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  • Louis Venters

Happy 100th Birthday to "America's Best Idea"!

This week the National Park Service turns one hundred years old, and it's making me all mushy inside just thinking about it!

The National Park system--which includes the flagship National Parks as well as National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, and a number of other designations in every state and territory--preserves, protects, and makes available to the public much of what is most beautiful and most important (and even most difficult and painful) about the natural, historical, and cultural heritage of the United States.

The system's maintenance and continued development should be a priority for the federal government and should receive the wholehearted support of the population as a whole. Indeed, in an era of widely-reported political splintering, according to one recent study an astonishing 95 percent of Americans indicate that preservation of the national parks for future generations is important--regardless of whether they themselves ever get to visit them personally! It should come as no surprise that love of the land and appreciation for our history is a strong common ground in a big and diverse country. That's the basis for a sane kind of patriotism that most everyone can get behind.

President Roosevelt and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, Yosemite, 1903

(Note, for starters, that it was President Lincoln who designated Yosemite as the first national park even though he knew he would never get to see it in person; President Theodore Roosevelt who made conservation of natural resources a permanent concern of the federal government; and President Wilson who signed into law the bill creating the National Park Service. This agenda is, and has always been, far too important to be limited by political partisanship.)

I love the national parks that I've had the good fortune to visit so far. Every semester I feel privileged to expose my students, few of whom have traveled widely, to the system's origins in the early 20th century and and to what it has to offer today, telling them frankly that I hope they are moved by the parks' beauty and attracted to visit themselves. And just recently it's been a real delight to begin to take my own children to the parks, too, so that they can start to get a taste of their birthright.

(Don't even get me started about the National Register of Historic Places, another program of the National Park Service, which turns 50 this year--or about the host of fabulous state parks around the country!)

The national parks have made our country more beautiful, more thoughtful, more democratic, and more humane, and they have served as a model for the other national park systems around the world. I am proud, and grateful, that they exist. Here's to the next hundred years!

Penn Center National Historic Landmark

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

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