nature,  USA

The US National Park Service – part 1

We are all familiar with the idea of “a national park”; we take it for granted that all over the globe there are protected areas which we can visit and enjoy for their natural beauty and importance. But it wasn’t always like that. Of course hundreds of years ago, there were game reserves restricted to use by all but royalty and nobility, unfortunately it was for their particular interests only. There was no protection in mind; one of the best evidence for this is the story of an auroch – the animal only kings could hunt for meat and recreation. It still didn’t save it from extinction. This post is the introduction to the series about some of the most beautiful places in the world. Also, the first of its kind, which is crucial, because the world followed!

There will be definitely more pictures when mentioning particular places, just remember, some of them were taken in 2001 and 2002. There was no digital form available at the time, I was lucky I could get some of my pictures scanned and burned on CD, but they had to be developed first, anyway. And that’s when something went terribly wrong and plenty of them got overexposed and destroyed.

the story

In the 19th century, more people started to pay attention to their surroundings and eventually, in 1832, the US President A. Jackson signed document protecting Hot Springs area in Arkansas for the future disposal. Not much happened at the time since no legal control was established. But the movement to create formal constitutional framework for animal and land conservation has started and it included people like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, to name just two. Thanks to the latter, in 1864, President A. Lincoln ceded Yosemite Valley to California prohibiting future private ownership of the land and bonding the State to manage the park for public use and recreation.

That’s me in 2001 when I hiked the Half Dome in Yosemite N.P., you cannot see much, probably, but those were the days without digitalisation.
Old Faithful, the symbol of Yellowstone N.P.

It wasn’t very successful, though, the state mismanaged the funds. To avoid similar situation, when setting up another protected area in 1872, a new entity was created fully under federal control; President U. Grant signed The Act of Dedication and that’s how the first national park not only in the United States, but in the history of the world has been born – the Yellowstone National Park. Opposed from the very beginning, exactly what was happening before with Yosemite, and being ridden by poachers, it needed more protection than before. And that was what T. Roosevelt, the future US president, did. He led the organisation to protect this and other parks for generations to come.

In the following years, the US government established more and more national parks and monuments (yes, these places were then not only about nature, but also of the utmost historical importance for the young country). Some of them were administered by the Department of Interior, some by the Department of Agriculture, some even by the Department of War. There was no single agency which would be responsible for creating and managing contingency plans and future development up until 1916, when President W. Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service. The newly created federal bureau first took over parks and reservations, then monuments and even the military sites. Eventually, it became the foundation of the US national system of parks which includes areas of historical, scenic and scientific importance. The system now comprises over 400 sites (divided into almost 20 categories which include, but are not limited to national: parks, monuments, preserves, historical parks, historical sites, battlefields, memorials, seashores, lakeshores, rivers, parkways, trails) across the States (including Alaska and Hawaii, naturally), American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the US Virgin Islands.

the road trip

When I was living in California in 2001 and 2002, it was a Yosemite National Park which was my home. Even though a destination for millions of visitors per year, it can prove that the conservation and business are not exclusive. Of course, the Yosemite Valley was filled with tourists, especially during the summer months, but the wildlife was still on our doorstep, continuously being protected. I had close encounters with many black bears and at least one mountain lion, which is not an everyday situation, by the way, and there’s nothing to worry about (you can read the story in the future post about YNP), but coyotes, racoons and mule deer could be commonly seen without even trying. And, naturally, it is enough to go on a hike and half an hour from the hustle and bustle of the Valley, you are surrounded by nature.

When the visa which allowed me to work in the US was about to expire, it still had one more month of its validity, so I didn’t need to leave the country immediately. I decided that I wanted to travel a bit, who knew when I could come back to the States (remember, it was 2002, Poland was still a developing country outside of the European Union and plenty of Polish citizens overstayed the visa which made the US authorities rather reluctant to issue entry documents to anyone). And what can be more American than a proper American road trip? Because of the relative proximity of San Francisco, I’ve seen the city many times, so I decided on a longer adventure. I had my car, Chrysler 5th Avenue from the early 80s, I could hit the road. At the time, I still thought of the USA in terms of a country, not a continent, so decision to visit my friend in Yellowstone National Park seemed less crazy in my head than it really was. I started to worry a bit when my co-workers advised me to drive straight ahead and at the first crossroad in Nevada, after one day of driving, take the left turn. I was sure they exaggerated and making fun of a European guy. The GPS back then was limited to military use only, therefore I purchased a “ The World’s First Internet Powered Road Atlas” :D, which is still at my home in Poland, and it had to suffice.

The main difference when compared to driving in Europe (apart from some remote areas in Scandinavia or Ireland) was that it gave a real feeling of freedom, especially during that part when I was driving on my own to Jackson, Wyoming, where I was supposed to pick up my friends. I still remember navigating through I-80, the famous US east-west interstate highway, in Nevada with vast empty space as far as I could see and some disturbing road signs stating “prison area, hitchhiking prohibited”. For many years it was a trip of my lifetime, it still is very important even though it happened over 20 years ago and I hope to repeat as much of it as I can.

During that trip, I drove over 5000 kilometres/3000 miles in a month. I started in Yosemite, and then, after picking up my friends in Jackson, Wyoming, we visited many National Parks, among others: Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Death Valley or Grand Canyon, as well as State Parks or National Monuments (all within a jurisdiction of the NPS). We’ve seen the Monument Valley in Arizona, we went on all fours to touch all 4 states in the Four Corners, we took a dip in Lake Powell. It was definitely a journey never-to-be-forgotten. Yes, we saw Las Vegas and Salt Lake City as well, but none of those could even slightly compare to the American Nature.

I am still in love in the vast spaces of the Wild West, but any US road trip would do. I had this journey planned already for 2020. I was supposed to visit one of my dearest friends, Monica, who used to work with me in Yosemite (and she also dropped everything and drove 2 hours to help me, so I am forever in her debt). But when I tried to predict every obstacle on my way, I could have never foreseen a world pandemic. Finally, this May, 2 years later than scheduled, I am going to visit her. She lives in Niagara County, upstate New York, but it’s just a stop on 2 weeks wandering and NPS will also be involved. Stay tuned! In the meantime, why won’t you play one of the most beautiful board games I know, Parks. It’s a relaxing, almost magical journey across the American national parks through 4 seasons collecting memories: vistas, scents, sunrises, and you can even meet other hikers by the campfire.

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