Notes From My Knapsack 8-25-16
A Centennial for America's Best Idea
The National Park Service celebrates 100 years of existence today, Aug. 25. President Woodrow Wilson signed it into existence, and the NPS is the federal agency that serves as a steward of one of our country's greatest legacies, what Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan called "America's Best Idea."
In 1916, the NPS began 44 years after it started. That may seem off-kilter, but it's true. And that might not even be the half of it!
Yellowstone was established as the first "national park" in 1872. Congress passed an act which declared that the area would become a "public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." The Army was given the responsibility for managing the land and guiding visitors, and the park ranger uniform so recognizable today is a direct descendant of those former cavalry trooper uniforms from Yellowstone days.
We were the first nation to do this, to set aside lands for public use and not allow it to be sold to private individuals, to preserve it as a trust for future generations. Australia was right behind us!
This past summer, my family visited the second national park, Michigan's Mackinac Island. If that raises your eyebrow, it's because it was turned back over to the State of Michigan in 1895, but in the interim, an army garrison did double duty as what we'd now call "park rangers" around the Fort.
Then Teddy Roosevelt signed The Antiquities Act of 1906, which is the understandable reason why people tend to think he founded the National Park Service. Starting with Devils Tower in Wyoming, Pres. Roosevelt signed a number of orders establishing "National Monuments," his successor Pres. Taft signed many into existence as well, including Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, which later became Zion National Park . . . the NPS site my wife worked at as a ranger for a summer.
So there was much history and even a fair amount of real estate already organized into parks and preserves and monuments by 1916. Congress saw the need to create an organization to manage it all, and today we mark the signing of the "Organic Act" that officially began the NPS as we know it today. There are celebrations at NPS sites around the country, but the heart of the commemoration will be, quite rightly, at the Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance of Yellowstone (which you can watch on streaming video by way of www.nps.gov) which bears the inscription "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
Locally, we have a connection to that NPS pre-history. Daniel Webster came to east central Ohio in the early 1830s to deliver a commencement address at Kenyon College, and there undergraduate Edwin Davis (of "Squier & Davis" later fame) brought the Newark Earthworks to the distinguished senator's attention. Webster was said to have declared that they should be made a national park.
And my own salute to this centennial is having spent a few days last month in Chillicothe, where the nearest NPS site to Licking County, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park has been working on their latest Long-Range Interpretive Plan. And their connections to the sites of the Newark Earthworks are absolutely part of that story, and our heritage we're preserving in partnership with "America's Best Idea"!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's got a long list of national parks he hasn't made it to yet, but has hopes… Tell him about your favorite national park at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.