I just returned this weekend from a ten-day vacation to the Four Corners States (that is, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico), a long expedition that allowed me to experience not one, but three of the most beautiful national parks and monuments in the Southwest: Monument Valley, Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly.
It isn't just the scenery that makes these locations so valuable, however. In addition to the local flora and fauna, I had the privilege to learn about the living, breathing communities of people who continue to make their homes in the valleys and canyons of the four corners region and the rich history of their ancestors. I saw ancient pictographs carved onto cavern walls and had the opportunity to walk into the site of a cliff dwelling that has remained standing with little modern interference for over eight hundred years. National parks and monuments protect these pieces of native cultural heritage from damage and looters and preserve them not only for future generations of tourists, but for future generations of Native people, as well.
The mission of the National Park Service is one of protection and restoration. Many of their programs involve resource recovery from human destruction, such as their project to restore 6,600 acres of the Everglades, but it also makes an effort to preserve threatened human culture, as well, establishing the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and supporting Native American artisanship through grants. In a world that has been increasingly dominated by white Anglo-Saxon culture over the last few decades, more than ever we need to work to preserve the cultural diversity that makes America so great.
But by far the strongest impression I had of the national parks was one of connection to its visitors. The National Park Service is, at its core, an educator invested in the lessons its visitors come away with after their vacation is over, trying to impress values of forward-thinkingness, conservation and respect onto its audience. When we visit a national park, we see those values in action, the forward-thinkingness of the lawmakers who originally set aside these beautiful places so that we may continue to enjoy them today.
As we were leaving a tour of the Long House in Mesa Verde National Park, my aunt and uncle, with whom I was travelling, took a moment to speak to the park ranger who guided our tour to thank her for her work and lament the policy changes that are currently threatening the sanctity of our national parks. She said, "The establishment of the parks showed an ability to think ahead. From what I've seen, we've lost the capability to plan for the future."
Let's prove to her that she's wrong.