KEEP THE NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM
The National Park System (NPS) is one of America's greatest assets. I had this thought last week as I walked between waist-high snowdrifts and head-on into a 30-mph wind carrying new snow. The "parks" of the NPS include national monuments, seashores, and recreational areas, as well as the traditional national parks such as Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, Zion in Utah, and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where I stood in a late spring snowstorm. The contrast with the habitat and weather at the Congaree Swamp National Monument and the swamps of South Carolina where I had been the week before was dramatic and uplifting.
A visit to "Rocky," as the locals call it, can renew a person's spirit as well as provide a new perspective on the natural world. As in most parks, the habitats are as close to what the early settlers and pioneers saw as one can get today. And the wildlife can be spectacular, although often unpredictable.
At Rocky during the morning, we used our first roll of film photographing six elk that had wandered across our path. We marveled at our stealth in getting so close. That afternoon, and perhaps 300 elk later, we realized that elk are no more unusual than snow in May. In fact, as we left the town of Estes Park, which is the gateway to Rocky, we actually saw an elk asleep in someone's front yard. Apparently it had gotten tired of eating the shrubbery around the house and needed a nap. Elk were everywhere, to the point of being a nuisance, but they stand as a tribute to the protection that national parks can offer native wildlife.
Another western animal species that was most impressive was the Steller's jay. Eastern blue jays pale in comparison to the giant Steller's jays with their brilliant cobalt blue color and their magnificent crests. Of course, to some westerners, Steller's jays are commonplace, like their raucous counterparts in the East or elk at Rocky. When my sister saw her first Steller's jay on a trip to California, she excitedly pointed the bird out to passersby, who eyed her cautiously and then apparently remembered something they had forgotten to do back the way they had come. Another woman hurried her child into a parked car and immediately locked all the doors. Apparently, in some places marveling at a Steller's jay is akin to being in awe of a house sparrow back East.
A feature of many of our national parks is that native wildlife is in abundance whereas people are sparse. I realize that some people prefer a high density of other humans, and I encourage them to continue staying together in big cities if that is their desire. But the parks offer solitude for those who want it. During much of the day at Rocky, we encountered no other visitors. The same is true at most other parks yet, ironically, the records show that more people visited national parks last year than attended all professional baseball, basketball, and football games combined. Of course, a national park is a lot bigger than a football stadium; there's room to spread out, so the number of people may not seem as high in a park.
For Coloradoans who are not that impressed with a plethora of elk or with snow in mid-May, I invite them to visit some of the southeastern parks, such as Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Alabama, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park or Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area where the skyline of Atlanta is visible, or the Everglades. Southern wildlife and dramatically different habitats, not to mention the lack of snow, would probably renew a Coloradoan's spirits the way their park did mine.
fact, I recommend all the parks to everyone, wherever they happen to
be visiting and wherever they are from. Check out the National Park
Service Web site (www.nps.gov). It's
an interesting, user-friendly site. And after you make that virtual
tour, select a park that you and your family can visit in person. Then
select another park and another--and I predict you will soon agree that
the NPS is indeed one of America's greatest assets.