National Park Service Centennial

By Seth Shteir

National Park Service Centennial
By Seth Shteir

As an elementary school teacher I’m well aware of how important the national parks are in the eyes of my students. One September, on the first day of school, seven year old Jared blurted out excitedly, “We saw California condors at the Grand Canyon!” This January, after returning from a family trip, eleven year old Maya wrote haiku about Yosemite’s stunning winter scenery. However, the national parks which have played such an important role in the lives of children like Jared and Maya, face myriad threats including an 800 million dollar operating shortfall, invasive species, encroaching development, staffing cuts, slashed education programs, crime and decaying infrastructure.

Our southern California national parks are no exception. Illegal drugs are being trafficked through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Only 13 rangers patrol Death Valley’s vast 3.4 million acres-an area bigger than the state of Delaware. Archeological surveys have been conducted on less than 5% of Joshua Tree National Park. None of the objects in Mojave National Preserve’s small museum collection have been cataloged. Overall, the National Park Service has just one park service interpreter for every 100,000 visitors.

Because of these problems and because the National Park Service is ten years away from celebrating its centennial in 2016, it has been attempting to engage the American public in a dialog about the future of our parks. In recent weeks, the NPS asked the public to imagine how

they, their children and future generations want to enjoy the national parks. The NPS wanted to know the public’s hopes and expectations. Key to this process were listening sessions and written comments. But the listening sessions and public comment period are only the beginning of this national discourse.

The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the national parks, has issued a report titled “Five Ways America Can Fix Our National Parks.” The report delineates a course of action for restoring, reinvesting and reinvigorating our park system. Some of the basic tenets of the plan include full funding by the federal government for interpretive and law enforcement rangers, scientific research, maintenance, restoration and land acquisitions outside park boundaries. It also includes a recommendation to add new parks that tell the stories of all Americans, (For example, Representative Hilda Solis (D-California) recently introduced legislation to authorize a study of possible sites for a park unit celebrating the life of Caesar Chavez). Finally, it calls for expanded educational programs so that visitors can learn about this nation’s diverse natural and cultural history.

The national parks play a unique role in American society. They are living museums of history and nature. The national park units, and the rangers who work in them, tell the story of our nation. By initiating a public dialog, the NPS is offering Americans a unique opportunity to play a role in deciding the future of our parks. Hopefully, the process will ensure that future generations can experience the awe of standing beneath a giant sequoia, the marvel of Joshua Tree’s enormous boulders and the mystery of gazing at the star studded sky above Death Valley. Over the last 90 years the national parks have helped shape American’s understanding of their national heritage. Let’s make sure that the national parks continue to be places where we can experience our nation’s wonders!

Seth Shteir is conservation chair of the San Fernando Valley Audubon and a teacher at Children’s Community School in Van Nuys.