Values

Where's God? Just look at the Everglades

April 22, 2015: An alligator hangs out in the water while President Barack Obama walks nearby on the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park, Fla. Obama visited the Everglades on Earth Day to talk about how global warming threatens the U.S. economy. He says rising sea levels are putting the "economic engine for the South Florida tourism industry" at risk.

April 22, 2015: An alligator hangs out in the water while President Barack Obama walks nearby on the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park, Fla. Obama visited the Everglades on Earth Day to talk about how global warming threatens the U.S. economy. He says rising sea levels are putting the "economic engine for the South Florida tourism industry" at risk.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Obama’s Earth Day visit to the Everglades this week was billed as an opportunity to bring attention to climate change.  Sure enough, that was the focus of his speech, though it provided him the added political benefit of tweaking Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio on their own turf.  But the president did not offer his wisest insight until he wrapped up his speech. Standing in the Everglades National Park, President Obama proclaimed that “we are blessed with the most beautiful God-given landscape in the world.”

Both aspects of that conclusion are simultaneously notable and typically overlooked. The Everglades are beautiful, said the president. He hoped that his children and grandchildren would be able “to enjoy this amazing view.”  President Obama thus echoed the words of Harry Truman, who spoke at the national park’s dedication in 1947.  Truman extolled “this beautiful tropical area” that contained “rare birds of great beauty.”

The Everglades possesses a different kind of beauty than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the other spectacular national parks of the west. The beauty inheres in what lives there, not in the geology.



Yet the Park Service’s website now insists that the Everglades “was the first national park dedicated for its biologic diversity as opposed to its scenic vistas.”  

The Everglades possesses a different kind of beauty than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the other spectacular national parks of the west. The beauty inheres in what lives there, not in the geology.

Truman saw it differently. There are “no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land.”  Instead, the Everglades is “tranquil in its quiet beauty.”  

The Congress that created Everglades National Park struggled with the scenic character of the area, too.  A New Yorker dismissively reported that he “would not want my family to go down there with a canoe floating around among the alligators.”  But the supporters prevailed with their contention that the national park would “be the scenic pride of the world.”

The Everglades possesses a different kind of beauty than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the other spectacular national parks of the west.  The beauty inheres in what lives there, not in the geology.  The colorful plumage of the abundant birds once provoked a ruthless slaughter to serve the millinery needs dictated by early twentieth century fashion; today the park’s preservation allows visitors to enjoy avian sights that are not seen elsewhere.  Even the flat, watery landscape reveals its own beauty when viewed from above.  Park Service leaders did not support the proposed national park until they took a blimp ride over the Everglades, and then they became its most influential champions.

The scenery of the Everglades, as well as the park’s many other values, confront threats ranging from the climate change which the president emphasized to the invading snakes that have been gobbling up the native wildlife.  

Across the nation, scenic landscapes are threatened by oil rigs abutting Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, solar farms next to the Mojave National Preserve, and the questionable demand for cell towers even in the midst of the most iconic national parks.  Yet there is little attention paid to preserving the scenic values that attract millions of people to our national parks, even far less attention than the changing climate which the President zeroed in on today.

The president’s description of the Everglades contained a second notable feature.  They are “God-given.”  The Everglades are an amazing place with which we are “blessed,” that have “been given to us,” and which “we’ve got to be good stewards” of.  

National parks have long inspired thankfulness to God. 

John Muir wrote of the marvelous natural cathedrals that God created in Yosemite.  

Thomas Cole, the early nineteenth century landscape painter who popularized what is now Acadia National Park, observed that “the good, the enlightened of all ages and nations, have found pleasure and consolation in the beauty of the rural earth” where they could “gaze on the pure creations of the Almighty.”  

Perhaps President Obama was inspired by President Truman, who described the new Everglades National Park as a place “where we may be more keenly aware of our Creator's infinitely varied, infinitely beautiful, and infinitely bountiful handiwork.”

These two themes – the beauty of our natural landscapes and our thankfulness to God for them – are too often overlooked in our current, polarized environmental debates.  

President Obama should be commended for reminding us of them, even in passing. If Earth Day 2015 causes us to celebrate the beauty of the national parks and the God who made them, then this day will be worth remembering, too.

Environmental law expert John Copeland Nagle, is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.

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