Happy Centennial. I love you. That makes what I have to say all the more difficult.
I appreciate that you want all Americans to enjoy our National Parks. And I agree that getting more people, from more backgrounds, out to the parks is critical to ensuring the future of America’s Best Idea.
You have, however, lost sight of one critical fact.
They aren’t yours to protect and provide for. That is our responsibility.
Your well-intentioned efforts to increase the number of and diversity of visitors to our parks has had some disappointing results. Now you must add to your to-do list: scrubbing graffiti, increasing trash pickup on and off trail, and explaining to people that the baby bison they just put in their SUV isn’t cold, it is a wild animal perfectly at home in its environment.
Instilling a love of, respect for and desire to visit our National Parks is not something that can be accomplished with a year-long or five-year long campaign by the National Park Service. I would argue that it isn’t something that the National Park Service can accomplish regardless of the amount of time and money spent. But it is something the National Park Service can support.
Imagine that for the last 20 years the National Park Service had focused its efforts on building real, productive, long-lasting partnerships with the organizations on the ground doing work every day to connect new generations of Americans with the natural world.
Instead, you spent that time planning a Centennial Celebration – a PR campaign.
You have spread your efforts so thin, and resisted partnership so fiercely, that you’ve missed the boat. These partnerships are still your best bet for saving America’s Best Idea and protecting our natural spaces for future generations.
Your resources would be better spent helping organizations NatureBridge provide scholarships to poor urban and rural youth to participate in their National-Parks based educational programs. Results would come more swiftly by helping organizations like Islandwood, and NOLS, grow, thrive and teach. And long-term change would come from using your influence and dollars to make sure environmental education is taught in our schools, and that the history of our National Parks is included in that curriculum.
You already have partnerships with some of these organizations. But how productive are they, really? Are they helping you to achieve your goals? If not, that isn’t on your partners. It is, I’m sorry to say, on you. These, and other organizations like them, are just waiting – often begging – to help you fulfill your mission. Please let them.
They are able to reach people you never will. And the youth that participate in their programs will continue to reach people you never will.
The parks belong to Americans, not to the National Park Service. Enlist the Americans doing the hard work on the ground to save them.
I’m not naive. I know that you are subject to the whims of congress and the executive branch. But you’ve got to fight the good fight. When an administration strikes “environmental education” from your vocabulary, fight back. When congress buries you in paperwork to avoid having to fund a critical need, fight back. Don’t just give in. Tell the American people what their government is doing to their parks. Be more invested in the future of our parks than in your own job.
Do what you need to do. But always fight. Fight to give us a chance to save our parks.