This week the nation has celebrated the centennial of our national park system, widely regarded, in Wallace Stegner's immortal words, as "America's best idea." On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Parks Organic Act into law, creating the National Park Service and the national park system. Since then, the national park system has grown to 412 units covering nearly 85 million acres and stretching across all 50 states. (And President Obama's recent proclamation establishing a new North Woods National Monument in Maine adds to the system.) Recent polls show the American public overwhelmingly supports our national parks as well as the creation of new ones. The parks hosted a record 307 million visits last year.
Op-ed: National parks have evolved, and Bears Ears would be part of that evolution
National parks have long played an important role in Utah. The state boasts five major national parks — Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion — which it advertises as "the Mighty Five" to attract visitors and fuel local economies. A recent report details how national parks have come to serve as economic engines, revealing that national parks generate more than $30 billion in economic activity and support 252,000 jobs nationwide. In Utah, the figures are equally stunning: $693 million in visitor spending and 11,240 jobs, demonstrating the vital economic role our beloved landscapes play.
Congress can create new national park units, and Congress has empowered the president under the Antiquities Act to designate new national monuments, many of which have subsequently been converted into national parks. In Utah, four of our five national parks were first designated as national monuments, and then later converted by Congress to national park status. When originally created, none of the state's Mighty Five were welcomed warmly by local citizens, but their importance today for local communities is evident, as revealed by the governor's efforts to keep them open during the 2013 federal government shutdown.
Once a park unit is established, the Organic Act instructs the Park Service to preserve it in an unimpaired condition for current enjoyment and for future generations, the most protective mandate found in the laws governing our public lands. While this non-impairment mandate has remained unchanged, the national park idea has evolved, responding to powerful demographic and economic forces as well as new scientific knowledge.
Originally protected from outside environmental harm by their remoteness, today national parks regularly find themselves threatened by development pressures, including mining, drilling and logging on nearby public lands as well as new subdivisions. In an effort to protect park resources, as mandated by the Organic Act, park managers have promoted coordinated management with nearby Forest Service and BLM managers along with local officials. The goal is landscape-level planning to help safeguard the national parks, an example being the BLM's new Master Lease Plans to carefully site new oil and gas leases.
Another option for protecting our threatened landscapes is a presidential national monument designation. The proposed Bears Ears National Monument, which would protect BLM and other lands bordering Canyonlands National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, represents such an option. With portions of this landscape already managed by the National Park Service, and other lands bordered by existing park units, a monument designation could adjust management responsibility along topographical features, such as Canyonlands' natural basin, and thereby greatly improve overall management.
The early national parks were often created on lands traditionally used by Native Americans. Tribal members were routinely evicted to make way for new parks and were rarely involved in park decisions or programs. This, too, has changed as tribes have asserted themselves to regain lands and historic rights in the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Badlands and elsewhere. In Utah, the Bears Ears National Monument proposal originated with a multi-tribe coalition and would protect sacred sites and artifacts, ensure traditional Native American uses and provide the tribes a role in management decisions.
Just as Utah's Mighty Five generated controversy in their early days, the Bears Ears National Monument proposal prompts similar controversy today. The proposal, however, reflects current notions of landscape-level conservation and an enlightened social conscience toward the nation's original inhabitants. In short, this monument proposal fits squarely within the evolving American national park idea and related conservation policies.
Robert B. Keiter is the Wallace Stegner Professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law and author of "To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea."
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