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Exploring America's National Parks

April 06, 2013

Ah, Spring! As we bid adieu to the gnarled appendage of winter's icy grip and welcome the renewal and rejuvenation of a greening world, our attention turns naturally to thoughts of vacation and travel. The weather warms, our wanderlust builds, and dreams of hitting the open road permeate our days. Recreation, leisure, sight-seeing, or just getting away from it all - that's the impulse, but where to go? Many of you have already spent the winter crafting vacation plans and securing reservations. For those of you stuck at the starting gate grasping for ideas, may I suggest a trip to one (or more) of our national parks?

I can think of no better source for inspiration and research on these great American treasures than Ken Burns' remarkable 2009 documentary, The National Parks:  America's Best Idea (available through the Library for checkout, or online from our Access Video on Demand database). Those looking for a travelogue collection of national park sights and sounds may be disappointed at first, as Burns had in mind something else entirely. But those open to a different take - a historical perspective - on our national park system are in for a superlative treat.

Burns, ever the storyteller/historian, sets out to tell the story of how our national park system came to be. America, after all, was first in the world to conceive of the notion of setting aside lands for public enjoyment, an idea that was consummated in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park.

Those of us born in the last 60 years likely take the national park experience for granted - park rangers, entry fees, and visitor centers are as natural to us as the sun rising in the east. But, as with any experimental endeavor, the park system as we now know it is the product of myriad ad hoc decisions and a sometimes contentious and painful evolution. Yellowstone began its national park career with no Congressional funding at all- the National Park System itself wasn't established until 1916, and the now-ubiquitous park ranger didn't become an official government position until 1959.

The genius of Burns' historical portrait is in reminding viewers of the little-known or long-forgotten contributions of individuals whose inspiration, dedication, and financial beneficence were absolutely vital to the creation of the National Park System we know and enjoy today. People like naturalist John Muir, who fell in love with Yosemite Valley and the spiritual calling it evoked, dedicated a lifetime to the preservation of America's inspiring landscapes. A young Theodore Roosevelt couldn't wait to travel west to see the great herds of American bison quickly succumbing to unfettered sport hunting for fear that they might be gone before he had a chance to shoot one himself! As president, however, Roosevelt did more to champion the fledgling national parks and their preservationist ideal than any president before or since. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., heir to a name synonymous with industrial might and elite privilege, used his considerable family wealth and time to buy up land to set aside for the enjoyment of all as national parks.

But ultimately, Burns' story returns to the common folk, the countless Americans from every social strata and walk of life who have made national park visits occasions for family bonding, communion with nature, or simple escape and solitude. His journey through the history of the park system is a journey through 20th Century America, as citizens began to discover and appreciate the generous bounty of natural wonders bestowed upon this land, and to pass along that appreciation from one generation to the next.

Perhaps, you too will find inspiration in this story and partake in the great American pastime of visiting our national parks. And to that end, MCPL can be a great source for books, videos, and Online Resources to help select the perfect national park destination for your next vacation. So get out your maps, do some research, load up the family truckster, and make some travel memories you'll never forget!

Kyle K.
North Independence Branch

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