanings to different people. In 1913, congress approved the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, which would provide San Francisco the majority of its fresh water. Once completed in 1923, it flooded the entire Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Often compared to Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy Valley was similar in its beauty and historical significance. For over 6,000 years, people had lived and admired the valley’s stunning granite cliffs and the waterfalls that cascaded down them. And even though this valley fell within the Yosemite National Park boundaries, the dam was approved and the landscape forever changed.
Afterwards, many thought what is the purpose of setting aside and preserving federal land if it can only then be developed latter on. So in 1964 the Wilderness Act was born. This is the highest level of conservation our country has and its definition is almost poetic:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The Act continues to read: An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.
I find clause 2 especially meaningful and forward thinking. It provides people the opportunity to temporarily escape our developed world. Some may ask, well don’t the Parks provide that? Yes and no. There are 106 million acres of Wilderness, 53 percent of that resides within the National Park System. But not all National Park land is Wilderness. Take the Grand Canyon as an example, a Park loaded with accommodations like a bus system, campgrounds, lodges, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, gift-shops, galleries, and laundry mats. It’s a small city of traveling citizens. Most of its visitors will never come close to a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. For those who have had the opportunity to backpack or float into Wilderness, you’ll know what I mean. It has that primitive solitude with nature that’s hard to get anywhere else. You escape the cars, ATV’s, motorcycles, mountain bikes and motorboats. Your distance from society buffers you from seeing houses and buildings. You don’t hear the chainsaws or sounds of road construction, just the jets flying overhead. You know you can walk for days or even weeks and see nothing manmade but the trail you travel (if that). It’s a timeless feeling that resonates and becomes even more important as time passes. As our world population increases, development furthers and the Web expands, finding that isolation will become even more crucial.
Now I want to jump back to another and perhaps even more exciting phrase within the National Parks Service mission statement, which is to provide inspiration of this and future generations. That right there might sum it all up. It might answer my original question as to why people visit the Parks – for inspiration. Sure they inspire the artists, the writers and poets, the musicians and the dancers; but they inspire more than that. They can arouse any visitor to pause and contemplate what lies before them- a place of unique beauty. People travel from all over the world to be moved, stirred and aroused by these natural wonders. As they stand there, one can only hope, if for a brief moment, they forget their place in society and realize their place in the world.
As 6 million people gaze across the vast and expansive canyons we call Grand, they are humbled. What lies before them is nearly two billion years of Earth’s geological history. Perhaps here, more than any other place, one can try to contemplate time. You can stand at the edge and peer down into its very depths. At 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is larger than Delaware. It is like an inverted mountain range. To hike down to the Colorado River is like summiting a 14er in reverse. As strong as our natural instinct is to climb to the highest peak, it is just as strong to want to descend to the bottom of the canyon. Doing so you traverse through 6 million years of erosion. The further down you go, the more centered you become, until you’re standing at the rivers edge, in the present. You are grounded by the flow of water like the seconds of a clock, it is the here and the now. You are no longer overwhelmed by the scale because you can no longer see the rim. The course of time switches from vertical to horizontal and sinks in the muddy water. Perhaps this is why so many seek the Grand Canyon. It is truly a natural wonder.