America's next generation of national parks

New proposals reflect a desire to commemorate less-pristine landscapes, as well as recognize overlooked and ignoble moments of history.

They are the modern offspring of an American idea born in the middle of the 19th century.

They include a 200-mile strip of Iowa tall-grass prairie fronting the Missouri River, and the boyhood home of an African-American scholar who fought for civil rights but fled the country in self-imposed exile.

Some are sites of cultural shame, such as World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans. Others are places of natural wonder, like the ocean bay near Puerto Rico that literally sparkles at night with millions of glow-in-the-dark sea creatures.

They are the candidates for the next generation of national parks, preserves, and battlefields - suggestions that not long ago might have seemed unlikely.

From Yellowstone to Gettysburg, most of America's signature landscapes and historic sites have been protected. Now, attention is turning to sites of more-subtle beauty, overlooked importance, and even dubious distinction. As America grows and becomes more diverse, the candidates are, in many ways, a reflection of the nation's changing sense of itself.

"The idea of what a national park is continues to evolve and grow just as this country continues to evolve and grow," says Destry Jarvis, a senior policy adviser at the Department of the Interior. "Each generation has its own values and its own sense of what it regards as important."

The federal park system currently encompasses 379 nature preserves, battlefields, urban parks, and buildings. How it evolves in the future is outlined by two competing perspectives.

One view, which holds sway in the Republican Congress, is that the park system has become unwieldy, too expensive to maintain, and unnecessarily expands federal property holdings.

The countervailing argument was expressed by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Wallace Stegner, who wrote that an expanding park system was the best idea America ever had.

For supporters of this viewpoint, now is the time to act. "We as a country have the best opportunity to expand the park system since the late 1970s," says Ron Tipton, a senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

He notes that Congress has plenty of money. The Land and Water Conservation Fund generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually through royalties collected on off-shore oil drilling. Moreover, budget forecasts are positive.

But last week, the movement for new parks suffered a setback when the US Senate voted to scale back a proposed 15-year, $45 billion funding package that included money for parks. The plan was defeated primarily by senators from the West, who claimed the amount of federal land ownership is too large.

Says Will Hart, spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho: "In a state like Idaho, where 63 percent of the land is federally owned, [the senator] has concern over any private land going into federal ownership.

In response to such criticisms, many of the new parks being proposed involve innovative attempts to mix government and private involvement. And no better example exists, perhaps, than in Iowa.

As early as the 1930s, the Park Service identified the once-ubiquitous tall-grass prairie as a landscape worth protecting.

"Unfortunately, it took us 60 years to get around to protecting any of it," says Mr. Tipton. While he laments the delay, Tipton says it has forced society to be more creative in finding ways to set up parks.

Rather than having the federal government simply acquire a large piece of land, a new Iowa preserve would marry the management expertise of the park service with private rural landowners. In fact, citizens, farmers, and members of the business community have asked that the geologically spectacular Loess Hills be added to the park system. That eagerness is important.

"There is a very strong land ethic in the heartland because people realize how important good stewardship is," says Patty Beneke, a native Iowan and former assistant secretary of the Interior.

"Loess Hills will be a focal point not only for people in the Midwest but across the country," she adds. "In a state like this, where most of the land is privately owned, we intend to show how a new unit of the park system will benefit everyone."

The new park candidates also represent a departure from the old desire to safeguard only relatively untouched lands to the modern push to protect the best of what's left

That's true in the Sonoran Desert, and it means rescuing landscapes that may not be pristine, but in the future will be valuable to an urban nation in need of quiet reflection.

"When Shenandoah [in Virginia] and Redwood [in California] national parks were added to the system, one could argue that portions were devastated resources," Mr. Jarvis says, referring to decades of logging and agricultural fragmentation. But today, the benefits of aggressive restoration are obvious, he adds.

Similarly, historical sites - from "Rosie the Riveter" World War II factories to the Erie Canal - are being threatened by construction, sprawl, and basic wear and tear.

"We're always making history," Jarvis says. "But with each step forward we take, there is the continuous need to remember our past and to learn from it. National parks are a way to call attention to our unique, yet common heritage."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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