If you've ever wondered why we have national parks, you've likely never stepped into one. The boundless natural beauty and mind-boggling formations of the 59 parks leave lasting impressions on all who visit them. Each park is unique in its majesty, from the vibrantly red rocks of the Arches to Bryce Canyon's spire-shaped formations, from Yellowstone's storied waterworks all the way to the lush vistas of Zion.
Needless to say, we're pretty big fans. To honor the department on the eve on its Centennial, we're taking some time to reflect on the organization's history, the everlasting power of parkland and why its mission to preserve these magnificent pieces of Earth is more important now than ever before.
A Revolutionary Idea
The National Park Service was the first of its kind. On August 25th, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the NPS into law, there was no existing precedent for nationally protected wildlife anywhere around the world. The Organic Act came at a pivotal moment, as the Industrial Revolution was revving into high gear. Just as the country's trajectory was about to be forever changed, the visionary bill establishes parkland as national treasure, setting the tone for conservation as a vital aspect of our nation's development. It outlines the NPS' goal as follows:
...To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
Fast forward one hundred years and the NPS has been fully woven into the framework of our national identity. The parks welcome hundreds of millions of visitors every year. Plus, visits have been steadily increasing since WWII: polls reveal that nearly 3/4 of Americans have visited at least one park, and more than 25% of us make an annual visit. Today, the system sprawls across all 50 states and US territories, covering more than 84 million acres in total.
Saving Land, Saving Ourselves
Interestingly enough, the vital link between wild lands and the human spirit was the driving impetus for the conservation movement. Many trace the initial call for wilderness preservation to the Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Noting the rapid spread of civilization, he grew concerned about what it would do to the country - and man's spirit - if allowed to expand unchecked. In 1859 he wrote: "the public should own [a park or a primitive forest] and make them sacrosanct." His writings, along with those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir, helped form the foundation of the national preservation platform. Overall, all three stressed the importance of spending time in nature and acting as stewards for our wild habitat.
This critical connection between people and planet continued to propel the growing preservation movement. In 1949, Aldo Leopold, prominent forester and Founding Member of the Wilderness Society, developed the term "ecological conscience." Since then, this landmark concept has been used to represent that natural relationship among all living things. In light of the current climate crisis, the emphasis upon an individual's ethical responsibility for the planet's health is arguably even more important today than it was decades ago.
The Power of Parkland
Our national parks are magical places. Although far from scientific or quantifiable, this intangible power is such that they leave lasting impressions on all who visit them. Their awesome geological structures and natural biodiversity provide interactive playgrounds and a way to reconnect with nature for for adventurers of all ages. Above all, they are a unifying force - a common ground open for everyone in the United States to share equally, to delight in, and to protect.
Of course, modern science wouldn't be what it is if it didn't at least attempt to study some of this power. Some of the latest research hypothesizes what many students of nature have long held to be indisputably true: time spent outside restores creative cognitive thinking. In a 2012 study, neuroscientist David Strayer gave backpackers several rounds of creative thinking exams before and after four days spent out on the trail. Upon their return, the hikers scored a whopping 50% higher on the exams. Strayer links the boost to what he calls the brain's imagination network - our mind's default mode of mulling over memories, thoughts and emotions. He hypothesizes that time spent in nature quiets the overactive prefrontal cortex, responsible for multi-tasking and critical thinking, which yields to the more meditative and reflective thinking of the hippocampus.
Conservation, In Wild Places and Work Spaces
As we celebrate the history, splendor and power of the National Park System, we're reminded that stewardship for the planet extends beyond the park gates. Indeed, the parks nearly mandate such behavioral change. Standing in any one of the nation's 200 protected spaces, you may feel yourself internalizing an ecological conscience, like Leopold. Or, more simply, you may feel moved by the great, untouched swaths of land. Either way, it's nearly impossible to return home the same. That's why when we emphasize the importance of preserving our park lands, our remarks are almost equally about incorporating these principles into daily life.
Naturally, as a recycling company, we have much to say on the subject of recycling and responsible action. Recycling saves resources, reduces waste to landfill and helps conserve energy. Even making small changes to conserve conserve natural resources can have a huge impact on the planet. Here are some of our favorite easy-to-implement tips to reduce waste for offices and small businesses:
- Save power: It's estimated the 25% of all electricity in the US is used for lighting. Retail shops and restaurants can save money and power by turning off the lights after operating hours.
- Recycle cardboard: Keeping cardboard and paper clean and separate for recycling is a simple way for businesses to directly impact the recycling closed loop. Recycling paper saves 40% less energy than creating new paper, plus recycling one ton saves 380 gallons of oil and 7,000 gallons of water!
- Keep plastic out of landfill: Americans throw away an estimated 20 million plastic bottles in just a typical eight-hour workday! Sadly, each of those millions of bottles takes an extraordinary 500 million years to decompose. On the flip side, recycling just a single one helps businesses save on landfill costs, keeps our oceans clean and saves the amount of energy equivalent to powering a 60W bulb for up to 6 hours!
What are you still doing here reading? There are hundreds of parks out there beckoning you! Can't choose? Don't worry. For its birthday, the NPS built a handy tool called "Find Your Park" - it helps identify those nearest to your zip code. Looking for ways your office can give back? They also built a tool for that! Volunteering is wonderful for team building, plus it feels great. Check out local opportunities here. See you out there!
Love the NPS as much as we do? We'd love to hear from you. Share some of your favorite memories and ways in which the NPS has had an indelible impact on your life in the comments section below. Thanks, as always, for reading!