Let's focus on the park part of Palin's tour

June 03, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |

Perhaps we can overlook the hype, get past the saleswomanship and swallow hard and ignore the reality-TV aspects of Sarah Palin's National Park and history tour this week, and acknowledge that at the core, she does have a point: When she visits our revered landmarks, she reminds us that America is in possession of some natural and historical wonders that it is our duty to acknowledge and protect.

How easy it is for us to forget that within an easy drive we have the National Archives, Gettysburg and Mount Vernon, to pick three on Palin's itenery.

Forget politics, Palin's journey is a much-needed elbow to the ribs on a more serious count. It's our national parks, after all, that remind us of who we are and celebrate the lands and events that we shaped while they were simultaneously shaping us.

And as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Park Service's founding in 2016, it is proper, if uncomfortable, to consider how seriously we have underfunded our heritage.

Since 1970, Park Service budgets have failed to keep pace with inflation 17 times — in the other years, it kept pace, but just barely. And of course this doesn't even begin to address the routine maintenance backlog, which now stands at nearly $10 million.

Palin, assuming the presidency is not on her immediate agenda, might be the right person to speak for the parks. Her love for the outdoors is well-known, and in the past few decades Alaska alone has doubled our inventory of national parkland.

And patriots, if true patriots they be, might have the best perspective on our parks and what they mean to our people and our nation. Palin also reminds us that we could do a better job ourselves of visiting these parks, perhaps with our children or parents in tow.

"National parks," wrote former park historian Dwight Pitcaithley, "possess the very democratic values upon which this country was built, environmental lessons with the potential to make our communities more livable, civic messages that will move us toward 'that more perfect Union' imagined over two hundred years ago."

When the National Parks are ruined, we will be too. We might exist as a population of fleshy robots, staring slack-jawed at electronic screens, waiting for them to tell us what to do. But without our history, our cultural and natural wonders, we will be without a soul. When the things that really matter don't matter to us any more, we face a joyless existence in which happiness is only measured in cold ledgers and columns of numbers and, as the saying goes, in the size of our toys.

When we judge ourselves and our nation only by these material matters, we cease to acknowledge the grandeur of Yosemite Falls, the splendor of the Tetons, the forboding, late-summer mists of Antietam or the glory of the crisp colors of Acadia in the fall.

Wrote Pitcaithley: "The collection of national parks today is a reflection of who we have been — our towering successes, our failures, our aspirations. National parks tell the story of the American people. The National Park Service has come to the realization, over the past 90 years, that preservation of these special places is not the only goal of park creation. Rather, we preserve parks because they have stories to tell — stories of human triumph and folly, stories of environmental nurturing and degradation — and we have things to learn from those stories."

That's the danger of financially neglecting our parks; in doing so, we stop learning and disconnect with the greatness of God and these lands that He provided for our use. When we ignore them, we ignore Him.

For the parks don't belong to us, any more than we can possess a sunset or a cool breeze. They belong to the American ideal, and they are owned as much by people who have passed before us and people who not yet been born as they are by us.

The cost of our national parks is miniscule — it's been written that for the price of one military aircraft, all the national parks across the land could be modernized in terms of research, education and basic maintenance.

I would only add that the price of failing to take care of our parks is beyond all calculation.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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