When our three kids got out of school this summer, we packed up the minivan, pulled onto Interstate 90 and drove and drove until the cornfields gave way to The Great American West.
In 10 days on the road from Oak Park, we visited three national parks, two national monuments and two national forests, a journey that culminated at the crown jewel of the national park system — the first, and in my opinion, best park: Yellowstone.
Along the way, we saw geysers and grizzly bears, bison and buttes, bighorn sheep and mountain peaks. We went horseback riding through Shoshone National Forest as cottonwood seeds floated down around us, shimmering in the sun like summer snowflakes. We watched prairie dogs popping up at the base of Devil’s Tower and shared a sarsaparilla at the Trading Post at the park entrance. We went hiking in the rugged, other-worldly Badlands and spelunking in Wind Cave, a sacred site to the Lakota people.
A wonderful, classic trip, like the ones my parents took me on, and my wife’s parents took her on, too. Because my daughter, Ellie, had just completed fourth grade, our family got free admission through President Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” initiative to get families — and young kids — to put down their electronic screens and get out and enjoy our spectacular public lands. My kids eagerly completed the National Park Service’s “junior ranger” programs and earned five badges.
Like pretty much everything these days, it’s hard not to experience this without seeing it through a political prism, especially when your vacation centers on visiting federal property. Try as you may to forget, there are reminders of our hyper-politicized climate everywhere. As we ate our complimentary continental breakfasts in red state hotels, the lobby televisions were inevitably tuned to Fox News. You couldn’t miss the giant hand-painted “TRUMP” sign on a Wyoming ranch outside Yellowstone. Click on the radio and the news is about immigrant families being separated at our southern border.
And when you stand before the granite faces on Mount Rushmore, you can’t help considering how the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue measures up to four presidents who truly did make America great.
When I told a colleague about our vacation plans, she tartly responded, “It’s going to be crowded. Everyone wants to go to the national parks before Trump ruins them.”
Trump hysteria? Maybe. But for those of us who cherish our great public lands, there is reason for concern about our real estate developer-in-chief.
Trump’s budget called for funding cuts to the national parks, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed doubling entry fees to some of the most popular parks. In January, 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board quit in frustration after Zinke refused to meet with them.
Late last year, Trump shrank two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, by more than 2 million acres. His administration is taking steps to open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. They have made moves to overturn bans on hunting methods on Alaskan public lands that some consider cruel, such as shooting mother black bears and their cubs hibernating in dens.
Last year, the Trump administration removed Endangered Species Act protection for the Yellowstone region’s grizzlies, opening them up to hunting for the first time in 44 years. In July, the administration proposed weakening the Endangered Species Act overall, a law that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support under Nixon and is credited with helping to bring back gray wolves, manatees, black-footed ferrets and other species on the brink of extinction.
In June, Yellowstone’s superintendent was forced out after disputes with the administration on bison management. And so on.
The politics behind the parks may be polarizing, but enjoying them is a bipartisan experience. They are, after all, the people’s parks. The license plates in Yellowstone’s parking lots — on RVs, pickup trucks and Subarus — were from the 50 states. It was indeed crowded, but maybe because we all wanted to be somewhere that is so special.
I can’t help wondering if Trump’s parents ever took him to Yellowstone — and if he took his own kids there, too. Perhaps it would be worth pointing out to him that Teddy Roosevelt earned his spot on Mount Rushmore — in the august company of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln — in part by preserving 230 million acres of public land.
At Mount Rushmore, a ranger asked my kids which of the four presidents was their favorite.
“Lincoln!” they responded in unison.
“Lincoln,” he said. “That’s a good one. I’m still waiting for the first Roosevelt of the day.”
“We’re from Illinois,” I explained. “The Land of Lincoln.”
You can’t go wrong with Honest Abe, but Teddy deserves some love, too. I’ll let the Rough Rider have the final word.
“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons,” he said. “And our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
John Biemer, a freelance writer, lives in Oak Park.
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