NATIONAL PARKS AND FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Theodore W. Sudia
few years ago a visitor to Grand Canyon National Park sat at a breakfast table with two fellow tourists, who had joined him because the dining room was crowded and there were no other places to sit. In the course of the conversation one traveler remarked that he was on his way to Australia from England and he had planned his route to take him through Grand Canyon. The other traveler, a young woman from Japan, remarked with some amazement that she was on her way to England and had routed her travels to come to Grand Canyon.
Each year more and more foreign visitors are visiting the U. S. National Parks, so many in Muir Woods National Park, for example, that the visitor information brochures are now printed in seven languages. And more and more Americans are visiting National Parks, Historic sites and monuments abroad. What better way to capture the essence and vitality of a nation than to visit the places they consider their national treasures?
The world's first national park, Yellowstone, was created by an act of Congress in 1872. Yellowstone National Park was not created because the United States had a national policy to preserve and conserve its natural treasures; it was created because it was a great natural wonder and curiosity. It was easy to create the park out of the public domain, but even with the vastness of the public domain at that time the park was reduced to about 1/4 the size originally proposed. In the intervening years other parks were set aside, but not until 1916 was the scattered system of parks gathered together under a National Park Service and it was not until 1972 that Congress created the National Park System. Today that system contains over 330 parks, monuments, historic sites and buildings, from Acadia to Zion and from the homes of the Presidents to reconstructed frontier forts.
With the advent of the environmental movement, the National Parks were thrust into the forefront. They have since formed a centerpiece of national environmental management policy and were, for instance, singled out for special treatment in the Clean Air Act. Recent polls indicate that 85% of Americans support environmental quality [it's the environment that supports us!] and have expressed a willingness to pay for it. A Gallup poll done specifically for the National Park Foundation found over 90% of Americans supported the National Parks.
The National Parks and the National Park System have become a national policy concern.
The term "National Park" came into the world's languages as a result of the Yellowstone Act. The concept of "National Park" is an unique American contribution to world culture and for this fact alone an initiative to make the National Parks and the National Park System an instrument of U.S. foreign policy should bear good fruit the world over.
The particular reasons for establishing specific National Parks are not as important as the fact that the National Parks exist. Additions to the U.S. National Park System that do not meet the purist's concept of "nationally significant" will not fatally flaw the National Park System, because by their mere inclusion sites achieve national status. The late Philip Burton, Congressman from California, understood perfectly the depth and breadth of the emotion of national pride in National Parks. He introduced legislation into the Congress to add some thirty new parks in one year. In spite of cries of "park barrel" the parks were added and an unprecedented 365 million dollars were appropriated for the rescue of Redwoods National Park, a park that many "experts" thought should not have been in the system in the first place. In the administration of Interior Secretary James Watt, rumors of a "hit list" of parks to be decommissioned caused such a furor, and the "heat" from the Congress was so intense that great effort was expended to squelch "whatever it was" that started the rumors.
National Parks are set aside for special use and special treatment. They are not removed from commerce, but they are for the most part removed from the consumptive uses of commerce. Setting aside an area as a park does not remove it from development; it subjects it to a different kind of development. And whether it's the "pleasuring ground" of Yellowstone or the "cradle of freedom" at Independence Hall, the basic reason for creating them is national pride, pride in our land, pride in our history, pride in our leaders and plain people, pride in our military accomplishments and our accomplishments in the pacific arts and sciences.
In addition to serving to define our national character, national parks are symbolic of the highest forms of conservation. Historically the U. S. conservation movement led by President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot was not concerned with National Parks. Their efforts resulted in the establishment of the National Forest System. In recent decades the parks, not the forests, have become our idealized concept of conservation and the phrase "for the enjoyment of future generations" comes from the National Park Service Act of 1916, not the Forest Service enabling act (which, however, espouses an equally important conservation concept, "sustained yield").
National Parks do have economic value--great economic value. They increase the property value of all the surrounding land, they generate economic activity in the regions in which they are located, and they tend to be magnets that attract economic activity to an area much larger than themselves. They stimulate tourism and its associated economic activities on a national and international basis. While it is generally acknowledged that national parks have economic value, this value is (and should be) secondary to the altruistic values of national pride.
Since the sole purpose of a national park (cultural or natural) is to foster and nurture an understanding of the national heritage, it also promotes international understanding. When we proffer our National Parks to foreign visitors we are putting forward our best foot as a nation--not as a corporation, not as a person, not as a special interest group, but as the nation. We may be judged by the movies we export, or the cars or other manufactures we export, we may be judged by the way we as individuals act when abroad, but none of these things is the nation. National Parks and what they represent are the nation.
