Sunday in the Park with Georgia

On the national identity of state parks.

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Looking for some outdoor summer fun but hate the crowds of Yellowstone, the remoteness of Dry Tortugas, the heat of Death Valley, and the obviousness of the Grand Canyon? Maybe you’d instead enjoy picnicking in James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park in Georgia. Or swimming at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Kentucky. Or walking your leashed pet through Harry “Babe” Woodyard State Natural Area in Illinois.

 

If so, you should get on that now. This is not a good time for state parks. With economic conditions making employment and education seem like privileges, recreation is hardly thought a right. Which is why the state parks make easy targets for the nation’s 50 governors and 7,382 state legislators looking to cut costs. Which is why the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in turn, has placed state parks and historic sites on its latest list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

According to the organization, 26 states have seen reductions in state park funding. This means cuts in staffing, maintenance, and access. A New York Times slideshow of the impact includes wistful photos of a donation box in an Arizona park, a Colorado ranger at sunset by a sign that reads “No Services Availalble in this Area Due to Budget Cuts,” a motorcycle club whose members have volunteered to mow the lawns of an Idaho park, and — perhaps most elegiac — a picnic table overtaken by a pale green sea of early summer grasses in New York.

Reductions in access to state parks is unfortunate for many obvious reasons: It lessens opportunities both inexpensive recreation and outdoor experiences; it also marginalizes such experiences by treating them as expendable. But less obvious is how such cuts reinforce the image of the state park as a kind of poor man’s national park. Would Yellowstone ever close? What a dumb question. But New York’s John Boyd Thacher State Park? Well, times are tough…

National Parks get all the glory. Last year, they were the subject of a 12-hour Ken Burns documentary. This year, they started appearing on quarters as part of the U.S. Mint’s new decade-long “America the Beautiful” series (Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Hood National Forest make up the first batch). Their dramatic landscapes come together to form the country’s natural identity.

The state parks don’t do this kind of cultural work. Their diffuse nature — the fact that they are the products of individual states and not the federal government — prevent them from taking on symbolic meaning beyond their home state’s borders. And yet as a whole, the state parks could be more accurate reflection of our national character and aspirations than their national counterparts.

Parks in the United States actually began with the states — or the lack thereof. While it’s true that Lincoln’s preservation of Yosemite in 1864 marked the first time any federal government granted natural land such protection, California initially oversaw the reserve. Eight years later, the federal government preserved what is today Yellowstone, but since Montana and Wyoming had not yet been made states, responsibility for the park fell to the Department of the Interior. New national parks were created over the next several decades, and in 1916, Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service.

The state park system is arguably more diverse than its national counterpart. This seems counterintuitive, considering the 58 national parks are made up of biological and geological features that range from volcanoes to giant sequoias, glaciers to dry deserts. But the epic-ness of the national parks gives the system a kind of sameness — a collection of Big Wonders.

State parks can at first seem a bit tame in comparison — many consist of forest, hiking trails, maybe a lake with a swimming beach. They’re meant to provide easy access to the natural world (when budget cuts aren’t reducing it, that is). None of us can visit on a whim, say, the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere, formed by a collapsed volcano. But in the two free days we have each week, we can fairly easy get to Lums Pond State Park or Cherry Creek State Park or Mashamoquet Brook State Park.

But they are a much more idiosyncratic bunch. Some have surprising histories, such as New Jersey’s Parvin State Park. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the public works program that created more than 800 state parks between 1933 and 1942. During World War II, Parvin served as a summer camp for the children of uprooted Japanese-Americans, then as a POW camp for German soldiers, and later as a temporary home for the Kalmyks of southeast Europe who had avoided Soviet deportation to Central Asia. Today it offers canoeing, swimming, and picnic tables with grills.

Other parks are notable for their non-epic invocation of the epic ideal, such as Nebraska’s Smith Falls, established around the state’s highest waterfall; you may never have considered whether a place as flat-seeming as Nebraska even had a waterfall, but it does, and Nebraska thought enough of the feature to set it aside as something to look at and enjoy. Visit Leonard Harrison State Park and you can see the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. And then there’s Oklahoma’s Little Sahara State Park, whose sandy landscapes inspired allusions to the brutal African desert but whose main warning is, “You must bring your own Dune Buggy to ride dunes.”

The beauty of state parks is that you don’t need a waterfall or Little Sahara to have one. You don’t even need an area all that natural. California’s Eastshore State Park on the San Francisco Bay sits, in part, on former attempts to fill the East Bay. “[T]he shoreline reflects the influences of both natural systems and human intervention,” according to the park’s general plan, “with natural features, such as tidal marshes and sand and gravel beaches, intermingled with man-made elements, such as engineered revetments, construction rubble, and other debris.” Massachusetts’ Pope John Paul II Park Reservation was once a landfill and drive-in theater.

Every state park falls under the purview of some state agency. In Alabama, for instance, that’s the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Most states have “natural resources” as part of the department name. Others, like Idaho, play up the human-use aspect of the parks with names such as the Department of Parks and Recreation. Connecticut offers Environmental Protection, while Rhode Island practices Environmental Management and Delaware exerts Environmental Control. Louisiana — with its Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism — suggests that state parks aren’t so much about preserving the environment as they are about maintaining a place to have fun. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks oversees that state’s parks; Nebraska is not as magnanimous to its wildlife: its parks are run by the Game and Parks Commission.

State parks are everywhere. According to the National Association of State Park Directors, there are more than 6,000 state park units in the 50 states. The system receives more than 725 million visits a year. And yet you’ll never see the state parks on any kind of national calendar, on the face of any coin. This is unfortunate, as the diversity of the parks and the states’ approaches to nature; the aspiration behind arguing that you may not have the Grand Canyon, but you have a grand canyon; the gumption of saying that when life hands you a landfill and former drive-in theater, make a state park, collectively create an identity as inspiring as the that of the national parks. I mean, if you’re going to have values embedded in nature, those seem like seem like pretty good ones to me. • 15 June 2010

 

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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