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Uncommon Common Ground: The National Parks at 100

An outgrowth of the vision of President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed into law the Antiquities Act of 1906, the National Park Service was officially created by Congress on Aug. 25, 1916. The act officially enshrined wide tracts of the West, especially, as public lands open for exploration, enrichment and enjoyment by the American citizenry.Of the many things that fuel the imaginations of and about Americans, two predominate: the big and the new.

In 1916, with the American Frontier effectively closed, nothing was bigger or newer than the National Park Service. A century later, the wide-open spaces and inimitable experiences of the parks continue to fire the imaginations of Americans and international travelers alike, providing a glimpse of both past and future, the individual and the collective.

“The parks are where the other part of America survives, where the natural world and its relationship to humankind and to technology has its interplay,” said Heather Fryer, Ph.D., the Fr. Henry W. Casper, S.J., Professor of History at Creighton University and director of the Creighton American Studies Program. “People go to the parks to be solitary in nature and unplugged, yet people really enjoy interacting with the other park visitors in a social atmosphere different from what everyday American life looks like. Being at the same park at the same time forms the basis of a kind of temporary community where the things that divide us seem less evident or less important.”

An outgrowth of the vision of President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed into law the Antiquities Act of 1906, the National Park Service was officially created by Congress on Aug. 25, 1916. The act officially enshrined wide tracts of the West, especially, as public lands open for exploration, enrichment and enjoyment by the American citizenry.

The move also helped put to rest a long-running debate over what the nation should do with these wide-open spaces. Prior to 1916, people were visiting such sites as Yellowstone and Yosemite, and private development had started to crop up around the areas.

“The parks didn’t start out being politically neutral,” Fryer said. “A lot of people saw them as places to build resorts and, with the closing of the frontier, that the land should have been developed quickly to secure America’s claims to its newest holdings. But there was also some concern that this development might do away with the very elements of the natural world that had, many believed, made Americans ‘American.’ Taking on the challenges and experiencing the wonders of America’s unique natural landscape was said to make Americans resilient, innovative, and deeply committed to progress.”

Even as the federal government took over management, a public-private partnership around the parks began to emerge. Small entrepreneurs cropped up in and around the parks, renting out cabins, selling souvenirs and offering other services.

Perhaps the most recognizable meeting of public and private, technology and nature, old and new was in the transportation of tourists to the parks. For this, the railroads were instrumental as the traveling technology of the day and, in this, Fryer sees a corollary in 21st century technology.

“The National Parks got their start when people decided to get on the transcontinental railroad and go see the parks,” she said. “The railroads made the National Parks part of their advertising, which in turn created a demand for more and more accessible parks. So passenger travel and the National Park System grew together, in a surprisingly symbiotic way. In that sense, the parks have never really been separate from technology. They changed the way people interacted with nature. The parks are seen as being a respite from technology but look at the way we interact with nature today — all over the National Parks, people are taking selfies in nature.”

But the selfie culture in the National Parks is different from what it is in the wider society. In an America increasingly alienated by technological distance, the parks have become a place where Americans and international visitors, all from different walks of life, congregate and commune in the shadow of the sublime.

“If there are secular sacred spaces, the National Parks are those places,” Fryer said. “They call attention to the first Americans to encounter these extraordinary landscapes, encouraging reflection about what America is and who ‘Americans’ are. In the last decade or so, a greater number of park visitors have been coming from foreign countries, which offers new angles of vision on this question of ‘Americanness.’ Yet all the while, it feels as though everyone at the National Parks, is taking part in a unifying and inclusive American experience. It is usually not apparent how much money a person has, or what their job is when they’re among the visitors hiking the Grand Canyon or looking up at El Capitan. These collective experiences of awe make the parks civic religious sites for Americans. Whether an individual believes they are witnessing God’s creation or the American experiment succeeding in some way, it’s a central, shared experience.”

Fryer is also quick to note that before some parks were secular sacred spaces, they were — and, in many cases, continue to be — actual holy ground.

Native Americans, the obvious true possessors of the land that eventually became the nation’s parks, still have a fraught relationship with the government that wrested or cajoled or prevaricated this land out from under their forebears.

Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is a sacred space for the Klamath people, Yosemite National Park is on important native ground for the Paiute and Yellowstone National Park has been known as abundant hunting and fishing grounds for the Crow, Shoshone and Nez Perce for more than 10 millennia.

“In 1916, indigenous people were living in non-sovereign conditions and today, indigenous scholars are still talking about how to best fit indigeneity into the closing of the frontier,” Fryer said. “The National Park Service has attempted to integrate indigenous culture into park culture to evoke a kind of anthropological vision of the history of the park by creating a connection to ‘the people here before.’ The question of ‘before’ is still problematic, though. Through treaty, whether honorable or not, the U.S. government says it owns land that ‘is or was sacred to some’ and preserves it through the National Park infrastructure. But that is not spiritually or otherwise sufficient for people whose spiritual and community lives are centered in these places.”

The enshrinement of the National Parks as places where disparate, harried, plugged-in Americans can come to unwind and find common ground remains a constant beckoning and with each passing year, as evidenced by the record-breaking attendance figures in 2015, when more than 307 million people visited the parks.

The allure, Fryer says, is certainly in the overwhelming beauty of the parks, their immensity, and also their variety. But it’s also the consistency of the parks — where generations have shared experiences — that keep people coming back.

“The parks really put us in the same national, ritual space,” Fryer said. “It’s a rare space because the U.S. is so forward-looking, which is what makes its national culture distinctive. We’re always wondering ‘What’s next?’ So it’s vital that we have places that are fairly unchanging and provide continuity. It’s not an overstatement to say the parks are the center and cradle of our heritage.”

To celebrate the centenary of the National Park Service this year, Fryer helped bring to Creighton this spring nationally celebrated author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams for the annual Ross Horning Lecture. Tempest Williams’ latest book is The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, and she also appeared on Ken Burns’ PBS series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

For her own part, Fryer also said that she’ll celebrate the centenary the way she celebrates the parks every year — by vacationing in at least one of them with her family.

“It is a different place,” she said. “I like being with other people. We’re all in the park together, talking about the day’s activities and where everyone is from. I’m constantly checking out license plates to see how many people came from how many different places. It’s an important part of American family life and one of the few ways we can vacation like our grandparents did. We can step out of the America of the moment with its Kardashians and its electoral politics. The space doesn’t change much, the feeling doesn’t change much. I wonder what we would be like as Americans if we never had these beautiful places to stop and stay—and just be.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.