While in California, during one of my daily phone conversations with my Spanish girlfriend who works for UNHCR in Bukavu, Congo, I asked for her help on Spanish terminology as I look to improve my understanding of the language that has clearly become second to English in the United States. My question that day was on the difference between “San” and “Santa” in name-places in the U.S. (Santa Fe, San Francisco, and so on). Her explanation was (embarrassingly) simple: “San” was masculine; “Santa” was feminine.
“So does that mean Santa Claus is really a girl?”
And we Americans thought other countries were strange. (America, after all, is the only place I know where you can drive on the parkway and park on the driveway.)
Once I left our family friends in Pleasanton, California, I was generally going eastbound, having reached the apogee of my journey. Pleasanton (I learned from my girlfriend following my trip in the virtual spaces) was founded by John W. Kottinger, an Alameda County justice of the peace, and named after his friend, Union army cavalry Major General Alfred Pleasonton. A typographical error by a U.S. Postal Service employee apparently led to the current spelling. In the 1850s, the town was nicknamed “The Most Desperate Town in the West” and it was ruled by bandits and desperados. Main Street shootouts were not uncommon. Banditos such as Joaquin Murrieta, upon whom the legend of Zorro is based, would ambush prospectors on their way back from the gold rush fields and then seek refuge in Pleasanton. Now it’s a bedroom community for those seeking refuge between San Francisco and Sacramento.
The ride across central California through the huge truck farms described in some of Steinbeck’s novels, (once again) over the aqueduct, and into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada was uneventful (although traversing Modesto was like negotiating a maze, due to numerous road construction detours). What helped me balance my first impression of California, having entered in the south over the Mojave Desert, was its agricultural productivity. What would complete my appreciation of its environmental diversity was Yosemite National Park, the first of the great national parks I would see in the West on my way “back East” (an interesting term).
In 1889, John Muir, then America’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist, and Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, had growing concerns about the devastating effects of sheep grazing in the high country. They launched a successful campaign to persuade Congress to set aside this area as a national park in 1890. On October 1, 1890, the U.S. Congress set aside more than 1,500 square miles of reserved forest lands, soon to be known as Yosemite National Park.
Yellowstone, which is mostly in Wyoming but overlaps into Idaho and Montana as well, was the next major park-way I rode through. Established by Congress in 1872 and administered by the U.S. Army for a good part of its early years, it is the world’s first national park, evolving as a land-use model from merely a pleasuring ground and wildlife refuge to a biosphere reserve and World Heritage Site. With over 1,000 miles of backcountry trails, it has more active geysers than Iceland or New Zealand, as the area was formed between two and 1.3 million years ago by volcanic eruptions, the most recent spewing out 240 million cubic miles of debris over its 30-by-40 mile caldera (or basin) in the heart of the park.
The national park system in the United States became official under the pen of Woodrow Wilson in 1916, just prior to America’s entrance into the Great War in Europe, and with it the beginning of the end of America’s self-imposed isolationism and its rise as a global power, quietly signaled by its becoming the world’s largest creditor nation. The initial impulse was in response to what Steinbeck calls the “savagery and thoughtlessness with which our early settlers approached this rich continent… It was full late when we began to realize that the continent did not stretch out to infinity; that there were limits to the indignities to which we could subject it… Conservation came to us slowly, and much of it hasn’t arrived yet”, he wrote in the early 1960’s.
But it was Theodore Roosevelt, the celebrated conservation president, who had the greatest impact, extending well beyond his term as chief executive from 1901 to 1909. In that period, he signed legislation establishing five national parks. Another Roosevelt enactment had a broader effect, however: the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906. While not creating a single park itself, the Act enabled Roosevelt and his successors to proclaim historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest in federal ownership as national monuments. By the end of 1906 he had proclaimed four. The first was Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.
He was also prepared to interpret that authority expansively, protecting a large portion of the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908. By the end of his term he had reserved six predominantly cultural areas and twelve predominantly natural areas in this way. Later presidents also used the Antiquities Act to proclaim national monuments, 105 in all. Forty-nine of them retain this designation today; others have been re-titled national parks or otherwise reclassified by Congress. The Antiquities Act is the original authority for about a quarter of the nearly 380 areas composing the national park system today.
Roosevelt perceived back then what today could be called “environmental power” – that conservation was not simply a moral act or an end in itself. It was also a matter of national security and prosperity. I had always wondered why he was the fourth president to appear on the face on Mount Rushmore; now, having seen much of his handwork and understanding its implications, I knew why.
In his seventh annual message to Congress in December 1907, Roosevelt noted that “…the conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life… As a nation we not only enjoy a wonderful measure of present prosperity but if this prosperity is used aright it is an earnest of future success such as no other nation will have. The reward of foresight for this nation is great and easily foretold. But there must be the look ahead, there must be a realization of the fact that to waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”
As I looked upon the great national parks of the West, I gained a greater appreciation of what Roosevelt envisioned. Although only 3.6% of the territory of the United States is managed by the National Park Service, assisted by nearly 150,000 volunteers, and its budget is about three billion dollars per year, the parks draw nearly 300 million visitors at the same time, generating 14 billion dollars of economic activity. But most importantly, 30-40% of those who see the physical grandeur of the United States are from foreign countries, contributing to a more positive image of America. As soft power becomes increasingly important, and as it becomes more difficult to preserve the world’s natural treasures in the face of overpopulation and fierce economic demand (witness the disappearance of much of wild Africa), this comparative advantage the United States currently enjoys will become even more precious and take on new meaning.
After having seen snow and ice in California in June, battled torrential downpours after failing to witness a full eruption of Old Faithful, crossed the Continental Divide in a downpour, rode along windy, steep cliffs to gaze upon the vast and expansive vistas of the Rocky Mountains, with hardly a sign of human presence, and seen two of the greatest outdoor sculptures in the world, one natural and one man-made, it was clear to me that the country’s physical attributes alone make Americans a truly fortunate people.