The U.S. National Park Service will be a century old in 2016. I agree with Ken Burns et al that it and the parks they serve may be one of America’s best ideas. What Burns’ excellent documentary whitewashes, and what is becoming increasingly evident today, is the extent to which the ideals of the National Park Service contradict some of the founding ideals of the United States as cultural and political entity. This contradiction will only become more obvious, as this century wears on and my country tries to reinvent its birth story in a coherent manner.
Last year the NPS released A Call to Action, a memo concerning the second century of the agency. Most of the 28 pages are given over to pretty graphics and are not especially inspiring, but the following stood out:
The aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the rights protected for all citizens in the Constitution are based upon our founders’ belief that every individual has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas were formed from the lessons of history shaped by struggles with governments in former homelands. The founders and subsequent generations also knew that the grandeur of the American landscape compared equally to the cathedrals and castles of the Old World. So it was inevitable that an institution to preserve both the lessons of history and the best of the land be conceived and established. That institution, the National Park Service, will be 100 years old in 2016.
I’ve traveled little in Europe, and am not in a position to evaluate the claim that America has culturally privileged wild places above and beyond the old country, but neither the NPS nor I would be the first to make it, so we’ll let it ride. The importance of this ideal is the central role it might play, in the 21st century, in enabling “the pursuit of happiness”. My reading of Jefferson has always seen life and liberty as prerequisites for being able to quest after happiness (meaning). Access to meaning in life is expressly not guaranteed. So access to wild places could be seen as an essential precondition to the pursuit of meaning in human life.
The interesting things is that the national parks have done this by removing vast tracts of land from private ownership forever, an act and an ideal which contradicts such inextricably American things as manifest destiny and our pathologic fetishization of the right to private land ownership. Which explains why so many Americans, especially westerners, get angry over (continued) federal control of the majority of most western states. Abbey, in multiple works but Solitaire first and primarily, advocated for wilderness as essential to democracy. It is and can be the spiritual as well as literal centerpiece, where democratic ideals remain in their most potent state. Spiritually, in the ways touched on above and in most all of my work here, and literally as a base of resistance against the inevitable overreaching of human government. It is because these two ideas seem to contradict each other so thoroughly in application that leads me to believe that there must be a lot to them. Bedrock and paradox, right?
The NPS may then be in a position of mediating a central conflict in American identity as it matures. Manifest destiny, radical private property rights, and an unbending acceptance of market capitalism as a moral force are the ideological equivalent of an 11-year-old whose super ego has yet to emerge. The National Parks can serve as a model of mature democracy for the rest of our culture: they are open to all (they should be free) to enjoy, but reserved from the ownership of anyone. There will be disagreements and revisions concerning minutia, but it is time for a comparable governing outlook to become more widely practiced in 21st century America. American identity as it has been imagined since the second world war is untenable. Now we grow up.