“This river is so old. When the Nephilim walked the land and men were like grasshoppers at their feet, it was flashing as thin and quick as a minnow.”
― Kristopher Reisz, The Drowned Forest
Before crossing the Missouri River, I-90 skirts the northern boundary of Rosebud Indian Reservation, where Ponderosa pine forests scatter into deep valleys. To the south, yellows and browns merge above of the massive Ogallala Aquifer, creating the largest and most intricate wetland ecosystem within the United States. Sprinkled with shallow lakes, drained by tributaries of the Loup River and Niobrara River, the great Nebraska Sandhills cover over one quarter of the state in mixed grass prairie and sand. Whitetail and mule deer wander through a land of ruffles and moguls, as cattle drink from sandy-bottomed lakes. Further east, Mitchell, home of the world’s only corn palace, comes and goes. Near Sioux Falls, Iowa, I-29 turns south and I continue my dance with the Missouri River.
Omaha, Nebraska is about halfway between Wall, South Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri. Give or take. It has also been home to the College World Series, each June since 1950. Omaha Municipal Stadium, the first stadium to host, was renamed to honor former Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt, who was instrumental in bringing minor league professional baseball as well as the College World Series to Omaha. In 2009, the city and the NCAA agreed to keep the College World Series in Omaha for another 25 years. Today the Series is played downtown in TD Amertitrade Park, which opened in 2011. As a student and lover of the greatest game ever created, I look across the river toward the stadium, and salute Mr. Rosenblatt. A few miles south in Mound City, I grab a bite at Quackers Bar and Grill, before sliding behind the local Wyndham’s and getting a decent night’s sleep.
Up with the sun, Kansas City is still asleep as I meet I-70 west. I think about rolling down my windows to see if the smell of barbeque is hanging in the air, but don’t. This is a big city rife with big city smells. Sun scorched tar and exhaust. Home of the forty-eighth National Park in the lower forty eight states, St. Louis is only four hours east. I turn on the radio and skip through local stations. Cowboys, pickup trucks, tight jeans and cold beer. I keep searching. Friday night lights, horses and my baby left me. Ouch. I’m almost all the way around the dial, when Johnny Cash comes wailing from the speakers. Hair rich with pomade, the neck of his guitar up around his ear, a slight snarl on his lips – he’s singing to me.
I’ve been to Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado
Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, El Dorado
Larimore, Admore, Haverstraw, Chatanika
Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelaka
Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City
Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity
I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the desert’s bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel I’ve a’had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere
While I was traveling out west, well after Gateway Arch was made a National Park, I would constantly ask Park Rangers why the park’s designation was changed from National Memorial, to National Park. At first, Rangers would tell me I was mistaken – “it’s not a National Park, sir.” This actually went on for several months, until finally I began to speak with Rangers that knew it was in fact our newest National Park. But none of them could tell me why. No one within the park system could tell me why an entity that clearly does not meet the criteria of being designated as a National Park, was suddenly elevated to this rarified status. I searched in vain for something other than a blank stare or shrug. It was not until I arrived at the very park who’s designation I was questioning, before I got an answer that I believe to be correct. Money.
“[the Service] purpose is 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.” – Organic Act of 1916
The United States Congress approved the Gateway Arch National Park Designation Act in early 2018 to re-designate Jefferson National Expansion Memorial as Gateway Arch National Park. U.S. President Donald Trump signed the act into law on February 22, 2018.
As I stand and gaze up at the flag draped Italian Renaissance, cast-iron dome of the Old Courthouse, a Park Ranger asked if I had any questions about the courthouse or the 1846 Dred-Scott case that made it famous. After a brief discussion about the U. S. Supreme Court ruling to overturn the decision more than a decade later, upholding slavery and taking our country to the brink of civil war, I asked him the question I had asked so many others. Why was this National Memorial, re-designated as a National Park? Without hesitation, he gave me an answer that was as clear as a church bell ringing on a sunlit Sunday.
