Vail Daily column: National parks preserve America’s soul |

Vail Daily column: National parks preserve America’s soul

Jack Van Ens

During this centenary celebration of the National Park Service, established in 1916, our nation shows gratitude to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for treasuring and protecting the parks in the 1930s.

He visited them as a traveler rather than a tourist. Former head of the Library of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book “Hidden History: Exploring Our Secret Past,” tracks the difference between a traveler such as FDR who respected national parks and a tourist who passes through to see pretty scenery.

“Travel” shares a root meaning with “travail,” which means empathizing with another’s troubles and hardship. A traveler visits a national park and breathes fresh air, getting in sync with life’s elemental forces. Park travelers respect markers requesting hikers not vandalize paths or disturb animals’ habitats.

A tourist merely observes, settling for less than a traveler who links his soul with a park’s life-force. A tourist is a passer-by who likes beautiful surroundings but doesn’t care about protecting pristine environments. “Tourist” is derived from a Latin word that names a tool for making circles. Tourists noisily race in circles through parks, snap photos, bother animals, stomp on new vegetation and then sprint to the next site.

“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience,” notes historian Boorstin. In contrast, “the tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes sightseeing.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Glacier National Park on August 5, 1934, a few days after surveying construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee National Dams. FDR cherished what was worth preserving in his core—his soul—by cherishing scenic landscapes.

An Episcopalian who remembered biblical poets seeing God’s footprints in creation, Roosevelt’s reverie for nature echoed a psalmist’s exclamation, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world [including national parks] and those who dwell therein …” (Psalm 24: 1). Speaking at Lake Placid on September 14, 1935, a resort town that hosted the 1932 Winter Olympics, FDR referred to himself as a “very old conservationist.” He believed “the spreading of the gospel of conservation was God-ordained work.”

During his 1934 Glacier Park visit, which the president designated “Year of the National Park,” Roosevelt gave an historic radio address. During the 1930s, Americans gathered near their radios to hear his reassuring voice. FDR sounded like a kind, wise father to his children, chiding them when they erred but bolstering them when mammoth problems loomed and citizens felt defeated.

The President told Americans national parks were worth preserving from poachers, mining and forestry conglomerates and entrepreneurs who wanted to build amusement parks near streams attractive at dusk to elk and moose.

Roosevelt’s voice glowed in his Glacier Park radio address. “There is nothing so American as our national parks,” FDR announced with an upturned lilt in his magnetic tenor voice. “The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, which it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all. The parks stand as an outward symbol of this great human principle.” With wife Eleanor, he traveled on the breath-taking Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Then FDR’s voice turned somber. He chastised business opportunists who wanted to turn parks into money-making machines. No park was established without a political fight against those who detested Uncle Sam’s power to block their amusement park plans.

“We should remember that the development of our national park system over a period of many years,” warned FDR, “has not been a simple bed of roses. As is the case in the long fight for the preservation of national forests and water power and mineral deposits and other national possessions, it has been a long and fierce fight against many private interests which were entrenched in political and economic power. So too, it has been a constant struggle to continue to protect the public interest, once it was saved from private exploitation at the hands of the selfish few.”

Today, we learn two lessons from traveler FDR who protected national parks by fighting against “tourists” bent on using them for private gain. Profiteers in the 1930s complained the way they do now. Then they accused Roosevelt of being a socialist who denied citizens the right to make a living. Today’s critics blame Uncle Sam’s overreach as a detriment blocking them from cutting trees, mining valuable metals and drilling for oil on park land.

Moreover, today we build walls as boundaries separating countries. FDR knocked down barriers so that wilderness lands stretched unimpeded from one country to another. In his Glacier National Park speech, the president hailed how the U.S. and Canada pooled resources and didn’t obstruct the natural migration of wild animals between the countries. He lauded porous borders serving as wildlife corridors, as evidenced by the Waterton Lakes-Glacier International Peace Park. Working together in 1932, U.S. and Canadian statesmen had joined this magnificent expanse of land, totaling 1,143,272 acres.

Secretary of the interior Franklin K. Lane in 1916 formed the National Park Service to preserve America’s soul in nature. As Lane made clear, “national interest must dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks.” If not, our national soul shrivels.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (

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