The National Park Service Turns 100

“As long as you see the sunrise, the day is not wasted.” Any day this makes for good self-advice, but on hiking days this is especially true. I check my analog watch to confirm it syncs with the time on my phone, soon I’ll be out of range for cellular use. I realize, I only have a few more minutes to indulge in the rich taste of Buckwheat Pancakes swimming in Blackberry Syrup (with a side of farm-to-table Virginia bacon) if I want to see the sunrise over the Shenandoah Valley. The previous night I ate at the same restaurant, Skyland, and treated myself to a Mile-High Blackberry Ice Cream Pie thinking I could use the extra calories for the White Oak Canyon Trail. The day-long moderate trail is known for having the best waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park. I washed down the last few bites of my breakfast with a refill of black coffee and stepped outside to the overlook as the sun greeted me with jubilant squiggles of reds and golds.

As a child, every Fall, a friend’s family would invite me to leave the concrete jungle of Washington, D.C. to go apple picking in the Shenandoah. The Wilderness Society lists Shenandoah National Park, Virginia as a top park to see fall foliage. We would return from these scenic trips with plenty of apples, apple butter, country apple cider and freshly frozen apple pies to applefy the holidays. By middle school, I’d out grown these apple trips, so instead, we hiked an all day trail in the Shenandoah. By senior year high school, I would be the one introducing my classmates to these trails, many of them experiencing a National Park for the very first time. These days I live far from D.C., but I make it point to escape back here whenever I visit home-for-the-holidays. Every year I look forward to the solo car ride down Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Savoring the silence, I found great peace in solitude, but truth be told I am only one of 300+ million people who visit a National Park each year.

Its mission is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

2016 marks the centennial anniversary of the National Parks Service (an agency of the Department of the Interior). Its mission is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” NPS includes a network of 142 protected units of which 59 are designated National Parks. NPS is also in charge of our growing list of National Monuments. Most recently (June 24, 2016), President Obama proclaimed Stonewall, the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots that birthed the LGBT liberation movement, our 150th National Monument.

“Each tax dollar invested in the National Park Service effectively returns $10.”

A century ago, August 25th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed The Organic Act into law. It states, “the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations… by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

As it stands today the future of the National Parks Service is uncertain. In October 2013, a two-week government shut down caused the closure of all of the National Parks and National Monuments, including the beloved WW2 Memorial. A nation-wide bi-partisan public outcry in support of the NPS did not seem to have an effect on Congress’ nay attitude towards the NPS budget. In a Feb 5, 2016 statement by Theresa Pierno (CEO of of the National Parks Conservation Association) she explains, “While Congress did begin to reverse years of declining funding for our national parks with its latest spending bill, the reality is that years of underfunding have significantly harmed our parks.” In a compelling April 2016 press release, NPS outlined in detail their $32 billion benefit to the U.S. economy, “Each tax dollar invested in the National Park Service effectively returns $10.” Still, NPS has a $11.9 billion backlog of maintenance work to be done. And despite increased visitors to the National Parks, Congress continues to hold back funds. To make up for the gap, NPS gets help from entrance fees, concessions, public-private partnerships and philanthropic efforts to keep the parks running. In a NY Times opinion piece, Dayton Duncan writes, “These parks belong to all of us. We should all visit them and enjoy them. With more champions of our parks, we can love them to renewed life instead of to death.”

I have no bars, so the post will have to wait until I get back to my cabin.

As I make it to the summit of the White Oak Canyon Trail I prop my mobile against a boulder. Setting a ten second delay, it takes a #FindYourPark #NPS100 worthy selfie of me with a waterfall in the background. I have no bars, so the post will have to wait until I get back to my cabin. The hike up the trail was more strenuous than expected, I will be hitting sunset on the way back. Luckily, this time I remembered to pack a flashlight. (I once got caught in nightfall while hiking on the shiny black pebbles of Point Reyes National Seashore with only a dying phone screen as a pathfinder for the black shore alongside a black ink ocean against a black sky, not a pleasant experience.) When I reach the trailhead, a trail marker points the way to the Appalachian Trail. In the best-seller, Wild, Cheryl Strayed refers to the AT as “the far more popular and developed cousin of the PCT”. A few moments later, I watch as the sun gets swallowed into the valley. Sipping on a Hot Blackberry Toddy from the comfort of Skyland, the Appalachian Trail will have to be a one-way hike for another time.

—A.L.