Yesterday, as the U.S. government shut down, all 401 of our national parks closed their gates. The campers and visitors inside were given two days to leave. It was no great surprise.
We had gone to sleep the night before knowing that time had run out; there would be no last-minute return to sanity in Congress, no daring White House maneuver that might avert the shutdown. The sequester of last March, with its closing of selected parks, national monuments, and historical sites, had given us a preview and some degree of preparation for bigger hits this time. Yet one word in my morning paper stopped me in mid-paragraph and made me bristle: "nonessential."
Of all federal endeavors deemed nonessential by the government, I learned, the national parks are at the top of the list. Really? I found myself questioning priorities. Many of the choices made in the present crisis do make some sense: The military will not be furloughed, nor will Social Security workers or air traffic controllers. Some of the shutdowns are even to be celebrated, if you happen to share my values: No new oil or gas leases will be contracted on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and IRS offices are closing here and there around the country.
There are gray areas in between, of course. Just now, in writing this, I heard the postal van and walked down, as usual, to meet my mail carrier on the driveway. I was glad to see her unfurloughed and losing no pay. And yet. It was one of those junk-mail days, with not one piece of actual correspondence, not a single letter addressed to me. I walked the envelope of coupons from Valpak.com and the sales fliers from Lucky, Safeway, Subway, and ADT Home Security straight to the recycling bin. Was this sheaf of cheap print really more essential than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Acadia, and Glacier Bay?
"The best idea we've ever had," Wallace Stegner wrote of the park system. Ken Burns, in making his documentary on the national parks, recast the phrase as "America's Best Idea." Stegner, in his famous "Wilderness Letter," went on to make the best case for the wild terrain that is the quintessential core of many of our national parks and forests. "We simply need that wild country available to us," he concluded, "even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
The national parks hold the landscapes that formed us as Americans. The long vistas, the possibilities over the horizon, the purple mountains' majesty, distinguished our experience from that of the Africans, Europeans, Asians, and islanders that we were before we came. The national parks are where we go to renew contact with that experience. Can there be a connection between the partisan hostility of the moment, the governmental paralysis, and our loss of contact with those roots? Is it possible we were not meant to live like canned sardines?
It was in wilderness that we became Homo sapiens. Our evolution was not in the Information Age, or the Space Age, or the Atomic, or the Industrial. It came long before the invention of agriculture or fire. We evolved as hunter-gatherers in the wild landscape of Mother Africa. It is in wilderness that we meet ourselves face to face.
It is easy to take for granted what a remarkable creation the national parks are, and what a great slice of Creation they contain. The National Park System spans 82° of latitude, from Gates of the Arctic National Park at 70° N, to American Samoa National Park at 12° S. It spans 90° of longitude, from Katmai National Park on the Gulf of Alaska (and American Samoa National Park 7,500 miles south on the same meridian) to Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. The highest point in North America is the summit of Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet in Denali National Park. The lowest is Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley National Park. The coldest is Mount McKinley, where in 2003 the wind chill reached minus 118.1 degrees Fahrenheit (47.8 degrees Celsius), a North American record. The hottest is Death Valley, where at Furnace Creek, on July 10, 1913, the temperature reached 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.6 degrees Celsius). Death Valley, no surprise, also scores as the driest, with just 1.8 inches (45.7 millimeters) of annual rainfall.
The tallest tree on Earth, the coastal redwood Sequoia sempervirens, grows in Redwood National Park in California. The biggest, the redwood's inland cousin, the giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum—the most massive organism ever to live—grows in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks. The longest cave system on Earth lies in, or under, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. The deepest lake in the United States, at 1,943 feet (592 meters), fills the caldera of Crater Lake National Park. The tallest dunes in North America, 750 feet (228.6 meters) from base to crest, march across Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
The National Park System, expansive in space, also spans great gulfs of time. A mile deep in Grand Canyon National Park, in the inner gorge of the Colorado, the river has cut into a basement layer of rock 1.75 billion years old. A river-runner floats by walls of metavolcanic Brahma Schist laid down when the highest form of life on Earth was blue-green algae.
In Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, the rock is brand-new. Kilauea Volcano, in the middle of the park, has been in continuous eruption for the past 30 years. Shield your face against the heat of one of Kilauea's molten streams, dip the point of your geological hammer in, and you will come away with a glowing gob of lava at the tip. In seconds the glow fades. The gob blackens. In a minute it is cool enough to touch. Newborn basalt.
The last of the tallgrass prairie, which once covered 140 million acres of North America, is preserved at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. The largest stands of saguaro cactus are protected at Organ Pipe National Monument and Saguaro National Park. The last wild bison herds roam Yellowstone, Theodore Roosevelt, and Badlands National Parks. Florida panthers, the last cougars in the eastern United States, take refuge in Everglades National Park and two nearby reserves. Big Bend National Park in Texas, Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Noatak Natural Preserve in Alaska preserve the beauty and integrity of the nation's finest stream courses.
Manassas National Battlefield Park, Gettysburg National Park, Little Bighorn National Monument, and dozens of National Historical Sites (Jamestown, Andrew Johnson, Fort Bowie, Harpers Ferry, John Muir, Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., Brown vs. Board of Education) preserve American history.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (from the Archaic period of Pueblo civilization), Chaco Culture Natural Historical Park (from the Pueblo II period), Mesa Verde National Park (Pueblo III), and Pecos Natural History Park (Pueblo IV), preserve American prehistory, as do Petroglyph, Aztec Ruins, Montezumas Castle, Bandelier, Wupatki, Walnut Camp, Navajo, Hovenweep, and assorted other national monuments.
Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, with its fossils of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus, along with Badlands National Park in South Dakota, with its fossils of rhinos, horses, and saber-toothed cats, and Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, with its fossil cycads, extinct conifers, phytosaurs, and crocodylomorphs, all preserve American pre-prehistory, the paleontological record of our land.
The National Park System is, in so many ways, the measure of our place and of ourselves. If anything good comes of the shutdown, it may be that it gives us the opportunity to see how we like it without our parks, and to see what they mean to us.