by Whit Gibbons

September 4, 2016

I first visited the Painted Desert in Arizona in 1957. Five years later, the area we traveled through became officially known as the Petrified Forest National Park. I saw it all again this summer. The region is still breathtaking with its colorful landscape of reds, yellows and purples. The 225-million-year-old fossilized trees are still there.

Of the 58 national parks, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest comprise the 30th. Yellowstone was the first, in 1872, when President Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. The protection needed was from private development, which some foresaw as a threat to the pristine beauty of the remarkable natural area and wildlife.

In 1916, President Wilson signed the oddly named Organic Act that created the National Park Service under the Department of the Interior. Although more than a dozen locations, all west of the Mississippi River, had already been named national parks by 1916, the NPS celebrated 2016 as the centennial year of its formation. The rationale for the act was "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and ... wildlife therein."

The NPS declares that we now have more than 400 "national parks," but these fall under a broad grouping that includes national monuments and other historic sites. I'm guessing politics is involved. Calling a national monument a national park means that every state gets to have one, whereas in reality only 27 states have true national parks within their boundaries. Nonetheless, all of the 400-plus protected areas are national treasures, and each has its exclusivity and reason for being. Find the ones within your state and visit them.

The smallest of the certifiable national parks is Hot Springs, Arkansas, with 5,839 acres. Yellowstone National Park, in parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, encompasses more than 3,400 square miles. Yellowstone is dwarfed by Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska, with more than 20,000 square miles. Some claim that Yellowstone is not really the oldest park but that Hot Springs is.

Congress set aside Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, the first federal land to be intentionally protected from commercial exploitation. Hot Springs did not receive the official national park designation until 1921, but the habitats were first protected during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, before Arkansas was a state. The semantics of which was the first is not what is important. The key issue is that both preserve the integrity of natural ecosystems in their regions, although extensive commercial development had already occurred at Hot Springs.

In 1919, Maine became the first eastern state to have a national park (Acadia). The Great Smoky Mountains (1934) made North Carolina and Tennessee the first southeastern states with a national park. Of the 300 million visitors to national parks last year, the highest number (over 10 million) came to the Smokies. Shenandoah (1935) in Virginia, Mammoth Cave (1941) in Kentucky and the Everglades (1947) in Florida were soon to follow. The Congaree National Park in South Carolina (2003) was the last park in the Southeast to be officially designated.

The system of national parks, in the broadest sense, is a magnificent tribute to the natural beauty and outstanding history of our nation. Yet an alarming proposal being bandied about by members of Congress and other politicians is that some or all of the national parks should be privatized. This is a dangerous proposition that will lead to the degradation of natural ecosystems and their attendant wildlife. It is in the best interest of all citizens that the parks remain public lands administered by public servants. The National Park Service is the epitome of an enterprise that should be left in the hands of the federal government.

Visit a national park on your next vacation. You'll not be disappointed. And if you make it to the Petrified Forest, it's going to look the same as I left it.

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