Published: October 2006

National Parks

Glen Canyon Arizona

Threatened Sanctuaries

The state of U.S. Parks

By John G. Mitchell
Photograph by Michael Melford

At a period in our history notable for perishable institutions, it's reassuring to know that our national parks, after all these years, remain the best idea America ever had. A British diplomat, James Bryce, rendered that judgment in 1912 when the United States could boast but a handful of parks and a new federal agency designed to look after them wouldn't be established for another four years. How time flies. A decade from now, take away a couple of months, we'll be breaking out the bubbly to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. That's if, the way things have been going lately, there'll be enough high standards left untrampled to justify the toast.

The Park Service and the system it oversees have come a long way since 1916: From 14 parks, 21 monuments, and one reservation embracing six million acres to 390 areas covering 84 million acres (34 million hectares) in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and islands in the Pacific and Caribbean; from a handful of rangers to a roster of 20,000 full-time employees; from 350,000 visits a year to nearly 300 million.

And I guess I could say I've come a long way too in half a century or more as a sometime visitor or critical observer of the national parks. The memory bank is filled with the sights and sounds and scents of such crown jewels as Yosemite, Everglades, Acadia, Olympic. Curiously, however, there are memories, equally cherished, of unprotected places not yet parkland when I saw them the first time around. Mineral King, for example, that remote valley in the subalpine shadow of the High Sierra's Great Western Divide, mist rising at dawn to reveal a herd of mule deer grazing 20 yards (18 meters) off the starboard side of my sleeping bag. The Disney people had wanted to build a ski resort there. But they couldn't, once the valley became a part of Sequoia National Park.

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