Trump should see national parks’ ‘shock of the real’
By DAVID VON DREHLE | The Washington Post | Published: January 22, 2018
The population of the United States in 2016 was an estimated 323 million, and the number of National Park System visitors was more than 330 million. So I’ll venture that most of us have a favorite national park moment.
I have lots. Standing atop Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park with a view into white-blue eternity in every direction. Running downwind on an old wooden schooner, sails white and sea dark, off the coast of Maine in Acadia National Park. Picturing barefoot soldiers under Stonewall Jackson passing ghostly in the fogs of Shenandoah National Park. Boggling at the massive dimensions of time wrought in trees and stone in Sequoia and Grand Canyon national parks.
The Western sage Wallace Stegner called our national parks “the best idea we ever had.” Even in these fractious times, I don’t sense much dissent. The pettiness of human disputation gutters in the face of this magnificent land: these seas, these plains, these mountains, these deserts, these islands.
Presidency 101: If you can’t find common ground in the national parks, you’re guilty of leadership malpractice.
So what are we to make of the mass resignation last week from the Park Service Advisory Board? With everything going on in this uneasy world, why make the parks a battleground? The trouble with President Donald Trump is not that he picks fights. All good presidents pick fights.
It’s not even that Trump picks a lot of fights, because other presidents have picked a lot of fights.
The trouble is that Trump picks so many of the wrong fights.
I could mention his fight with the immigrants who do such a beautiful job building his towers and cleaning his hotels and grooming his golf courses. Or I could mention his fight with former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing last year produced the far-more threatening special counsel Robert Mueller. Or even his fights last week with his own legislative team, as he tweeted violently against the very positions his administration was trying to win.
Instead, consider the ruckus inside the Park Service, the agency created to preserve and protect our nation’s greatest treasures — some 400 parks, trails, battlefields, rivers and historic sites in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Ten of the 12 members of the Park Service Advisory Board, a bipartisan volunteer group established in 1935 to provide citizen and scientific counsel to the Interior Department, resigned in protest over the Trump administration’s failure to nominate a director for the park system or even to convene a meeting of the board.
Tension at Interior is nothing new. Among other assignments, the department manages the lion’s share of the 640 million acres of federally owned land in the United States. Mining, drilling, grazing and water interests clash with conservationists over access to this bounty. It’s no surprise that conservative Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would ruffle some feathers by embracing pro-extraction policies unlike those of the Obama years.
What feels new is the needless antagonism of Park Service stewards. Most of the advisory board members who submitted resignations were near the end of their terms anyway. The Trump administration will soon choose its own candidates to control the board. If Zinke had managed an orderly transition, instead of giving the board the back of his hand, he could have signaled a continuity of purpose in sharing and caring for the crown jewels of America’s heritage.
The legacy entrusted to the National Park Service doesn’t belong to one party or the other, much less to Trump or to his movement. It belongs to all of the American people. In that spirit, I would invite the president (whose doctor recently advised more exercise) to spend some time in the parks, and discover why Americans of all stripes care passionately about them.
He can emulate another iconoclast from New York City — Theodore Roosevelt — by taking walks through Rock Creek National Park near the White House. Descending from the horn-honking bustle of Connecticut Avenue to hike beside the shaded creek in this rare urban preserve is one of the great consolations of life in the capital.
Trump can visit Glacier Bay National Park to walk in the footsteps of his grandfather, a German immigrant who joined the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. He can paddle the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park to experience the border firsthand. He can trek through weird and wonderful Arches National Park, where he might encounter, as the philosopher Edward Abbey once did there, the “shock of the real.”
Hurry, please. For there’s a real world awaiting our attention, beyond the posturing of Washington and the internet’s spiteful glow. Nowhere is it more awesome, more humbling, more clarifying, than in the national parks.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is the author of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”