Are National Parks really America's best idea?

I am sure most of you are familiar with Ken Burn's series on PBS The National Parks: America's Best Idea. If you haven't, it is a wonderful series documenting the history of the US National Park system and you need to see it. While I know our National Park system preserves some of the most beautiful places on this continent, that isn't it's greatest accomplishment.
Our favorite camping trip of the year so far, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas. 
Earlier this year we participated in our second First Day Hike. (First Day Hikes take place on January 1st at local state parks.) I enjoyed the hike last year but the program this year far exceeded my expectations. The park staff put together a short program on tips for photographing wildlife before the hike and provided healthy snacks and bottled water. And that wasn't even my favorite part of the day.

The park naturalist lead the hike and gave the usual speech about the ecology and history of the State Park, pretty standard. But what set him apart for me was his enthusiasm for connecting children with the outdoors, obviously a passion of mine as well. He helped my son learn to look a little closer. They found feathers, shells, wildlife tracks and plenty of ice. My son had so much fun we went back a few months later.

This experience got me thinking and for a while I was a little annoyed. Why do National Parks get all the attention? If we are going to raise the next generation to be outdoor enthusiasts they need to be regularly connecting with nature and having memorable experiences. And it takes a lot more than 58 parks scattered around the country to do that.

My son's experience on the First Day Hike was somewhat unique in that it was a lot more personal than most but it was very memorable for him. On this same hike the park manager was telling me about a new program that will connect fourth graders with the outdoors starting later this year. Without the work of our state and county conservation professionals many of our youth would not have access to natural areas. Are they getting enough credit for all they do? Not everyone lives close to a National Park. Here in Oklahoma we have National Historic Sites and Recreation Areas, but no National Parks.
Roman Nose State Park, Oklahoma
So while I love the exotic parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, I think National Parks are America's best idea because they helped solidify the idea of environmental conservation in American culture. The creation of National Parks put a "face" to the environmental movement. They captured our imaginations and continue to inspire us. And their legacy continues today.


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