Yosemite National Park (iStock)

What the National Park Service Centennial Teaches About Our Past — and Our Future

As it marks 100 years, we’re celebrating park service’s progress while preparing for a long road ahead.

In the summer of 1916, a raging fight for the soul of the nation had pitted rampant capitalism against responsible conservation across some of the last unspoiled places in America.

Towering forests, majestic mountain ranges, and pristine waterways were under siege as industrial logging, mining, and drilling magnates sought to put personal profits ahead of public protection of a natural legacy that belonged to us all. Alarm bells were sounding for the future of American wildlife, with the near extermination of bison across the Great Plains, jaguars along the Rio Grande, and herons from the wetlands of Florida. And real questions were being posed about who would reap the benefits of our natural resources.

With the stakes for the country high and mounting and his political fortunes on the line in a tough election year, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation on August 25, 1916, to create the National Park Service, charged with promoting and protecting special American places so as to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

It was a sweeping gesture toward campers, hikers, anglers, and hunters, but it was far more than that. The pledge to set aside public lands for the use of all our people reinforced our commitment to democracy in America.

The country was young and still defining the meaning of government by the people. This land is your land, we said to one another, declaring part of our country a public trust, held in the public interest, with the promise that no industry, no matter how mighty, would ever strip away the right of every American to share in the experience of our nation’s special places.

It’s a promise we have kept, through good times and hard. And, a century later, that bold stroke and the vision it embodied have spawned the greatest expanse of public lands in the history of the world, a national system of more than 460 parks, monuments, and heritage sites whose names ring with the very timbre of the American spirit: Yosemite. Denali. Grand Canyon. Yellowstone. Stretched across more than 84 million acres, our park system drew more than 300 million visitors last year alone.

From Alaska’s high alpine tundra to the Florida Everglades; from the redwood forests of California to the granite coast of Maine; from the cypress bayous of Louisiana to the glaciers of Montana, our national parks invite all Americans to experience the natural splendor of this country as the first Americans saw it.

More than that, our Park Service is a custodian of our national story, overseeing more than a hundred national monuments, battlefields, and other sites that enshrine our achievements, honor our heroes, and bear testament to the forces of history that have made us who we are today.

From those rugged riders who linked our nation via the Pony Express to those who worked for human dignity as Pullman porters; from the fight John Muir waged to protect American wilderness to the vital labors of Rosie the Riveter to keep American assembly lines humming through World War II; from the leaders etched in the stone of Mount Rushmore to the sacrifices made at Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Little Bighorn, these monuments speak to the common past we share and the tides of change that have shaped our destiny.

The Bears Ears in Utah (Nagel Photography/Shutterstock)

These places of American memory and natural majesty enrich us all. They bring something immeasurable to our lives.

How many of our children took their first breath of seaside air, caught their first glimpse of a star-studded sky, or hooked their first rainbow trout in crystalline waters in one of our national parks? Who among us first learned about the habits of the cottontail rabbit or the prairie dog at the feet of a seasoned ranger speaking around a blazing campfire on an autumn night? Who first felt the tug of history while standing on the hallowed ground of Valley Forge to imagine the personal toll of national liberty?

These formative experiences are inseparable from the truths we know in our hearts about our connection to the natural world we share and the love of country that unites us as Americans. These cherished places passed down from our forebears are not simply part of our past. They are a part of who we are today and who we will become tomorrow.

That’s important. We’re still writing the story of our future. We’re still completing the story of our past. Of our more than 460 national parks and monuments, only about 12 percent are devoted to the achievements of women, African-Americans, Latinos, or American Indians. As our National Park Service enters its second century, we must tell the more complete story of who we are as a diverse nation dedicated to equity for all our people.

The National Park Service is doing its homework, through special theme studies of, for example, American Latino heritage, the farm labor movement, the experience of native Americans, the civil rights movement, Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Asian heritage in America. The park service is working to help reinterpret the very experience of our national parks, particularly with respect to Filipino and Chinese workers in the West.

And we’re making real progress on the ground.

In June President Obama designated the first national monument to the LGBTQ community at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Last year he did the same for the Pullman District in Chicago. And in 2012 he created the Cesar E. Chaves National Monument in California.

As a nation, though, we’ve got a long way to go.

The next step should be for the president to designate the Bears Ears region — 1.9 million acres of public lands in Utah — a national monument. This would protect American Indian cultural sites, burial grounds, and places important to traditional spiritual and medicinal practices from the threat of oil and gas drilling, coal and uranium mining, tar sands extraction, and rampant looting and vandalism.

The United States is the oldest democracy in the world. We’re still a young country, though, still defining each day what it means to be an American, what it means to truly believe in government by the people.

The men and women of our National Park Service, more than 20,000 of them, help us to tell that story every day. We’ve counted on them for that since 1916, and we’ll be looking to them even more in the century to come.