Park service shows America at its best

All that was missing was the sound of a Copland symphony, writes Philip Delves Broughton

In this Wednesday Jan. 31, 2007 photo, weather observers check conditions near the top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington. A small museum atop the Northeast's highest peak is about to get a whole lot cooler. The 40-year-old museum run by the Mount Washington Observatory is planning a major overhaul designed to give summer visitors a feel for the mountaintop's extreme winter weather. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)©AP

Mount Washington in New Hampshire

The Presidential Traverse is one of the great American hikes, running through the White Mountains of New Hampshire along peaks and ridges named after presidents. Mount Washington, naturally, is the highest.

As you clamber up the lower slopes, a sign greets you: “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.”


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Two nights and 17 hours of hard walking later, at least half of it through driving rain and wind, I wished I had paid attention. Hyperbole is endemic to many parts of American culture. But not among the granite-hard stewards of the White Mountains, as I found at a cost of sodden clothes and screaming knees.

The traverse is one of the northernmost parts of the Appalachian Trail, the great 2,000-mile footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine. The trail is managed by a grand coalition of private, state and federal organisations, capped by the National Park Service, which on August 25 marks its 100th anniversary.

It is hard to think of any branch of the federal government so widely admired as the park service. While so much else changes, the service and its rangers, their purpose and values seem as rooted and familiar as Mount Washington. The idea has been taken up elsewhere, from glacial regions of Argentina to game reserves in Africa.

America’s national parks have been lauded by writers such as Wallace Stegner, who called them “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” And by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry: “Nature is located mainly in national parks, which are vast tracts of wilderness that have been set aside by the United States government so citizens will always have some place to go where they can be attacked by bears. And we’re not talking about ordinary civilian bears, either: we’re talking about federal bears, which can behave how ever they want to because they are protected by the same union as postal clerks.”

My trip was thankfully bear-free but I could see what Mr Stegner was getting at. Hikers on the Presidential Traverse can stay overnight in huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The dining is communal; the “Croo” is made up of ebullient college students. There were equal numbers of men and women, young and old, sharing the views across the peaks and comparing aching joints — and not a word about the presidential election, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. All that was missing from the creaking hut at sunrise was the sound of an Aaron Copland symphony.

Yellowstone, mostly in Montana, was, in 1872, the first wilderness to be designated a national park. Parks fever was stoked by the works of landscape painters such as Thomas Moran; by naturalist and writer John Muir and by President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman. But it was not until 1916 that Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. Its first leader was Stephen Mather, a patrician businessman who made his fortune in detergent. He volunteered himself to Washington to create a service to protect the parks, which he found a tonic to his frequent bouts with depression. He had a natural ally in the car industry, which was keen on any plan that involved Americans driving more. He called the parks “vast schoolrooms of Americanism”.

Over time, the park service expanded to supervision of monuments such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota as well as swaths of seashore, cemeteries, battlefields and sites of historical significance. Last year its sites were visited by more than 305m people.

One of the privileges of the presidency is the Antiquities Act, passed under Roosevelt in 1906, which gives presidents the right to assign protected status to areas of natural or historical importance, Congress be damned. Their willingness to do so seems to boil down to a difference of opinion of the extent of federal authority. Of the 16 presidents since Roosevelt, only Republicans — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush — have not used it. The Republican outlier is George W Bush, who protected millions of underwater acres in the Pacific Ocean. Democrats, notably Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have used it freely. Barack Obama has used it more than any other, expanding the national monument designation to protect more than 260m acres of public land and water. Two months ago, he made a point by adding the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising for gay rights in New York’s Greenwich Village to the list of national monuments. He is now being pressed to use the act to protect 1.9m acres of high desert in Utah called Bears Ears by the Native American tribes who have lived there for thousands of years.

The temptation to use his presidential prerogative one more time, and turn over yet more of America’s land and history to the park service in its centenary year, will be hard for Mr Obama to resist. Congress, which fights him on everything it can, will be powerless to oppose the creation of one more vast “schoolroom of Americanism”.

The writer is author of ‘What They Teach You at Harvard Business School’

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