As anyone who’s ever strained their neck staring up at the sheer granite face of Half Dome can attest, the national parks are something special. Unique in their ability to connect people and places in a sense of wonder, they’re often described as ‘America’s best idea’ for good reason. Unfortunately (though perhaps not surprisingly), the parks are facing unprecedented threats under this administration, and while it’s clear that the parks need us more than ever, it’s becoming clear that we, the people, also need the parks.
The national parks represent the best of America in their democracy and accessibility. Open twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year (except when the government shuts down, but don’t get me started on that), anyone can come and go as they please, save for a reasonable fee to accomplish the Park Service’s mission “to provide for the enjoyment of [the parks] in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” At a time when much of the federal government is focused on short-term political wins, the Park Service’s mission (and an amazing ranger corps) has kept the parks on a reasonably sustainable path towards ‘leaving them unimpaired’ despite record visitor numbers. This is not to say that the Park Service or the Department of the Interior are immune to political squabbles — Ryan Zinke’s efforts to raise entrance fees will leave the parks out of reach for many Americans, and this administration’s efforts to shrink national monuments puts large pieces of American wilderness vulnerable to exploitation and extraction — but by and large, the parks present an example of what government can and should look like.
This vision of accessible American wilderness brings people together like nothing else. In the past two months in and around Yosemite, I’ve served coffee to a family from Barcelona, thrilled to be in America for the first time; shared a hot spring and avocado toast with two Canadian photographers, in love with the scenery of the West; climbed with a Michigan transplant, happiest when on lead; and worked alongside Americans and immigrants alike, serving cheeseburgers and salads to a beautifully diverse cross-section of humanity. There’s something about these places that brings out our best, fostering a much-needed sense of togetherness through shared awe.
There’s a sense of competition that I get in Yosemite Valley sometimes, that you need to climb something harder or hike something taller or take a better picture in order to earn your place in the parks, but the beauty of the parks is that this is complete bullshit. As an American citizen — hell, as a person: who cares about citizenship? — the parks are for you, and everyone around you. Nature and wilderness are wonderful and desperately in need of protection, but to paraphrase Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, at the end of the day, parks are for people. That’s why they exist. At a time in American history when we’re more divided than ever, the parks remind us that we’re all in this together.
Why do parks matter? Parks matter because people matter.
Thanks to Mountain Sage in Groveland, CA and 1881 Cafe in Bridgeport, CA for the caffeine and wifi ☕️