There has been a persistent sense among many Americans that national parks are special places, even sacred. It was Horace Albright, the second Director of the National Park Service, who said in 1930 that “Only God can create a national park.” Such theologically tinged interpretations, of course, borrow on the leftover patriotism of nineteenth-century Manifest Destiny. This story of the American nation as the beneficiary of divine favor looked to its stupendous landscapes, unique natural features, and bountiful resources as evidence of God’s blessings. For Director Albright, offering protection as national parks to the most scenic, the most special and unique examples of this holy beneficence was nothing short of a sacred civic obligation, our collective duty to the God that had manifested the American destiny.
But are the parks really so special? Horace Albright set the standard pretty high for considering whether a particular place or attraction warranted the national park designation. For him, the National Park Service was merely the caretaker of places chosen by God. Yet despite such confessional claims, national parks are very human creations. Acts of Congress establish the parks (and presidential proclamations create national monuments) in the culmination of complex political processes that involve activists, local political operatives, financial investments of interested commercial enterprises, and the support of hundreds of individuals with varied reasons for wanting a new park. These movements to create a park typically encounter substantial opposition. People will lose their homes and property; businesses will lose dominance of local markets; communities will lose control of their local stories. Bringing the National Park Service to town opens old wounds and generates controversy alongside the opportunities of national recognition and increased visitation.
Controversy, though, is a key element in the role parks have played in American culture. From their beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century, national parks have been occasions for struggles over essential meanings of America itself. And maybe this is the fundamental issue at stake in what filmmaker Ken Burns and his co-author Dayton Duncan deemed “America’s Best Idea”: what is America? Perhaps there is a role for God in answering this question, as Horace Albright hinted in 1930, but divine intentions for the American nation are far from clear. ♨