History, Like Beauty, is in the Eye of the Beholder

by Greg Walcher on September 9, 2016

No government agency can escape the clutches of political correctness these days, even the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its 100th birthday this month. The agency sent a blast email to thousands of friends of the national parks. The email mentioned the anniversary, and invited recipients to visit a special website highlighting some of the top moments in national park history. It’s great.

The website includes fabulous photography representing what NPS thinks are the most important “8 moments in National Park Service history.” The list is a little strange, but historical significance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The first three are predictable: the first public land set aside forever because of its beauty (Yosemite, 1864), the first national park (Yellowstone, 1872), and the first to preserve manmade structures (Mesa Verde, 1906). Then the list skips to the creation of the agency itself (1916), which was an administrative move, not directly related to the preservation or enjoyment of any natural area. The website calls NPS “the first federal bureau dedicated to conserving landscapes for future generations and connecting Americans to nature.” Actually the Interior Department managed some national parks many years earlier, but after all, this website is about the NPS’s 100th anniversary.

After 1916, during which the nation’s first east-coast park was added (Acadia in Maine), the website’s list of the 8 most important milestones gets highly debatable. It skips to 1933 when preserved battlefield sites like Gettysburg were transferred to NPS (though they were already national monuments), and then to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and its construction projects that so enhanced public accessibility of the national parks. The website mentions the CCC “planting billions of trees, fighting wildfires and building roads and trails at places like Shenandoah and Glacier national parks.” Admirable projects, as were the campgrounds, roads, and trails built on Grand Mesa, Colorado National Monument, and hundreds of other places. Apparently those were unworthy of mention by the NPS, at least among their top 8 milestones.

After the Depression, the NPS list skips all the way to 2016, to its eighth most important event, addition of Stonewall National Monument in Greenwich Village, the first national monument that honors the history of the “LGBT community.” Though President Obama just created this national monument in June, it is not on the list because it’s the most recent – that designation belongs to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in North Maine. No, Stonewall is on the list because of the political correctness of including as much “diversity” as possible in our national celebrations.

Grand-Canyon-4I will leave it to others to opine on the historic importance the Stonewall Inn and Park, site of a protest in the late 60s that spawned a new civil rights movement. But it is worth noting some of the most important conservation successes in American history that were not even mentioned. Those include preservation of the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Rocky Mountain National Park, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, Shenandoah, Mammoth Cave, and others that host millions of annual visitors. Nor does the list include any mention of the controversy over damming Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. The issue made John Muir a national hero, and brought a new level of political sophistication to his fledgling Sierra Club. They lost the battle but won the war for the hearts of Americans on environmental issues. A direct result was creation of the NPS in 1916, the assurance that the national parks would forevermore be protected against such development. I think it deserves mentioning.

Besides ignoring major national parks in favor of minor monuments, the NPS website is filled with subtle political (dare I say partisan) judgments. Though Lincoln created the first-ever public land preservation, we are told “people don’t often think about [him] when it comes to conservation.” We read that “few historians consider Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency to be innovative or forward-thinking, but he accomplished two firsts in the area of conservation.” Namely, he created both the first national park and the first wildlife preserve. Even conservation’s greatest hero is mentioned begrudgingly: “It’s impossible to compile a list of presidents who impacted public lands without mentioning President Theodore Roosevelt” (as if we certainly would do so if it wouldn’t embarrass us). But the section on FDR begins with “As a lifelong lover of nature and wildlife…” Obama has “shown his commitment to… preserving America’s special places for future generations.”

I often wish we could move past political correctness and just be proud of our nation’s accomplishments. NPS’s centennial should have been a chance to do that.

A version of this column originally appeared inn the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel September 2, 2016.

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