Our Best Places
Bring our best moments
By Mary O’Brien
It’s humbling to learn that big or small, urban or wilderness, every public lands park you visit to hike or camp; watch wildlife, trees or flowers; fish or hunt, is the gift of someone (often many someones) pushing (often for decades) for a particular piece of land to be protected for this and future generations.
Throughout my childhood, I lived for two particular weeks each year when my parents would waken me and my older brother and sister before dawn to travel from Montebello, Calif., to Kings Canyon National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. We had next to no money because my mother worked with street people on Skid Row in Los Angeles and my father was minister of a tiny East Los Angeles church. But as long as Dad would lead a non-denominational church service in the park’s open-air log church on two summer Sundays, the Park Service would let us stay free for two weeks in a small tent cabin.
My brother and sister eventually struggled, variously illegally and legally, with debilitating mental difficulties. But mention Kings Canyon, and they both would immediately say those were the best moments of their childhood. Mine, too.
Watching sunset from rounded, granite Beetle Rock, rubbed shiny by glaciers 10,000 years earlier. Walking across Crescent Meadow on a fallen giant Sequoia log flanked by a sea of tall wildflowers. Seeing stars and bats as we walked to nightly ranger talks. Hearing Kings River roar all night. Making bows and arrows and seeing how many times the arrow had to be shot to advance from the back to front church logs. “Fishing” in the Kings River with a hookless string hanging on a conifer stick — and loving it.
One afternoon I ventured perhaps 50 yards from the cabin (a big deal for this 5-year old urban girl) and was standing still, soaking in the day’s last sun. Suddenly a squirrel scampered up my jeans-covered leg, realized I wasn’t a tree, and leapt off. For two seconds I had gotten to be a tree.
Last week, almost 60 years later, I could hardly breathe listening to the audio book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I hadn’t seen the PBS television series of which this is the spoken version. But to learn, without stunning photography in front of my eyes, about the origins of national parks in which I have been fortunate to walk — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Zion, Canyonlands, Acadia, Olympia, Glacier — brought me near tears. Manzanar National Park is where Japanese-American citizens had been wrongly imprisoned at the base of the same Sierra Nevada Mountains I was to visit five years later. The Lincoln Memorial is where the incomparable African-American contralto Marion Anderson was invited by President Franklin Roosevelt to sing in an open-air concert after the Daughters of the Revolution refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall.
I could only listen to half-hour chunks of The National Parks at a time because it was so moving to learn of the decades of effort people had made to get one park after another established for everyone — poor or rich; resident of the U.S. or of any other country in the world; avid backpacker or without working legs, as was polio-limited FDR. Gaining status as a National Park was almost always a protracted struggle with ranchers, the logging industry, mining companies, developers, trappers, local communities, the Forest Service and/or Congress. Many lands would not have survived these struggles but for particular presidents’ use of the Antiquities Act to bring them into the Park Service.
The parks face numerous ecological problems; for example, too many bison are trapped within Yellowstone’s boundaries; too few wolves balance ungulates with park lands; too many species disappear from parks that are too small and surrounded by too many developments.
But we wouldn’t even have the chance to improve management of our national parks had it not been for individual women and men who saw that a particular piece of land should belong to itself, all people and the ages, and who then spent years, often decades, to gain protection of those lands from us, for us.
Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.