Happy Birthday month to me and the National Park Service!
This first day of August we both enter a month of symbolic birthdays. On August 21 I turn 65 and become Medicare eligible, though I still feel the youthful enthusiasm and zest I felt as a child, largely because of the experiences I've had in our stupendous national parks. On August 25 our National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday and enters its second century as caretaker of our national treasures in a country that is vastly different by race, ethnicity, gender and age than in 1916, and sorely in need of the lessons from our parks to help unify us.
From the perspective of age 65, I can see the long arm of destiny in my life. As a little girl growing up in Jamaica in the 1950s, slipping away to sit by myself on the banks of the stream that ran through our village, how could I have known that I was being prepared for the role I would play in my life? Sitting quietly under cool shade trees, watching schools of tiny fish darting and turning in the water and shrimp backpedaling on their tailfins, I dreamed of someday becoming a tour guide and introducing people to stunningly beautiful and historic places.
I had no concept of America, and no idea there was such a thing as a National Park System in the world. Yet for the past 20 years my husband Frank and I have been at the forefront of a movement that has made America's national parks household words in homes where they'd never been uttered before, and growing numbers of ethnically diverse Americans have been drawn to visit and stand up for our parks.
From the perspective of 21 years ardent involvement with the National Park System, I can see the long arc the Park Service has traveled from its inception by passionate conservationists in 1916 to where it is today. The first director of the Service, Stephen Mather was also instrumental in its creation. His passion for nature and for protecting treasured spaces for Americans into perpetuity mirrors mine and can be deduced from how he left no stone unturned to achieve those goals.
According to PBS, Mather "counted as one of the highlights of his life meeting the legendary John Muir on a hike in Sequoia National Park in 1912. When he visited Sequoia and Yosemite in the summer of 1914, Mather was disgusted by the poor condition of the parks.
"He wrote a letter of complaint to his college friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, who invited Mather to come to Washington and do something about it himself. Mather accepted the challenge. As assistant to Lane in charge of the parks, he began a crusade to mold a haphazard collection of national parks into a cohesive system and to create a federal agency solely devoted to them: the National Park Service.
"Mather took on staff, paying their salaries out of his own pocket, and began a public relations and political lobbying campaign to build awareness of the parks and increase their size and number. He raised funds from his wealthy friends to purchase new park lands and he often purchased land himself and donated it to the National Park Service for protection. He joined forces with the budding automotive industry to 'democratize' the parks by making them more accessible to a broader cross-section of Americans. He and his assistant, Horace Albright, professionalized the corps of superintendents and rangers in the parks. . ."
Today, the current office holder in Mather's position is fronting a proposal that, for the first time in 100 years, would allow greater commercial/corporate presence in our national parks and require park staff to raise funds, completely foreign to their job description. As I discuss in this blog, the order has been criticized by the National Parks Conservation Association, the Coalition of Retirees and is the subject of multiple online petitions, but still today is shrouded in secrecy. It is scheduled to go into office in 2017 when the current director will have left office.
As the Service enters its much-heralded Centennial month, we remain far short of Mather's goals of "democratizing" the system and making it accessible to a broader cross section of the public. Many millions of people still have not been reached with the message that there are such things as national parks, that they represent our collective legacy and history, that they belong to us and that we have the duty and privilege of protecting them for the future.
To help accomplish these goals Frank and I, along with legions of other people including members of the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau that we formed in 2014, are among the catalysts for a growing nature movement of racially diverse Americans. As members of the Next100 Coalition, we are striving to help shape a new vision for the Park Service's Next 100 years by asking President Obama to issue a Presidential Memorandum with policies to ensure a more diverse system, workforce and stream of visitors.
Like Mather, this week we're heading to Washington, DC to do what we can for the parks and their future, including helping inspire young leaders in the Historically Black Colleges & Universities Initiative (HBCUI) for public lands, accompanying them to meet with Members of Congress and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
For mine and the Park Service's birthdays, the greatest gift I could get is to see Mather's vision for the Park Service being realized. I know it can happen because my nascent vision as a child desiring to be a tour guide introducing people to beautiful places has been filled beyond my wildest dreams, almost outside my own volition. The great mystic and philosopher Joseph Campbell said it best in The Power of Myth, "I don't have to have faith. I have experience."