One hundred years ago today, Aug. 25, the National Park Service came into existence. President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating a federal government oversight agency to protect some of our nation’s most beautiful areas, and from that the service has been expanded to include historic monuments, urban parks, and other places near and dear to Americans.
Theodore Roosevelt was a man known for his love of the outdoors and conservationism which pre-dated the environmentalist movement. Roosevelt and other individuals saw a need to preserve these areas from private ownership or development so that all Americans of future generations could enjoy them.
Many of the parks and areas seemed to be ignored by most up until World War II. Some folks just wanted to get away from the day to day activities of life that were caused by the war effort. The greatest expansion of visitors going to national parks came after the end of the war.
Men who returned from those nightmarish conditions sought a refuge where they could enjoy beauty in the world rather than dwelling on the horrors they had endured. People who had lived through the Great Depression, then WWII and Korea were ready to travel and the automobile made it far easier than ever before.
There never seems to be funding for projects that offer recreational activities, and so the national parks suffered through budgets enacted by Congress that never filled coffers with the needed cash.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation creating “Mission 66” to give additional funds to the National Parks in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service. I remember visiting Yosemite with my folks in 1966 but don’t remember much ado being made about 50 years of service.
When I was a boy and visiting Yosemite, the rangers lived in each of the campgrounds. I still remember Rangers Collier and Pimentel. Collier’s sons were my age so when I showed up I gravitated over and we played for a couple of weeks until we had to head back to Los Angeles.
Don Pimentel and my folks got along quite well and he used to stop by for coffee each morning. Now the Rangers and their families can enjoy some privacy by staying in government employee housing areas.
I remember earning my “Junior Ranger” badge after attending a scheduled daily program for five days. I was mighty proud of being a “Junior Ranger” because I felt I had a role in protecting Yosemite. I still do. Carol and I are delighted to be supporters of the Yosemite Conservancy and delight when we read about the great works the Conservancy funds.
Frankly, I am torn about the Conservancy because I feel the federal government should be taking better care of the parks. The NPS has an annual budget of $3 billion with a backlog of $12 billion required for repairs that are needed today. So the people form charitable organizations such as the Yosemite Conservancy to do what needs to be done. Our money is well spent by the Conservancy.
Ranger Sheldon Johnson, who became better known nationally after his conversations with Oprah, stated his love of Yosemite so well in a telling encounter with a park visitor. Johnson was asked what he would do if he only had one hour to visit Yosemite. His response? “I would sit on a rock and cry.”
This country has a different way of doing things that develops because we are a free people. The beautiful areas now designated as national parks are not just playgrounds for the rich and powerful. They are not restricted to certain populations or owned by any special interest groups.
The national parks and all other designated areas and monuments under the control of the National Park Service are not owned by one or two, but by 320,000,000 people - the Americans. If you live here, you own them. They are ours and they are there for us to visit, enjoy, play in, hike in, fish in, camp in, lodge in, and take away lasting memories that fill us with such joy.
The fine people who have been a part of the National Park Service since day one have done their work as a calling and not as a way to get wealthy. The average salary of a Yosemite Park ranger is $34,000, and the superintendent’s salary is listed below $50,000 per year. It isn’t the money. It’s the calling.
So I join in wishing the National Park Service a happy centennial birthday, but more so offer very heartfelt thanks to every ranger, park employee, and volunteer in our national parks who have preserved those places for all the rest of us.
Happy Birthday NPS.