By: Gabe Thornton
Since we came back from the Winds, our exposure to the natural world has been through a more familiar lens. That of the National Park system. If you’re familiar with Ken Burns, you know them as “America’s Best Idea” and that statement holds true in my mind. It’s what the National Parks mean to the people they were created for that I often find myself curious about.
To me they are my childhood. I had the opportunity through my family to visit many National Parks and Historic Sites from a very young age. I don’t even remember some of the earliest trips but I have the photos to verify. I’m grateful for my experiences and I have all the more respect for these places because of them.
Among my peers there seems to be a discrepancy in opinions in regard to the wide variety of parks, monuments, and sites within the system. On one hand there are opinions like, “They are a sacred place for preservation” (Marta). The parks preserve natural landscapes and historical treasures like the grand canyon of Yellowstone, Wind Caves, or Gettysburg. Unique places around the country are kept for future generations and used to instill a sense of environmental wonder and historical enthusiasm in all who visit.
Then there are opinions like Annie’s which, put bluntly, comically describe an all too real feeling within members of the program. Speaking about Mt. Rushmore she states, “It’s like America threw up on the Black Hills.” This iconic monument to patriotism and heritage is uncomfortably juxtaposed onto a beautiful and natural landscape we’ve just spent the last month learning to respect. “Leave no trace” resonates in all of our heads as we are surrounded by flocking tourists and silly poses in front of four familiar stone faces.
It is this dichotomy between American patriotism/ consumerism and the natural beauty of the country colonists stuck a flag on and called home that leaves me questioning the real importance of our National Parks. They are gifts that are meant for all humans to enjoy and hopefully learn about their natural neighbors as well as recreate respectfully. They aren’t just photo ops, restaurants, and gift shops. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves about our own history as a country, no matter how raw and unforgiving, as well as learn about the ecosystems we take part in every day. The National Park System provides these tools. It’s when we fail to remember this that the National Park system truly goes to waste. Respect what you see, leave what you find, learn about the world around you, and realize how lucky you are as an American Citizen to have the opportunity to be where you are. You’ll leave with something much more valuable than an Old Faithful shot glass or socks with prairie dogs on them.