August 25 is the 100th birthday of our National Park Service, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. There are more than 400 national treasures included in the system owned by the American public so that generations to come will be able to enjoy them by either being able to visit them and/or being confident that they are secure from destruction.
I’ve been to our first national park, Yellowstone, three times – most recently in June 2015. I was looking forward to finally seeing the Roosevelt Arch, dedicated by TR in 1903, only to find it unapproachable. All around it was a huge construction site, so I had to settle on a distant view. They were sprucing up the northern entrance to the park to be ready for a ceremony this August 25. Engraved on the arch are the words “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” I was really glad to see its surroundings being refurbished.
In the late ‘70s when I began visiting a lot of national sites, I had been impressed at what a great job the park service did. That was before the Reagan Administration initiated major budget, personnel, and maintenance cuts that have been ongoing for 35 years. Throughout the ‘80s, I was always seeing embarrassing signs like those in park restrooms apologizing for not keeping them clean due to the lack of funds. Slough Creek Campground, where I had camped on my first visit to Yellowstone in 1980, had to be closed for a while in the ‘80s because of insufficient personnel. I don’t know when it reopened. I planned to camp there last summer, but it was full-up. I had to settle on a national forest campground outside the park, which was fine.
All of our parks are essentially showplaces for who we are and what we stand for, and we need to fund them properly. The “greatest” and “richest” country in the world can do it if it has the moral will to do so. Every dollar spent by the federal government on the park service generates ten dollars in revenue on the state and local levels: visitor spending, job creation, taxes paid. Even Congress’s birthday appropriations for our parks this year left the parks with $12 billion of unfunded backlog maintenance, and there’s no excuse for this. Our parks must be included in future major funding for renovations to our national infrastructure that’s been neglected for 35 years.
We all get interested in our parks for different reasons. My father, an electrical contractor, never wanted to be away from work, so my first real vacation was during the summer of 1968 after my sophomore year at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. My Uncle Harper asked me to go with him on a trip to California. His wife had recently died, and some old friends in Los Angeles had asked him to come for a visit. He needed someone to share the driving and expenses – my father agreed to pay my share. To entice me, he mapped out two great routes from El Dorado to L.A. and back. Using Interstate 10 on the way out and Interstate 40 coming back, he planned many side trips including Tombstone, Ariz., and the Grand Canyon.
Our first side trip was to Carlsbad Caverns, and that’s when I discovered what kind of vacation this was going to be. Driving into the parking area, he said that we didn’t want to stay very long: “We just want to be able to say ‘I’ve been there.’” I couldn’t believe he didn’t want to tour the caverns. He even offered to wait on me if I insisted. Not wanting him to wait, I consented to leave. And that was the way it was for the rest of the trip, although there were times I made him wait, like at the replica of Independence Hall at Knott’s Berry Farm.
Nobody believed that we went to so many places in such a short time! It became known in the family as the “notorious ten-day trip.” We even got stopped for speeding by a park ranger in the Petrified Forest. Harper was trying to not stop at all the scenic turnoffs and, if he drove fast enough, was hoping I might miss some of the signs. My brother John once said that he always felt sorry for Harper because he was the only one in the family with money, but he never knew how to enjoy it.
Nevertheless, that was the trip that got me hooked on wanting to see this beautiful country. I was later inspired by Alistair Cooke’s 1974 13-part TV series “America”, which was an early 200th birthday present to the United States. I began taking annual summer trips in the mid-1970s and have never stopped. And I eventually returned to all the places my uncle and I sped through.
There are national monuments, historic sites, battlefields, wildlife refuges, forests, lakeshores, rivers, and recreational areas; but only 59 are specifically designated as national parks. It would take a lot of effort to count how many of the others I’ve been to, but I know I’ve been to 38 national parks. Using Kodachrome slide film on most of my 20th century travels, I shared my photos with my students whenever appropriate. My American history students used to say that there was nothing we could study that I couldn’t show them. That was an exaggeration, but not because I didn’t try.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published August 13, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.