On the summer of the 100th anniversary of our nation’s national parks, I had the good fortune to visit two of the most popular: Grand Teton and Yellowstone. What makes these parks special is not only the spectacular flora, fauna and scenery contained within their boundaries, but the fact that they are part of the larger 20.5 million acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).
The GYE encompasses seven National Forests, three wildlife refuges and the two enormous national parks. The result of this intelligent design is a place that has been referred to as America’s Serengeti, where wildlife ranging from grizzlies to wolves to bison to pronghorn abound.
It is triumph of conservation made possible by linking public lands into a massive integrated ecosystem.
People love the GYE and show it by visiting the area in droves. Last year more than seven million came to the GYE, setting a new record. In 2013 our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, monuments and other public lands had 407 million visits, contributing $41 billion to the regional economies and supporting 355,000 jobs according to a Department of Interior report.
Given such popularity and economic benefits you might assume that the future of national parks and public lands is secure in America. You would be wrong. The current U.S. Republican party platform calls for selling public lands off to states and divesting the lands from federal management.
This is bizarre given that the architect of our public land system was the great Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.” In her inspiring new book The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams pointed out that: “He (Teddy Roosevelt) was a man of his word. During his administration, Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for protecting 150 National Forests, 51 federal bird preserves, 4 federal wildlife preserves, 18 National Monuments, and 5 National Parks, 230 million acres in all.”
Will Rogers, president of Trust for Public Land addressed the disconnect between the Republican party’s view on public lands and that of the vast majority of Americans in his recent column in the New York Times Our Land Up for Grabs: “Rather than selling off the lands we all own, or looking for other uses for the many approved at the ballot box for conservation, our leaders should listen to voters and find ways to protect more of the places that make America special.”
As a guide, I have witnessed the profound appreciation that travelers from around the world have for the vast, beautiful wildlife haven that is the GYE. Author Terry Tempest Williams interviewed a traveler from London who shared this deep appreciation: “In London, there’s nine million of us in a very tiny space. Here there’s only a handful. What can I say? I’m just so grateful some people had the foresight to protect these lands for me and my children and their children for the future.”
While celebrating the remarkable legacy of our National Park system, will we work to continue to cherish and steward them or compromise them for short-term exploitation and profit? I have faith that Americans and visitors from all across the world will not allow the latter to happen. We are better than this.
As Tempest Williams reminds us “Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.” May we steward and enhance our public lands for the next 100 years and beyond. They ARE, as Wallace Stegner said in 1983, our best idea and they ARE sacred places.