The Road Ahead

As we head into the next 100 years of the National Park Service, let's explore how we can do a better job of breaking past cultural and systemic barriers and get our increasingly diverse population out in nature.

While putting together this special edition celebrating our national parks, I was reminded of the first time I visited the Grand Canyon with my family. We spent an hour or so soaking in the view of the vast void, then, after a short run through the model Hopi House gift store, we turned around and left.

I would have loved to have walked down one of the canyon trails and spent a night or two sleeping under the stars. But I come from an immigrant culture where our precious vacation days are typically spent with family – old grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, infants – not the best mix if you want to go camping in the backcountry carrying 50 pounds of gear. My desire to explore the outdoors more intimately is often stymied by the double whammy of cultural compulsions and lack of time.

Yes, I’m a statistical cliché, part of the changing face of this nation that isn’t reflected enough in our parks. It’s well recognized that we need to do a better job of breaking past cultural and systemic barriers and get our increasingly diverse population out in nature. To its credit, the National Park Service is working with several outdoors groups to make that happen.

What’s not being discussed enough though, is the second part of my dilemma: finding time. I’m not alone in this. As our workdays get longer and eat into our weekends, more and more Americans simply don’t have the time to switch off and immerse themselves in nature. This is doesn’t portend well for the future of our protected open spaces.

America’s national parks face many threats – climate change, development, resource extraction, attacks from the far right – to name a few. (The emerging story of the NPS’s long history of sexual harassment and discrimination against women is another systemic challenge that we are only beginning to learn about.) At the same time, the need for new parks closer to or even within urban areas, and in underrepresented parts of the country, is more urgent than ever. (Read “Room for More. ”)

Protecting our wildlands against pressing threats while also expanding our parks system requires a public that feels emotionally connected to the American wilderness and is deeply invested in ensuring its continued existence. But, as author John de Graaf asks in “Finding Time for Our Parks,” “Where will support for the parks come from if Americans don’t have time to spend in them?” The average visit to the Grand Canyon lasts 17 minutes. That’s clearly woefully short of the time one needs to build a lasting relationship with a place.

If we can’t take the time to connect with our wild world how will we ever we grow the next generation of park stewards? If we are too busy to spend time outdoors, chances are, our kids won’t make it out enough either. And if our children don’t get to walk through the grasslands where bison roam, delight in the rivers where salmon spawn, and gaze in wonder at the high mountains where grizzlies prowl, how will they ever learn to care for these places?

As we head into the next 100 years of the National Park Service, addressing these big questions will require some big changes in how we, as a people, work and play.

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