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Wild Side: Protect America’s 'best idea' for future generations

Filmmaker Ken Burns calls the National Park Service America’s best idea. As he states, it is uniquely American that our country’s special places are set aside — not for the more affluent amongst us, but for every single person.

I just returned from Yellowstone National Park. It is a dramatic landscape of towering, sulphury geysers, meadows teeming with burly bison and deep canyons with gushing waterfalls. I can’t imagine the Western U.S. without Yellowstone. We are so lucky that generations past had the forethought to set aside this and other natural wonders.

This year the Park Service is 100 years old. President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill to establish the service on Aug. 25, 1916, to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein … by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Today there are 59 National Parks and more than 400 Park Service units that include National Monuments, Historic Sites, and Preserves. These parks, beloved around the globe, are a huge boon to local economies, and serve as safeguards for our most glorious spaces.

At Yellowstone, we gawked at bison and marveled at Mars-like landscapes with people from Japan, France and at least a dozen other countries. Along with the Americans, these visitors likely left feeling satisfied that this vast, gorgeous landscape will always be there, that generations forever will be able to gander at bison, wolves, or grizzly bears. But many visitors do not fully appreciate how difficult it is to make sure that’s true. This zest for nature and our shared love and connection to these natural places is so critical to conservation, but it is not without a cost.

Last year more than 4 million people visited Yellowstone, and more than a half million people visited Crater Lake. It is not cheap to maintain the vast infrastructure to sustain all of these visitors — roads, trails, parking lots, restaurants, bathrooms, gift shops — the list goes on. Less obvious are the daily impacts of thousands of cars, trucks and RVs winding their way through the park. This tension between ensuring full enjoyment of our parks and preserving the parks as natural places is something the Park Service has always grappled with, and it gets harder every year.

In addition to monetary challenges, the parks are increasingly impacted by detrimental, outside influences. The majestic bison and elk herds of Yellowstone don’t recognize park boundaries. Once they step outside they are unprotected. Wolves and bears follow food abundance, regardless of park limits. Water likewise flows in and out of the parks, connected to watersheds in surrounding agricultural and urban areas. The wonders within the parks are all influenced by human activities outside of the park.

Another difficulty in safeguarding unique spaces is that we have so many places that are not National Parks, but should be. Here in Oregon, we have only one National Park — Crater Lake — and four other units. Compare this with California’s nine parks and 27 units, or Washington’s three parks and 10 units.

It’s not that we Oregonians don’t have as many Park-worthy places. On the contrary, over the years there have been multiple proposals to designate other areas in Oregon as National Parks that never came to fruition: Hells Canyon, Mount Hood, and the Southern Oregon Coast were all considered.

In 1940 a bill was introduced to protect 30,000 acres around the Samuel Boardman Scenic Corridor in Curry County — in my opinion, some of the most scenic Pacific Coastline — as a National Park. But the $500,000 price tag for private parcels was too large a hurdle and the idea died.

On this 100-year anniversary, let’s get out to our parks, but also take action to protect the ecosystems that make parks tick. Several amazing national park units are within a day’s drive of Ashland: Redwood and Crater Lake are the closest, along with Oregon Caves and Lava Tubes National Monuments. Maybe you’d like to visit the national park that never was: the Southern Oregon Coast.

But more than anything, let’s help protect nature inside and outside the parks — it’s the only way to truly ensure that future generations will have the same opportunity that we have.

Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.