The incredible story of America's national parks

America is beautiful. While other nations celebrate their history and their culture, we proclaim our land’s beauty.  We are reminded of our scenic treasures by documentaries featuring jagged peaks and plunging waterfalls, by calendars portraying colorful vistas, and by literature that strives to find the words to describe indescribable sights.  We write, paint, and blog about the natural beauty of the United States.

We even sing about it.  In 1893, my grandmother’s future college professor -- Katharine Lee Bates -- traveled from her Wellesley College campus to Colorado’s Pikes Peak.  The 2,000 mile journey inspired her to exclaim the beauty of spacious skies, purple mountain majesties, and even amber waves of grain.  America the Beautiful has become an unofficial national anthem, preferred by many (especially the vocally challenged) to the Star-Spangled Banner.

And when we want to experience the best of our natural beauty, we visit our national parks.  There we encounter “a treasure house of nature’s superlatives.” 

This is a perfect time to reflect on the national parks and their scenic values.  The National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday on August 25. 

The first national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, preceded the Park Service itself. The 1916 law creating the Park Service stated that the “fundamental purpose” of national parks “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Scenery comes first.  We created national parks so that we can enjoy and preserve their scenic beauty.  We visit them to experience that beauty for ourselves.

Yet we take the scenic beauty of our national parks for granted.  Scenic beauty is simultaneously central and overlooked as the Park Service celebrates its one hundredth anniversary.  Scenic beauty is the reason most people visit national parks.

The scenic beauty of our national parks faces numerous threats.  There is a cottage industry of reports describing the perils confronting our national parks. 

Prophecies of impending doom for the parks are as old as the parks themselves.  But there are real threats to the scenic beauty of the national parks and our ability to enjoy that beauty. 

Within the parks, too many visitors can interfere with each other’s ability to appreciate, or even see, the natural beauty.  The opposite problem arises in remote parks where spectacular scenery remains unseen by all except the most intrepid – and wealthy – travelers. 

Parks struggle to manage wildlife and vegetation in a manner that achieves ecological goals while providing visitors with the sights that they come to see. 

Climate change and other environmental changes may cause glaciers to melt, meadows to be replaced by forests, and desert parks to become too hot to visit. 

Outside the park boundaries, the Park Service has no legal authority to regulate what happens, so expanding cities, tacky gateway communities, air pollution from nearby coal-fired power plants, and solar energy facilities sprawling across vast acres of previously empty land often appear within the national park’s viewsheds.

So as we begin the second hundred years of the Park Service, we continue to address the challenge of both enjoying scenery and preserving scenery.  And as we seek to strike that balance, we should think more about why scenic beauty is so important and why we see some places as more scenic as others.  Only as we better appreciate our unrivaled natural scenery will we fully appreciate your unrivalled national parks.