America’s Best Idea

One of my fondest memories is of the time I spent working in Yellowstone National Park one summer.  My brother and I worked in the dining hall at Mammoth Hot Springs, at the far northern end of the park up in Montana.  We were table bussers (though I eventually moved back into the kitchen as a prep cook), working four days a week on average.  On our days off, we’d take long, meandering hikes of 15-20 miles each with nothing but some trail mix, some Ritz Bits S’mores, and a couple of bottles of water in our fanny packs (that’s right, we had fanny packs.  They were effective, dangit).

I’d just graduated from college and had no idea what I’d be doing when I returned from my three months in the wilderness (spoiler alert: the answer was graduate school at the University of Oklahoma).  But honestly, I wasn’t all that concerned about it at the time, and not just because I was 22 and dumb as a box of rocks.  Yellowstone was and remains the home of a breathtaking variety of sights.  From the aforementioned hot springs to the geysers like Old Faithful, the towering Yellowstone Falls and the simple, placid beauty of Lake Yellowstone (we weren’t real original with the names, I’ll admit), and on to the mud volcanoes and south into the Grand Tetons, a mountain range so magnificent it got its own park.  My brother and I went on hikes where we knew we were the only humans who’d seen the end of that trail in years (the bear we encountered on one trail guaranteed we’d be the only people to set foot on that trail that particular summer).  Yellowstone remains my place of bliss, a location I can return to again and again in my mind to find peace in moments of chaos and anxiety.

And the current Republican-controlled Congress wants to basically give them away.

Now, I’m fine with states running some stuff.  There is the argument that smaller jurisdictions – states and local governments – are closer to their people than the federal government, and therefore can act more proactively and respond more effectively and flexibly to changing needs.  But the idea here – one that’s pushed by fossil fuel special interests – is that these federal lands have no inherent value in and of themselves and, therefore, the federal government doesn’t need to be holding onto millions of acres of federal land.  They should give or sell that land to the states to do with as they please.

Anyone who thinks Wyoming has the financial resources to manage all the national park land in that state, please raise your hand.  Now put your hands down, you liars.  There’s no way they could maintain their part of Yellowstone National Park at the level its been run and maintained by the federal government.  Wyoming just doesn’t have the cash.  They’d have to sell, I dunno, logging rights and drilling rights and mining rights and the like in the park to be able to afford it.  And that right there is the problem, and the Republican dream of selling off the parks piecemeal: it opens them up to exploitation.

The root of the problem is the belief that land has no value beyond the minerals or resources one can strip from it.  And that runs counter to the very concept of the national parks.  Men like Teddy Roosevelt saw the inherent value in preserving vast swaths of land just for the sake of the land itself.  Not everything has to be measured in monetary value.

rooseveltarchJust outside of Mammoth Hot Springs, at the northern entrance to the park in Gardiner, MT, there’s the Roosevelt Arch.  It’s a stone archway bearing an inscription: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”  Teddy himself went on to add, “Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved, as they were the only change being that these same wild creatures have been so carefully protected as to show a literally astonishing tameness. The creation and preservation of such a great national playground in the interests of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation; but above all a credit to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.”

old_faithfulAnd dammit, he was right.  “America’s Best Idea,” as the concept of the National Parks has come to be known, isn’t just a clever advertising slogan.  It’s a testament to the enduring idea of setting aside something natural and beautiful and perfect so that others may someday enjoy those things, too.  I want my niece and nephews to be able to visit the parks one day.  I want them to marvel as Old Faithful shoots steam and boiling hot water a hundred feet in the air.  I want them to giggle about the sulfurous stink of the hot springs.  I want to see them stand there, mouths hanging open, as a herd of bison amble along the road, completely ignoring the cars.  I want them to see wolves and elk and big horn sheep and everything else Yellowstone has to offer, and then I want them to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and hike through the river at Zion, and see the majestic peaks of the Tetons, and maybe – if any still exist – see the Glaciers at Glacier National Park.  And none of that will be possible if the federal government has sold off the Grand Canyon so that a state could sell uranium mining rights, or if the forests of Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado have been logged to the point that only stumps remain.

Of course, there is another distinct possibility: that the supervolcano under Yellowstone will wake up and erupt and kill us all.  It wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen in Trump’s America.

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