National Parks as Incubators of Democratic Values, or: How Giant Sequoias Make Us a Better People

Back in June, my family visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. As we hiked along the Congress Trail, I carried my infant son and he began to cry just before we came upon a group of three people. They silently and excitedly motioned us to come over and together we watched a black bear cub playing on a fallen tree on the other side of a clearing. My kid continued to cry in spurts despite my best efforts to soothe him. Thankfully he did not disturb the cub’s focus. After a few minutes we began to leave and I apologized for my son’s noisiness, to which one of the women in the group smiled and responded in a wonderful Southern drawl, “That’s OK, this park belongs to him too.”

After that trip I have returned to Ken Burns’ excellent documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The early episodes detail the creation of these parks, which was unprecedented in the world’s history. Never before had a nation set aside public land in order to preserve the natural wonders for its citizens to experience. When Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it stated that the land would be set aside, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Reflecting on my experiences in national parks as well as learning more about their history brings to mind a concept that has surprisingly received little attention in this election year: democracy. Those who originally sought to create national parks did so for two reasons. First, they wanted to protect the land, vegetation, and wildlife, what we today might call environmental conservation. Second, they protected the lands with an eye toward their neighbors and children — they believed it would be good for others, including future generations, to experience the lands in as pristine states as possible. They agreed to limit personal and private claims for development or exploitation of their resources. They believed to preserve the lands was democratic. Burns’ documentary quotes George Caitlin, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and others at length. Their words extolling the inherently democratic values of national parks evoke inspiration consistent with the natural beauty they sought to protect.

Because the creators of the national parks chose to curb their own possible gain, everyone who has the ability to travel there can experience the wonder of Yosemite Valley without paying exorbitant entry fees. One does not have to cough up cash to a photographer with sole proprietary rights to all pictures from Glacier Point. The granite of Half Dome will never be quarried for kitchen countertops. Burns’ films show there were people who wanted to lay private claims on what became the national parks for purposes of tourism or commercial use of the resources. But the American citizens, through their representatives, decided that these lands should belong to everyone. No one should have more of a claim to the lands than anyone else. I stand amazed at the selflessness required to secure natural beauty for all people present and future. These are values one still finds in the parks. When I was a child my parents would never let me take home even a rock from a stream bed and they argued, “If everyone took a rock home, one day there would be no rocks left.” The national parks are incubators of sharing and restraint, two key values of democratic virtue.

The woman we met on the Congress Trail clearly understood the virtue shaping the national parks’ existence, but I find little about democratic values in today’s public discourse. Most of the discussion has focused on economics, namely whether we are moving toward absolute free markets or socialism. Reducing life to mere economics, however, will not account for something as magnificent as preserving the Grand Canyon. While one can detail the relationships between economics and democracy, or argue whether free markets or socialism is more democratic, the fact is that economics is different from democracy. From the points of view of both the free market and socialism, Grand Canyon National Park is extremely inefficient. A mere $25.00 gets a carload of people into the park for seven days.  People would gladly pay higher fees and far more money could be made either for private investors or the state. From the perspective of economics, the raw resources in the parks are going to waste. Economics, however, cannot understand the democratic values that make these sanctuaries of beauty and wilderness available to all. The parks exist not for the return to shareholders or for the promotion of the state, but, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” National parks remind us that benefit and enjoyment sometimes come in forms other than money and consumable products. Benefit and enjoyment are not granted by the state, but rather, when people choose to restrain their own private claims and freely share with one another.

Good things happen to us when we encounter natural majesty for which we have a shared responsibility to maintain. When my son meets a woman from another state and they have a mutual interest in preserving the habitat of a black bear cub, community is created, a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself is fostered, and they are made, if only for a moment, more generous toward each other and nature.

As I read about the issues shaping this year’s election debate, I wonder how the lessons we learn in the national parks and the democratic values that gave rise to them them should play a larger part of the discussion. Currently we restrain ourselves by allowing ourselves just one vote. No one can (legally) sell their vote or purchase more opportunities to vote. This value of ensuring one vote per person and restraining ourselves from commoditizing that vote makes little economic sense, but it makes terrific democratic sense.  Where else might restraining and sharing for the purpose of ensuring all have a say or receive benefit help us move forward together?

If economics cannot make sense of the democratic values that formed the national parks, it seems unlikely to me that economics will be able to foster those values. I do not intend to demean economics. Rather, I hope we begin to see that there are matters that are beyond an economic scope. Economics should not be the primary or final arbiter of determining value. We need economics because we must produce, distribute, and consume goods to survive and progress. At the same time, let us remember Theodore Roosevelt’s beautiful charge he gave while visiting the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Free markets, socialism, and other economies will always tempt us to look at the Grand Canyon and think that we could somehow make it better, more efficient, or more profitable. The truth is we cannot improve on it and we need values that encourage restraint and sharing, that help us to appreciate that the biggest hole in the ground, or the largest living things on Earth, are all our responsibility and are means of benefit and enjoyment for everyone. We need these values not only to protect natural beauty, but also our nation.