“When you were in other parks, who did you see Smitty? Mostly middle age and older people, right? Mostly white people right? But who else? Did you hear foreign languages spoken in the parks?” There is no time to respond to his rapid fire. In his mind the questions are all rhetorical. “Chinese. Japanese. German. French. Spanish.” All very true by the way. For me, it was one of the great joys of this trip – seeing and meeting people from every corner of the world. Knowing they came to see our natural wonders always made me feel better about my fellow humans. “When visitors come from other countries they want to see the big boys.” He makes a parenthesis sign with the fingers of both hands. “Sure some visit National Monuments and National Lakeshores, certainly in D. C., but the vast majority want to see the big boys.” I just listen. “When a park becomes a National Park, everything becomes magnified. Its importance in the National Park hierarchy. It’s reach, its attendance. Which leads to increased revenue for the park and the surrounding area. In this case, St. Louis.” He’s becoming animated. “Over the next few years, you’re going to see several parks upgraded to National Park status.” He states this as a fact, not as a personal hypothesis. Then he lowers his voice. “It’s all about the Benjamins, Smitty. All about the Benjamins.” I had only one question for the Ranger. Should this be a National Park? He smiles and slowly looks around to see if anyone is listening. “No. Of course not.” We shake hands and I walk across the street toward the gleaming Gateway To The West.
In a recent op-ed piece titled “The Future or Extinction Of The National Park System” author Gil Lusk, who put in more than three decades with the National Park Service, made the following argument. “Congress and Executive Branches over the past 30 years have allowed necessary repairs and upkeep of our treasures to go largely unfunded, with a current documented backlog of some $12 billion, six times the annual budget for the agency. The only thing being done is adding more parks to the system. We need to close some parks shifting funds and staff to the parks that are most in need of rehabilitation and restoration.” In fact, so insufficient is the size of the official National Park Service workforce that the agency requires another 220,000 volunteers to make ends meet, he points out. Consider that for a moment. Without the volunteers, given the state of funding, we do not have a functioning National Park system. In addition, while volunteers can help in some areas, they play no role in dealing with the park system’s roughly $12 billion maintenance backlog.
This is not a new take. In 1955 Wallace Stegner, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and a champion of conservation, wrote an essay titled, ‘We are Destroying our National Parks.’ He believed that overcrowding, Americans’ penchant for littering and defacing public property, and the threat commercialization, were all held like a knife at the neck of our park system. “A national park is not a playground and not a resort, though it may be ideal for such activities as hiking, riding, climbing, hunting with a camera, fishing and cross-country skiing — sports which demand no installations, attract no spectators and leave no scars,” wrote Stegner. “The real purpose of the national parks — to preserve scenery, beauty, geology, archeology, wildlife, for permanent use in living natural museums, is not affected by these, but it cannot be made compatible with weekend dances, ski tournaments, speedboat races and a million people a year.” Sixty four years later, from my perspective, there is little to argue. But I do disagree with these gentlemen on a few points.
I don’t believe closing parks is a viable solution. In fact I believe it would set a dangerous precedent, making further closings less of a political risk. Closing parks will also certainly lead to further cuts in funding – the argument, consisting of pretzel logic, being that there is less to maintain and therefore cuts should be made. I would support a freeze on the National Park designation, as part of an overall freeze on any additional properties being brought into the National Park Service. As for Stegner’s assessment, I don’t believe there is an immediate threat from commercialization inside the parks. Quite the opposite. The National Park Service should be commended for showing considerable restraint in the face of downward spiraling budgets. They have partnered with concessionaires that represent the mission and concise footprint of commercialism inside the park. The fact is, outside of the immaculately maintained visitor centers, with their accompanying gift shops, there are virtually no traces of commercialization within the majority of the parks.
