Issues

Rogue Rangers and America at Its Best: On National Parks in 2017

Snake River, Grand Teton National Park/Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Kristen Britain is the author of the New York Times-bestselling Green Rider series. She lives in an adobe house in the high desert of the American Southwest beneath the big sky and among lizards, hummingbirds, and tumbleweeds. Kristen can be found online at kristenbritain.com. Her latest book, Firebrand, will be available February 28.

Wherever I go in the southern New Mexico town in which I live, whether it’s a walk alongside pecan groves near my neighborhood or the parking lot of the local supermarket, I can see them: the craggy peaks that are ever-changing with the light and weather, brooding beneath a low ceiling of clouds or rosy with the sunset. The range, in part, comprises one of America’s newest national monuments: Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument created by presidential proclamation in 2014.The designation of “national monument” ensures greater protection of the natural features in the park’s boundaries, plus 10,000 years of human history and fossilized dinosaur tracks, and keeps it open for recreational uses such as hiking and mountain biking. Local community members fought hard for the designation, but it has also had its critics, as all federal lands have. Those who oppose federal (public) land ownership are gaining new steam with the change of administration and the Senate and House dominated by one party.The opposition would like to degrade the protections and open our lands, including national parks, to drilling and mining, and perhaps sell off swaths of acreage that rightfully belong to all Americans to private interests. My Facebook feed is bombarded daily by posts about proposals to, for example, pull back on the Endangered Species Act, allow dumping of coal mining waste into streams (our drinking water), and to turn national parks over to the states for who-knows-what.

Will any of this come to pass? I don’t know, but with the new administration moving in numerous and unprecedented directions, it is natural for people to feel uneasy about what will happen to the lands they cherish. Though I have no crystal ball to see what lies in store for our national parks, I do know a little about the last 100 years or so. The national parks began with the “Party of Lincoln,” when President Lincoln himself set aside the land that became Yosemite National Park in 1864. As more national parks were set aside, it became necessary to create an agency to care for them. In 1916, Congress established the National Park Service (NPS) “to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and … leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” From the gushing geysers of Yellowstone to the granite obelisk of the Washington Monument, the national parks are treasures that preserve the cultural, artistic, and natural fabric of our country. Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian Wallace Stegner call them, “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Today the NPS consists of 417 units that are cared for by about 22,000 park professionals and 400,000 volunteers. Park people are some of the smartest and most dedicated people I’ve ever known who believe in their mission to protect and preserve. How do I know this? I used to work with them.

Rangers are often highly educated for the pay, holding multiple advanced degrees. Biologists research wildlife interactions, specialists monitor air and water quality (because pollution does not respect boundaries). Rangers are educators and firefighters, preservationists of delicate historical materials, and archeologists, engineers, and administrators. Most do not do this for the money because the pay isn’t great. Most do it because they are passionate about the resources under their care and helping park visitors understand the significance of their parks.

When the order came down that the NPS was not to use its Twitter feed following the recent inauguration, someone at Badlands National Park went “rogue” and started tweeting climate change facts on the official park account. When that was halted and the tweets disappeared, unofficial park accounts popped up on social media that were presumably generated by park staff, identities unknown, on their own time and as private citizens. I am not surprised. Their love of our national parks, and the mission to tell their stories is strong. They do not want scientific fact to be obscured by those who find it inconvenient.

It’s been a long while since I wore the green and gray, so I asked some friends how it was going in the “trenches.” Their duty stations are in Hawaii, Maine, and Pennsylvania, and they echoed one another in their thoughts. It is too early, they say, to know how things will fare for them and their parks, and that the uncertainty erodes morale, but they are doing their jobs as always to the best of their abilities. One of my friends reminded me that the NPS has endured a century’s-worth of different administrations and road bumps, and will continue to endure for another hundred years.

Fortunately, rangers are not alone in loving their parks. In 2015, 307 million people visited the parks, spending nearly 17 billion dollars in gateway communities. It is well that the American public and those who benefit economically from the parks support them. I have a feeling that in the coming years they’ll need their friends more than ever.

Support your national parks:

-Take a hike! Learn about and enjoy your parks. Chances are there is one near you. If not, explore here.

-Volunteer! A great way to become intimately involved with the parks and have fun.

-Drop a buck into the donation box usually located in the park visitor center. Proceeds go directly to the park. A percentage of your entrance fee also returns to the park.

-Buy a postcard! A percentage of profits spent in park bookstores help fund educational and interpretive programs. Plus, you’ll have a great memory of your visit.

-Join a group! Park advocacy groups abound. Many parks have their own “friends” organizations. Nationally: National Parks and Conservation Association and the National Park Foundation. Complementary groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon society also advocate for parks.

-Contact your representatives to express your support for national parks.

-Vote on November 6, 2018 for candidates who are pro-public lands.