100 years later, National Park Service lands still grant us ‘breathing space’

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Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River is located just north of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Crystal Brindle

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HARI SREENIVASAN: It was a hundred years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson signed what was called the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service.

Jeffrey Brown takes our Bookshelf outdoors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Terry Tempest Williams, author, naturalist and environmental activist, grew up in Utah surrounded by national parks.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS, Author, “The Hour of Land”: They were our backyard. And with our family business, laying pipe in the American West, it was this wonderful juxtaposition between intrusion in the land and protected land.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story of the land, right?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: So, I feel like the American West is in my bones in the deepest way. And I also felt conflicted at a really young age, because I saw my father, my uncle, my grandfather, my brothers digging trenches in the land.

And yet I saw prairie dogs on the side of the trenches. And my impulse was to protect them from the very destruction that was putting food around our table..

JEFFREY BROWN: One hundred years since the creation of the National Park Service, the contradictions and controversies over America’s public lands continue.

But there is no denying the popularity of the parks themselves, Great Smoky Mountains in the East, Yosemite in the West, Yellowstone, the oldest park, established in 1872, and so many more, large and small, natural landscapes and historic monuments, some 412 parks and sites in all.

And attendance records continue to be broken, with more than 300 million visits last year. In “The Hour of Land,” a Terry Tempest Williams, who still lives in Utah, has written part natural history, part memoir, part call for preservation.

We talked at Great Falls Park, a small, but dramatically beautiful National Park Service site just 15 miles from Washington, D.C., with the Potomac River crashing over and through rock formations and turkey vultures hovering overhead.

So, what happens to you when you go out into a park?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: The miraculous.

JEFFREY BROWN: The miraculous? Nothing less than that, huh?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I mean superlatives. This is about superlatives.

Just seeing this, all of a sudden, you say, OK, I remember what matters, and I am very, very small. And, you know, humor returns, deep breathing returns, and that sense of affection.

JEFFREY BROWN: You go to all the different parks. You tell their stories. And we see that a lot of the issues of today have been there forever, right, whose land is it, the local vs. national governance of the land.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I thought I — in the beginning, Jeff, I thought I was writing a book about our national parks. It became very clear to me it was a book about America in…

JEFFREY BROWN: More than the parks themselves?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I think so, because they are the soul of our country. They are a reservoir for our spirit.

And they are not only memory palaces for each of us, but they really do hold our stories, not just one story, but multiple stories, diverse stories. And I think the gift of this for me has been, what story are we choosing to tell? What stories aren’t we telling? And that’s been the power of “The Hour of Land” for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: One continuing story pits energy development vs. preservation. Terry Tempest Williams describes in personal terms a visit several years ago to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota with her father.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: We fell in love with it. We also saw in that viewshed oil and gas development. We went to see the Bakken oil fields when it was at its peak.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: My father was shattered. He turned to me and said: “This is too pretty of a landscape for oil and gas development.”

That was my father, who would tell you he’s very proud of the scars that he’s created on the American landscape. There is little my father and I would agree on politically, but come to a national park, and that is our common ground. And he’s the one that gave me this sense of place, this ethic of place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see a way to balance the needs of preservation and economic development?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I live in a state where national monuments and parks were fought over. Now they are the economic engine that is keeping rural Utah alive.

That’s in our history, whether it’s Grand Teton National Park, whether it’s Grand Staircase National Monument. History shows us that it has always been a prudent, beautiful decision. And 300 million visits in our national parks system, I think, celebrates that idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three hundred million visits also brings up the notion that we hear about today of the parks being loved to death. Right? That’s another issue for today’s parks.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I think it shows us our need. I think it shows us our void.

You and I both know that, yes, in Yellowstone, it’s not bumper to bumper. It’s chest to back. But if you’re a half-a-mile off the beaten path, you’re in a very, very wild place.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your hope, then, for the next 100 years for the national parks?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: It’s very difficult to establish a national park. I think it’s going to be even more difficult to keep them. And I think we, as citizens of this country, have to fight for them. I think we have to make sure that the public lands stay public.

And I think we have to love them. And each of us, with the gifts that are ours, I think we have to give those gifts up in the name of community, to think beyond our own species, to think about grizzlies. Do we really want them delisted, to think about these black vultures, their power, their foreboding, powerful, beautiful presence, that we too will die, and they will pick our bones.

These are not political issues. Ultimately, I think they are spiritual issues. And this is where the spirit of America dwells.

JEFFREY BROWN: Terry Tempest Williams, thank you so much.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In honor of this year’s centennial, high school students from across the country who are participating in the “NewsHour”‘s Student Reporting Labs program will be heading to the canyons and mountains of their local parks to tell stories they discover about our shared lands.

The young journalists are part of a STEM reporting initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. For more information, visit @reportinglabs on Twitter and Facebook. We look forward to seeing their stories in the coming year.

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