If anyone feared that the rush to establish national recreation areas in or adjacent to such metropolises as New York City and San Francisco meant the end of acquiring big scenic parks in the far country, that suspicion soon faded as President Jimmy Carter moved to secure 40 million acres (16 million hectares) of federal lands in Alaska for the National Park Service, first putting them "on hold" by invoking the Antiquities Act, and then by designating nine new parks and preserves and sizably expanding existing ones, such as Denali, with passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. In the stroke of a pen, President Carter had more than doubled the acreage of the National Park System.
Noting the huge responsibility that any new unit, of whatever size or category, places on the shoulders of an overextended, underfunded Park Service, a few observers began to cast a critical eye on a growing genre of historic sites commemorating not some classic or heroic moment from America's past, as in a Civil War battlefield or presidential birthplace, but rather a salute to a place or event perceived as having limited national significance, as in the case of Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, established to interpret the story of steam railroads in the 20th century. The purists saw danger in these designations and warned they could lead, as one top official put it, to "a thinning of the [Park Service's] blood." A misguided handful even objected to designating sites exploring the darker, often shameful side of American history, as at Manzanar in California's Owens Valley, where thousands of innocent Japanese-American citizens were interned during World War II. But a reluctance to open all aspects of our history to a fuller interpretation soon passed away. Even the old Custer Battlefield National Monument in Montana would acquire a fresh look and a new name—Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument—to give an accurate account of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho side of the story.
Nineteen-ninety-three was the last time the editors of this magazine posted me across the country to assess the state of the national parks. I didn't hear too much grumbling then about thinned blood or revisionist history. But what I did hear from rank and file in the Park Service was a huge concern that the nation's treasures were threatened by industrial and automotive air pollution, invasive species, and a variety of human encroachments nibbling at the edges of hallowed ground. The most persistent complaint, however, was a perception that the Park Service had lost its ability to protect natural and cultural resources, largely because its rangers had morphed into traffic cops to accommodate growing throngs of park-loving visitors. All these problems and many more continue to plague the service and the system—notably the contentious issue of protection versus use.