Most of us who enjoy the great outdoors have a favorite spot we consider our sanctuary. Your spot may be among the cathedral- like trees of a forest. Perhaps your spot is next to a stream where the sounds of the water melt your troubles away. You may have a favorite fishing spot where an empty creel at the end of the day is not really a disappointment. Chances are that most of these spots are located on land that is within a park, national forest or recreation area managed by a government.
Like most visitors to a park, I enjoy going to an interpretive or visitor’s center to find out more about the park. Moving past the souvenir key rings and mugs, one can usually find books about the park. As you read about the history of each park, you begin to see a pattern in the development of many parks- the fact that it was only through the efforts of selfless individual citizens and concerned groups that the park came to fruition. In many cases, it took years of pleading, begging, lobbying and speeches for a particular park to eventually be established.
Parks are an extremely popular concept in the United States. We love some of our parks almost too much. Many parks are seasonally inundated with visitors to the point that the visitor’s experience is diminished. Several years ago PBS broadcast a series on our national parks describing national parks as one of America’s “best ideas”.
If parks are such a great idea, just where is the resistance to the concept? You need to look no farther than Congress to find your answer. One of the largest historical impediments to the creation of national parks was, and still is, the belief that mining, ranching and resource extraction are the highest use of any land. Most conservatives in Congress feel that it is irresponsible to use land for anything other than converting resources into consumer products. Unfortunately, until these conservatives accept an economic model that emphasizes that watersheds have value without converting the resource, we will struggle at every turn with resource protection.
In the early years of the national park system, most of the parks (those not carved out of National Forest land) were purchased with contributions from philanthropic organizations and private citizens as Congress often refused to buy land simply for recreation or watershed value.
It was only in the 1900’s did we began to see a shift in politics towards the federal government buying park land. Even in the 1930’s large sums of private donations were used to purchase park land. The Great Smokey Mountain and Grand Teton National Parks came about due to large philanthropic contributions.
In 1906 Congress passed the Antiquities Act. This legislation allows the President of the United States, with the stroke of a pen, to preserve objects of historic or scientific interest. It was only through this Act that many places we enjoy today were preserved. This Act is always been controversial and that controversy still lives on today in many western states and Utah in particular.
Every time I visit a park or recreational area I take the time to be thankful that there were citizens and groups who cared more about me and the future than themselves and who often dedicated years of their life to see a park come to fruition. These people looked at the needs of the larger group, society as a whole, rather than their particular economic needs. Most of these people did not live long enough after their near-obsessive efforts to enjoy the parks they helped create. What these citizens had, and what we lack today, is a long –term view of the world we live in. They looked at the land as it was and determined the value was not in extraction and economic gain, but in pure enjoyment of the land as it was created.
One of my favorite places to camp is Calaveras Big Trees State Park near Arnold, CA This 6,800 acre park contains some of largest living things on earth, the Sierra Redwoods. With heights up to 280 feet and a diameter of fifteen feet, these massive trees were in their youth when the Savior walked the earth. Discovered in the 1850’s, the area became an instant tourist spot. Trees were stripped of their bark and the bark reassembled at shows in the East and Europe strictly for commercial gain.
The Sierra Redwood is a poor tree for lumber as the wood often shatters when the tree falls. However, adjacent to the redwood groves in the park are two to three hundred year old pine and fir trees. These trees are heaven on earth to a logger.
The idea to preserve these magnificent trees and the accompanying forest began in the late 1800’s. Individual citizens and groups fought logging, commercial development and politicians to preserve the trees. It was not until 1954 that final funds were raised to purchase the last parcel of land that currently comprises the park. In several instances, parcels were only weeks away from being logged before the funds to purchase the land were obtained. All of the people who had the foresight to make the park a reality are gone. Most of the early pioneers in the effort never even visited the land as a park. However, their work has left us a legacy to enjoy.
Giant sequoia trees on the North Grove Trail in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The walkway protects the tree roots from the thousands of visitors each year.
The park today is slowly becoming an island. Ever increasing clear-cutting adjacent to the park (see photo) threaten to isolate the park even more. In the 1960’s the park featured a typical Sierra stream scenario with slow moving crystal clear snow melt cascading over warm granite boulders. In the 1970’s a dam was built above the park rendering the steam a cold, turbid and fast flowing ribbon of water.
Photo of 40 to 60 acre plots that were clear cut in Calaveras County, CA. The cutting threaten to isolate the Park.
Is there a lesson in all this history? There are few places left in the West that are not under consideration for economic development. We, as a society, are consumed by thinking in the short-term. It appears we have misplaced our responsibilities to society as a whole. Perhaps we are so obsessed with guarding our personal rights that our obligations to society in general have been lost. Do we even consider doing anything for future generations or even leaving a legacy? Is there any chance we could look back and learn from those who acted for future generations? Blake Thomas blogged to us just the other day “to think about our ancestors and our descendants indicates a wisdom that transcends time”. Powerful words. Of course the story does not have to end this way. We can all work to make sure the story ends on a good note. However, I will need to compose myself first after mourning for our potential loss before I begin my journey.