If I had my druthers, the Centennial Anniversary Celebrations of the National Park Service August 25 would bring descendants of the icons in some of our grandest national parks together to show reconciliation of all divisive issues and chart a way forward as Americans. A huge commemorative service in Yosemite Valley would bring descendants of the Ahwahneechee Indians together with descendants of President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir; Director Stephen Mather, the Buffalo Soldiers; stagecoach driver George Monroe; Chef Ty Sing and many others influential in the use, exploration, conservation, management and defense of the park.
As dusk falls, hundreds of people that came by bus into the valley gaping in awe at the unearthly panorama as these people did will sit in front of a huge screen before EL Capitan. They will watch the descendants projected from the stage speaking about their experiences and how they came to reconciliation. The descendants will issue an action plan they previously agreed upon to deal with climate change already affecting the park, and share how we can all move forward together, protecting the land we love "for the benefit of this and future generations."
At the opposite end of the country I envision us sitting in Long Pine Key amphitheater in Everglades National Park, surrounded by slender slash pine trees. The descendants gathered here are from indigenous Native American tribes; enslaved Africans that navigated the 'Glades and made it to the Bahamas; descendants of the Audubon women who worked to save the 'Glades for the birds; Zora Neale Hurston who shared her Everglades story with the world, and Marjory Stoneman Douglass who threw down the gauntlet 69 years ago in her searing book Everglades, River of Grass. Sharing their ancestors' experience with their 500 rapt listeners, they will issue a charge for us to come together urgently to deal with imminent sea level rise that threatens the park and our national coastlines.
Yosemite is among the highest points in our country at more than 13,000 feet, and Everglades is among the lowest at around 3 feet above sea level. Frank and I have one foot in Yosemite as Ambassadors for the park this Centennial Year, and one foot in the Everglades as recipients of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award for Citizen Advocacy on Behalf of the National Park System, 1997. We have an incredibly expansive view of our National Park System and other publicly-owned lands.
Decimation of Great Egrets such as this one to adorn women's attire at the turn of the 20th Century spurred Audubon women to save the Everglades. Frank Peterman photo
I envision similar celebrations and reconciliations taking place in many other national parks across the country. The people will have presented a list of important sites across the country to the President, who will announce that he has used his power under the Antiquities Act to protect multiple new monuments that contain our diverse history.
I'm happy to say I'm not alone in having a grand vision for our parks in this celebratory year. The National Park Centennial Commission convened with the help of the National Parks Conservation traveled the parks from Alaska to Florida over a multi-year period and came up with comprehensive recommendations. The Commission that included our Diverse Environmental Leaders speaker Dr. Carolyn Finney, the current Secretary of the Department of the Interior and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner recommended, among other things:
"...an expansion of the National Park Service's mission, making education an explicit part of the mission for the first time. ... expanding the park system itself to protect segments of all of America's ecological and cultural treasures and to represent the diversity of our changing nation.
" a sweeping revitalization of the National Park Service, including strengthening the management, research, and community assistance capacity of the agency, along with significant steps for the Park Service to become a more innovative, diverse, and responsive organization prepared for the expanded vision of the system ..."
Current NPS Director Jon Jarvis issued a similarly optimistic action plan:
"America has changed dramatically since the birth of the National Park Service in 1916. The roots of the National Park Service lie in the parks' majestic, often isolated natural wonders and in places that exemplify our cultural heritage, but their reach now extends to places difficult to imagine 100 years ago--into urban centers, across rural landscapes, deep within oceans, and across night skies.
"In our second century, the National Park Service must recommit to the exemplary stewardship and public enjoyment of these places. We must promote the contributions that national parks and programs make to create jobs, strengthen local economies, and support ecosystem services. We must use the collective power of the parks, our historic preservation programs, and community assistance programs to expand our contributions to society in the next century. . ."
I'm completely in tune with the Afro Punk statement Frank shared with me this morning, "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."
National Park System Map of the routes that enslaved Africans pursued on the Underground Railroad to Freedom includes Everglades National Park.
A key path toward all Americans feeling privileged is to experience our God-given natural, cultural and historic wonders in our National Park System, as some of our brightest minds have laid out. It's astonishing how many people - some of whom have served at the highest levels of conservation leadership are asking me when and where are centennial events taking place all year. I have no good answer other than to refer them to the Park Service's 'Centennial' website.
Whether I will have my druthers and we'll turn lofty promises into tangible action on behalf of our parks this Centennial Year and into the future depends on the extent to which each one of us is willing to open our heart and say "Yes! I will honor the call to make this centennial year all it can be. I will do the research about what is happening in my area in parks and the environment. I will organize and agitate to help get us to that ideal place of healing and reconciliation that our country so sorely needs, right now."