Guest Column: National Parks at 100: Showcasing America’s ideal of stewardship

By Patrick Leahy

It’s been called “America’s Best Idea.” This week we celebrate an important date in our nation’s history. One-hundred years ago the U.S. made a bold and thoughtful declaration about our country’s future by choosing to forever preserve our nation’s past, as reflected in our finest natural and cultural treasures, with the creation of the National Park Service.

Thanks to a passionate crusade by countless schoolchildren, newspapers, industry leaders, and committed naturalists, Congress 100 years ago passed the Organic Act establishing the National Park Service. President Woodrow Wilson signed the law on August 25, 1916, and the United States declared to the world that we would preserve both iconic natural landscapes and historical and cultural places that celebrate our highest achievements and mourn some of our greatest national sacrifices. A century later, the National Park Service (NPS) continues to protect forever great natural wonders, pristine ecosystems, and historically significant sites for everyone to enjoy, and to learn about our nation’s history. Our parks are part of the heritage of every American. To mark the special anniversary, NPS invites every American to “Find Your Park” and discover the special places among the varied its 411 National Park units. I hope every Vermonter will have the opportunity to visit these inspiring and jaw-dropping places, whether in our beautiful Green Mountains of Vermont or at one of the hundreds of National Park Service properties across the country.

The value of conserving and celebrating these special places as National Parks goes beyond just their intrinsic value and environmental benefit. National Parks are also economic engines that drive local jobs and build communities. When writing NPS’s charter, its drafters noted, with great foresight, that “the economic value of the parks is only recently coming to be realized” and that the “growing appreciation of the national assets found in National Parks is evidenced by the vast increase of visitors.” Vast increase, indeed: In 1916 Yellowstone National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park had 51,395 and 31,000 visitors respectively while 100 years later they each are topping 4 million annual visitors. National parks are “forever,” so can we begin to imagine the value of our parks in 2116?

Visitors were reported to have spent $16.9 billion in gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands in 2015, supporting 295,300 jobs. Labor income reached $11.1 billion. Our parks contributed an impressive $32 billion to our local and national economies. These numbers grow steadily, year after year.

As you celebrate the National Park Service centennial this year, make sure you are not just celebrating the spectacular western vistas and natural wonders like the Grand Canyon or Zion National Parks. Keep in mind that the footprint and impact of our national parks is diverse and far-reaching but also intimate and close to home. Here in Vermont we have the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park in Woodstock, which teaches visitors about the history and evolution of conservation stewardship. Vermont is also home to150 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT). Inspired by our own Long Trail, the AT crosses 14 states and each year brings close to a thousand through-hikers to Vermont, as well as countless others who enjoy the trail for shorter hikes. Other, relatively new and lesser known National Park Service units in Vermont include the Upper Missisquoi and Trout Wild and Scenic Rivers and the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership. I am so proud that the U.S. Senate has passed legislation just this year (yet to become law) to establish our newest National Park unit, a section of the North Country National Scenic Trail in Addison County.

The National Park Service has also helped each of Vermont’s 14 counties, thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a program I have fought hard to fund annually. The LWCF has enabled the National Park Service to help dozens of Vermont communities with grants to plan, acquire, build, maintain and renovate local parks and recreation areas, bringing long-lasting health and social benefits. Through this program, NPS extends the benefits of outdoor recreation well beyond the boundaries of the national parks  and into the neighborhoods where the Americans live and work every day. At last count LWCF-assisted parks touch the lives of people in more than 98 percent of U.S. counties. Just a few examples of National Park Service support for Vermont communities through LWCF are city parks and local pools in Rutland, the recreation area at Lake Paran in Bennington, the Lyndon Skate Park, the St. Albans City School Playground, rehabilitation of the Crystal Lake bathhouse in Barton, Derby Line’s Baxter Park playground and basketball court, and hundreds of other projects across our state.

Our national parks, from Vermont’s Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park to the majestic Yosemite, the new Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, and on to our iconic Lady Liberty that has proudly welcomed millions of immigrants to our shores, each teach us of our past and show a path to our best possible future.

So as the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service arrives on August 25, I invite every Vermonter to go and celebrate your parks — our heritage — be they local, state or national. We can all find ways to enjoy these benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation, knowing that for the next 100 years, and beyond, the National Park Service will protect and nourish the parks for generations of Americans to come.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) advocates for the National Park Service and other conservation and stewardship programs as a key member of the Appropriations Committee’s Interior Subcommittee.