National Parks represent established values, the landscape and the history of the nation. These values are conservative. Ecologically this is a healthy situation countering the tendency to abandon the past and to promote the now at a cost to future generations. A national heritage program that strives to preserve and conserve the physical manifestations of the past promotes change by evolution, not revolution. The presence of national parks in a nation represents a middle class in that nation. One need only observe the visitors to realize that it is middle class families, traveling as families, that are the greatest users of national parks.
A foreign policy initiative by the United States that strongly supports the development of national parks through direct aid and mutual cooperation would touch this wellspring of emotional committment and national pride. At the same time it would indicate a subtle but strong signal to the world that the United States is not only willing to promote its own "domestic Tranquility" [the peculiar capitalization is taken directly from the U.S. Constitution], but the domestic tranquility of other nations as well. In the process, it would promote international tranquility. World understanding can grow from such a common denominator as the ecology of the Earth. It would tap the most basic emotion a people can feel as a nation, national pride, and would demonstrate that we value what they cherish the most--their national character.
Some years ago B-51 bombers of the U.S. Strategic Air Command accidently released several hydrogen bombs on Spanish Territory. The bombs obviously did not explode, but a great deal of radioactively contaminated Spanish soil had to be gathered up and put into storage. It was even necessary to use deep sea diving techniques to recover bombs from Spanish territorial waters. Needless to say the United States was embarrassed. To alleviate Spanish anxiety, the United States entered into a friendship treaty with Spain and offered the Spanish Government aid, goods, services and mutual cooperation to atone for the mishap. Among the items the Spanish requested was cooperation with the United States on a series of projects involving the U.S. and Spanish National Parks. A number of parks on each side, including Tiede in the Canaries and Haleakala in the Hawaiian Islands, were paired for joint planning and study. U. S. and Spanish experts traveled back and forth between the two countries and common problems were discussed and solved.
This is not an isolated instance of United States cooperation with foreign nations on the matter of national parks, but it is interesting that Spain chose to cooperate, in part, on national parks as restitution for a military accident. Cooperating scientists of the U.S. National Park Service were pleasantly surprised to discover that Spain was a highly sophisticated country with an illustrious history that encompassed the origins of the United States and that the Spanish had a system for historic preservation that we could envy and emulate. A great deal of valuable information crossed the Atlantic both ways. But importantly the U. S. scientists came away with an understanding of Spain as a nation that they would have had difficulty obtaining any other way. And the same could be said about the Spanish scientists with regard to the United States.
The U.S. National Park Service has participated in many such cooperative international programs, and has been of assistance to most of the nations in the world concerning national parks, although it has no clear legislative mandate for international cooperation. And the U. S. has not had a policy of aiding other countries to establish national park systems as a means of promoting international tranquility--in the way we have specifically had a program to assist their military establishments--to promote peace.
The United States has the resources and the knowledge to assist any nation to foster and develop its cultural heritage, and it would be wise to exercise this capability through bilateral agreements, not multilateral agreements where international bodies may have their own agenda. National Parks are an American invention and the U.S. should have a program through which this national asset is shared with the rest of the world. Promoting national parks would make an unparalleled contribution to world culture. And this is one of the few areas of international cooperation where we can deal with all nations without fear of harming our national security.
The United States of America owes something to every nation on Earth for the contributions they made to our culture and as a consequence we can share in the national pride of each nation that contributed to that culture. Perhaps more than any other nation the United States understands the pluralism of culture and the manner by which a pluralistic culture becomes an understanding society, dedicated to the unalienable rights of all its citizens. Encouraging international tourism will promote a greater understanding of the natural and cultural heritage of all nations and the underlying unity that binds all peoples together in one ecological system.
Funds, in a program administered by the State Department, should be available for the acquisition of foreign park lands--lands to be given to the country in which the park is to be located--as well as for planning, research, development, design and construction; but, funds should not be available for operations. Nations should operate their own parks with their own funds. With developing nations the United States should underwrite significant development with direct grants-in-aid. With advanced nations the United States can work on the level of mutual cooperation with parity and equivalence as part of the agreement.
The establishment of parks as a part of national consciousness could be a positive incentive to preserve as well as to develop the world's natural resources, while at the same time husbanding its cultural and natural heritage. The program would reach and positively affect decision-makers in all the nations of the world. It presents a completely non-threatening way to interact with all nations. The United States would directly benefit by asserting world leadership in promoting international tranquility, leading to an enhanced cultural and natural environment for all mankind and for an increased quality of life, the world over.
Theodore W. Sudia is former Chief Scientist, National Park Service, and now is Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.