Thursday, October 01, 2009

For WOSU Public Media's blog --

National Parks: America’s Best Idea
A Newark, Ohio perspective

What’s very encouraging to someone like me, about the Ken Burns presentation on the National Park movement, is the amount of attention he’s brought to the relative uniqueness of the concept, and its “pre-history,” if you will.

We have only had national parks officially since 1916, something that most people don’t stop to think about. When I give tours of the Newark Earthworks, the peculiar preservation history of these sites only makes sense if we quickly (and no doubt imperfectly) explain that pre-“national park ideal” history.

There are two main sections of these internationally renowned Native American earthworks still visible as above ground constructions, the Great Circle between Newark and Heath, which was made the county fairgrounds in the 1850s and was home for the Ohio State Fair in 1854, and then the Octagon and Observatory Circle, less well known to the public because it’s also been the home of the Moundbuilders Country Club since 1910.

In Burns’ presentation, the first two nights made clear just how crucial John Muir was not only to Yosemite, but to the whole set of values and ideals that defines what we take for granted in the idea of national parks today –

Here in Newark, we have a possible link to Muir in that it was 1890 that the local citizens, with no particular name or officeholder pushing the initiative, decided almost as a quiet groundswell of determination to put a vote on the fall ballot. They asked the entire county to vote on whether the Octagon and Observatory Circle should be saved from development by public purchase – remember, the idea of a national park is 26 years away, with only Yellowstone set aside by federal fiat in 1871.

But it was Muir, asking the state of California to take action to preserve Yosemite, who was writing in magazines and newspapers, particularly “Century Magazine,” a best-seller of that era, talking about the preservation of unique natural and cultural resources. Was Muir the inspiration of Licking County’s movement?

Whatever the cause, the vote was 74% in favor of a property tax levy countywide, well over 90% in Newark proper. The land was purchased, then used as a summer militia encampment, and then for light recreation by Newark High School after 1901 with a new sport called “golf.”

So while I may not be too happy about Ohio’s oldest continuously played golf course being on top of a 2,000 year old Native American earthwork, I do think we need to consider that for 1910, this was a creative solution to a very new problem – how to manage public preserves.

Even the history of a militia encampment fits into the larger arc of the development of the National Park ideal, as Park Ranger Shelton Johnson explains in his essay on the “Buffalo Soldiers” who were in a very real sense the first park rangers, and whose uniform is what you still see on park rangers today --

The Newark Earthworks aren’t mentioned in the Ken Burns program, but from Daniel Webster and Caleb Atwater first considering a federal act to preserve them in the early 1800s to the possible NPS connection in years ahead, as the sites are slated to go on the United Nations’ World Heritage List of significant natural and cultural sites, I hear our story echoing through all the other stories of how preserving these wonders for all to see, for generations to come, truly is “America’s Best Idea.”

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