Celebrate 100 years of U.S. National Parks

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Bear at Katmai National Park, Alaska
Two Kansas State University park management and conservation researchers are using a "bearcam" at Katmai National Park in Alaska to study people's emotional connections with nature. The "bearcam," provided by multimedia organization explore, offers live video footage of bears at several locations in the park. Photo credit: explore

In 2009, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns celebrated the National Park Service. In a PBS television series, he called our National Parks, “America’s Best Idea.”

I think the vast majority of the more than 307 million people who visited our national parks last year would agree.

On Aug. 25 the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th anniversary. On that date in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act,” which states that the Service, “shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations … to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

First park

The first national park actually predates the establishment of the NPS. On March 1, 1872, U.S. President Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, to create the world’s first national park.

And even before that, the Yosemite Act of 1864 protected the Yosemite Valley from settlement and entrusted its care to the state of California. When early explorers brought photographs, paintings and sketches of western wilderness, even politicians back East realized such places should be protected forever.

These places continue to inspire awe and reverence for the natural world.

Today, the NPS is comprised of 410 sites, including 59 national parks, 81 national monuments (e.g., White Sands, New Mexico), 128 historical parks (e.g., Valley Forge, Pennsylvania), 19 preserves (e.g., Tall Grass Prairie, Kansas), and 10 seashores (e.g., Cape Hatteras, North Carolina).

Discussions of favorite or best parks are purely subjective and could go on for days. As I reflect on the national parks I’ve visited, several immediately rise to the top of the list.

Top parks

Acadia (Maine), Grand Canyon (Arizona), Arches (Utah), Bryce (Utah), and Glacier (Montana) bring back vivid memories. At Acadia, I watched the first rays of a new day’s sunshine strike the top of Cadillac Mountain.

At the Grand Canyon, my jaw dropped for the first time in my life. At Arches, I watched as fire rained from the sky during the Perseid meteor shower of 1974. At Bryce, I marveled at magnificent red rock sand castles that stretched as far as I could see.

And at Glacier, I saw my first wolf. As I tick through a list of national parks at www.nps.gov, I realize I’ve not been to most of them. But that’s OK.

There is great value in just knowing that they are there. Make an effort to visit a national park site this year to celebrate the NPS’s 100th birthday.

The Park Service truly is America’s Best Idea. It’s the best park system in the world, and it’s a bargain.

Buy a pass

Most federal lands charge an entrance fee, so if you plan to visit more than one site, buy a pass.

The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass Series covers entrance fees to national parks and national wildlife refuges and standard amenity fees such as use of picnic areas and trails at national forests and grasslands and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation.

A pass covers fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle. Children age 15 and under are admitted free.

An annual pass, available to anyone, costs $80. An annual pass for active military members and their dependents is free.

An annual pass for U.S. citizens with permanent disabilities is free. And if you are a U.S. citizen and age 62 or older, a lifetime pass is $10. Passes may be purchased in person at federal recreation sites or online at http://store.usgs.gov/pass.

Worth protecting

The future of our parks and other public lands requires vigilance. There are those in Congress who seek to privatize our public lands. Be prepared to fight for affordable access to federal lands when the privateers make their case.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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