A common trope is that the national parks were “America’s best idea.” Documentarian Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS series, The National Parks, America’s Best Idea permanently embedded the meme in the American mind. The National Park Service gives credit to the great American writer, historian and environmentalist Wallace Stegner for articulating the notion.
In 1993, Stegner published “The Best Idea We Ever Had” in Wilderness (then a magazine published by The Wilderness Society), which was later published posthumously in his book Making the Sparrow’s Fall: The Making of the American West. In his essay, Stegner said:
The national park idea, the best idea we ever had, was inevitable as soon as Americans learned to confront the wild continent not with fear and cupidity but with delight, wonder, and awe.
In “It All Began With Conservation” in the April 1990 Smithsonian magazine (later published in Stegner’s book Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West), we find that Stegner got his notion from a British ambassador to the United States, James Bryce:
If the national park idea is, as Lord Bryce suggested, the best idea America ever had, wilderness preservation is the highest refinement of that idea.
There’s nothing quite like a wilderness area within a national park, unless it is also designated a wild and scenic river. However, America’s best idea, national parks—including its highest refinement, wilderness—is contingent on the underlying lands being in public ownership. So are somewhat lower—but nonetheless quite beneficial—refinements such as wild and scenic rivers, national monuments, national recreation areas, national wildlife refuges, national conservation areas, national trails and other specially designated areas.
Public lands provide society with goods and services that the private sector is unable to provide. The services can be generally categorized into:
• ecosystem services (fish and wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration and storage, air quality, etc.);
• watershed services (both a high quality and large quantity of water, [including for downstream uses], soil stability, etc.); and
• social services (recreation [pronounced “re-creation”], solitude, scenery, etc.).
Public lands provide society with many public goods, which is something that can be simultaneously “consumed” by many people. A scenic snow-capped peak, the knowledge of a pack of wolves safely in the wild and the clean air in a national park in the spring can be enjoyed equally by all as my consumption of these public goods doesn’t come at the expense of others equally enjoying.
Public goods are generally not available to be bought in the marketplace. While one may very much want clean air, one cannot go out and buy some. Clean air, habitat for wide-ranging species and pristine viewsheds are all examples of goods that can only be obtained through collective action that corrects what otherwise would be massive and tragic market failures. The establishment and retention of public lands underlies many important public goods.
President Nixon observed that “[The public lands represent] in a sense, the breathing space of the nation.” The vast spaces of the public lands gives us the elbow room to be alone. Even if we rarely—or even never—visit a place large enough and wild enough to get lost (and maybe die) in, the existence of such places is vital to the American experience. The existence value of public lands is immeasurable. I may never visit the most remote reaches of Washington, Wyoming, West Virginia or Wisconsin), but I am happier knowing they are there.
U.S. Representative John Garamendi said:
Maybe you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but like every American, you carry a deed to 635 million acres of public lands. That's right. Even if you don't own a house or the latest computer on the market, you own Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and many other natural treasures.
Of course, there are over 320 million other Americans with whom you share title. A small—but vocal and dangerous—minority of your fellow property owners denies the legitimacy of federal public lands. A few others want to give the federal public lands to the states, which—if history is any guide—means that the best will be sold off to the highest bidder and the rest exploited by private interests with government subsidies. Others know that’s not politically feasible so they advocate to maintain the façade of public ownership, but in order to dedicate the lands to private profit.
The price of keeping public lands public for this and future generations is eternal vigilance.