By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” – Wallace Stegner
GARDINER, Mont. – An actor impersonating Teddy Roosevelt introduced dramatic flair to the National Park Service’s centennial celebration Aug. 25, with a spirited rendition of the speech the 26th president of the United States made when he laid the cornerstone of the iconic Roosevelt Arch.
The impersonator drew a healthy volley of cheers from the crowd of approximately 6,000 when he roared, “[Yellowstone] was created, and is now administered, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
When the 51st U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell took the stage, she celebrated America’s newest addition to the national park system: the Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument, which was designated by President Barack Obama on Aug. 24, the eve of the centennial.
In many ways, the 87,500-acre monument encompassing mountains, woods and waters of northern Maine is reflective of the Park Service’s past and future. Katahdin is celebrated for recreational opportunities it provides for hiking, canoeing, fishing and cross-country skiing—outdoor activities that have long been synonymous in the public’s imagination with iconic national parks like Yellowstone.
But Katahdin joined the park system in a much different manner than Yellowstone, America’s first national park: the land for this new monument—as well as $20 million to supplement federal funds for operations and infrastructure—was donated to the government by philanthropist Roxanne Quimby’s foundation, Elliotsville Plantation.
According to a White House press release, “this designation will build on the robust tradition of growing the park system through private philanthropy.”
In a press conference before the formal program, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said the park system is “chronically underfunded” and private dollars are necessary for the park service to fulfill its mission.
That message—become accustomed to private and commercial funding in the national park system—was echoed in the public program by several speakers, including Jewell; Yellowstone Superintendant Dan Wenk; and Kay Yeager, the board chair of the newly merged Yellowstone Association and Yellowstone Park Foundation.
Jewell outlined a vision for America’s public lands that is resolutely inclusive and shines a light some of the darker chapters in U.S. history.
In the days preceding her Yellowstone visit, Jewell spent time at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas and the César E. Cháves National Monument in California. The former addresses a time in our nation’s history when schools were segregated; the latter recognizes the importance of the farm worker movement, which in the 1970s helped give a voice to poor and disenfranchised workers.
“Our national parks are a living, breathing history book of American culture and heritage … not just those that make us proud, places like this, but those that teach us painful lessons from which to learn,” Jewell said.
“All Americans—no matter where they come from, how they worship or who they love—should see themselves in these public lands,” she continued.
Presented with a number of unknowns and challenges—climate change eating away at the glaciers of Glacier National Park, the vagaries of the federal budget process, and the constant effort to remain relevant to the public—the park system has plenty of work to do in its next century. A diverse cadre of advocates certainly couldn’t hurt the cause as the nation looks toward another century.
But what more ideal location than Yellowstone to commit to tackling those challenges? Or, as Jewell put it: “I can think of no better place to commemorate this milestone [than] here—at America’s first national park, under a Big Sky, on a crisp night, in the shadows of beautiful mountains, and on the shoulders of conservation giants who came before us.”