For a westerner, it felt like an abundance of water in a year of drought as we stood at the overlook of Great Falls watching the Potomac River being funneled through the Mather Gorge named after Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. The cascading rapids and dramatic pour-offs were mesmerizing and soul-restoring in the extreme heat of McLean, Va., where high humidity and temperatures in the upper 90s were drawing larger crowds than usual at this 800-acre national park, only 15 miles from our nation’s capital.
I stood on one of the viewing platforms with a dozen or more people at sunset: a friend from Rwanda, a family from Pakistan, another family from India, and three women from Saudi Arabia, all of us searching for words to express the sense of awe we were sharing in the last light of day. Later, a couple from Washington joined us.
“We come here every week,” they said. “D.C. would be intolerable in the summer without Great Falls. It is our refuge.”
On the centennial of the National Park Service, we can acknowledge the great gifts that our national parks bring to us, personally and collectively, as well as what they mean to the rest of the world. We can recommit to taking care of what is an extraordinary legacy for all people for all time.
America’s public lands, more than 650 million acres of forests, deserts, prairies and seashores, many protected through our national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges, are our inheritance. We the People are land-rich.
As a child growing up in Utah, I saw Zion, Bryce, Capital Reef, Arches and Canyonlands national parks simply as an extension of my own backyard. But even though I am a frequent visitor to Washington, I did not know until this summer that these 800 acres on the edge of the Potomac were part of the National Park System, or that close to a million people come here annually.
Great Falls has been a gathering place of water and humans for 10,000 years, beginning with the indigenous people whose petroglyphs can still be seen on the cliff faces of the gorge. Starting in 1874, George Washington helped fund the locks and gates of the Patowmack Canal, engineered to skirt Great Falls in the name of commerce. Distinct stonemason’s marks left on the nearby ruins of the canal match the “signature” on the foundation stones of the White House and the United States Capitol.
In the 20th century, Great Falls was the end of a trolley line that originated in Georgetown and the site of an amusement park complete with a carousel. The park was destroyed by a flood, a reminder that nature rules, something canal-builders may forget.
On my visit, a flurry of black vultures crossed the river at dusk to roost. Half a dozen kayakers circled in the currents below the falls looking up at the rapids wondering if they had enough light to make one last run. Bass fishermen, perched on the banks like herons, reeled in their lines one last time. Our national parks are breathing spaces in a society increasingly holding its breath.
I wonder why in this presidential election year, we hear so little about these breathing spaces, these lands that mean so much to the soul of America. Over 300 million visits to our national parks last year tells me I am not alone. What I read are headlines like this: “GOP Platform Endorses Disposing of Federal Lands.” What I find is a bipartisan outrage over the selling off of our public lands, be it to the states or the highest bidder at the Bureau of Land Management’s quarterly oil and gas leasing auctions, beginning at $2 an acre.
Remove our national parks and wildlands from the United States and what remains? An intolerable and lonely self-constructed world without the wisdom and beauty of a landscape much older and wiser than we are. We need human endeavor and intelligence, but we also need the intelligences of the wild — the millennial authority of redwood trees, the forbearance of bison or the lyrical sermon of a hermit thrush at dawn.
We are not the only species who lives and dreams on this planet. Can we continue to extend the notion of freedom to all living things? And in so doing, save ourselves in the process from the press of our own ambitions? The centennial of the National Park Service reminds us of history, both human and wild, and why we need our public lands more than ever in a changing world.
Here is what we must promise the future: a legacy of care. That we will be good stewards and not take too much or give back too little, that we will recognize wild nature for what it is: unfathomable wealth that should be consciously saved, not ruthlessly spent. Privilege is what we are granted as Homo sapiens, the privilege to think, to choose, to imagine and consider what our responsibility is to the generations who will survive us.
Our national parks remind us that natural beauty is not optional but essential for survival.
“We need the tonic of wildness,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Standing at Great Falls on a hot, humid day when the political temperature in Washington registered like a high fever, an uncommon peace came over me. I allowed myself to believe that in another 100 years, there will be others standing on this same brink of beauty and terror, grateful for all that remains wild and wholesome and free.
This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.