The real threat to our National Parks is external, in the form of political policies that seek to undermine the very foundation and fabric of conservation. Plans to open nearly all federal waters to oil and gas leasing, including areas that have never been leased or drilled, while the Department of the Interior is simultaneously weakening environmental safeguards that help prevent and mitigate the damage from disastrous oil spills. Removal of federal protections on wildlife such as grizzly bears in Yellowstone and wolves in Denali. The administration’s overarching willful ignorance of climate change. The list of blatant disregard for the environment and our National Parks by the current administration is far too extensive to list here. I would encourage everyone to visit the National Parks Conservation Association, https://www.npca.org, and draw your own conclusions. If you are concerned about the future of our parks and what we leave to future generations, get involved. Speak up!
“Through nearly 100 actions that impact our national parks since taking office, President Trump has dismantled some of our most important air and water protections and declared open season for harmful energy development, often at the expense of America’s most iconic places. He has attacked bedrock laws and critical regulations that protect air, water and wildlife in our national parks and beyond. And the damage won’t end with his administration. Unabated, it will last for generations. This will be the administration that ruins the national parks if they continue with their current agenda.” – Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association
Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen’s elegant arc of curved steel, soars 63 stories above the Mississippi River, 43,000 tons of concrete and steel shaped into an iconic symbol of America’s opening of the West. Completed in 1965, Saarinen’s vision dominates the landscape along ever moving, muddy water. It towers above the finely trimmed lawns of Luther Ely Smith Square, leading west to the Old Courthouse. Old Cathedral, built in 1834, is silently dwarfed by the daring structure. Beneath the arch, six themed exhibits celebrate over 200 years of history of Native Americans, slavery, explorers, pioneers, and rebels who made America possible. Each is a small innovative museum in its own right, with interactivity, concise, stylish graphics and a story well told. Colonial St. Louis, Jefferson’s Vision, Manifest Destiny, The Riverfront Era, New Frontiers, and Building the Gateway Arch. By design they surround and engage your senses. As I walk through the various exhibits, my guess is I am feeling exactly what the creators of this incredibly well thought-out and designed museum want each visitor to feel. History brought to life through art and artifact, to create a living, breathing public space.
After buying a ticket to climb 630 feet to the top of America’s tallest man-made monument, our group is led into a small holding area. Interactive walls flash images and music from the 1960’s and Gateway Arch trivia, as a young guide walks us through instructions for how to enter and exit the small egg shaped pods that notch and click their way into the sky. It takes four minutes to reach the top. Three to descend. Each claustrophobic inducing pod seats five people, knees touching in the middle. I’m in the middle seat, directly facing the small portal window that allows me to see the inside of the arch as we pass intermittent safety lights along the curving skeleton. The air is close. The young man to my right reaches across and takes his mother’s hand. “We’re almost at the top.” For some reason, it’s a mystery, I smile and give her a thumbs up. She smiles back and actually returns the thumbs up. A few more subtle shifts of angle and we reach the top. With an antiseptic swoosh, the tiny door slides open. After a few steps, we lean over the marble window sills and look down. To the west, a city of 319,000. To the east, a mighty river, a muddy artery. I stayed at the top for almost an hour. I love heights and wanted to experience the angle from every window along the slightly curved viewing corridor. Riding down in the pod, I was thinking how unusual it felt not to hike into the heart of a park. As I listened to the distinct clicks, felt the shudder as we moved along the enclosed Ferris wheel, I sadly realized that I had just visited the heart of Gateway Arch National Park.
As a showcase of American history, both good and bad, in symbolism and historical significance, the iconic Gateway Arch is an outstanding museum. Surrounded by the Mississippi and a welcoming city, with a small lace of green in between, it is a wonderful place to easily spend an entire day. Similar to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, it is a perfect National Memorial. But it is not a National Park. It does not fit the National Park Services’ own definition. It simply doesn’t meet the standards of the designation.
“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
By reclassifying Jefferson National Expansion Memorial as Gateway Arch National Park, the grandest designation in the National Park Service has been misappropriated and denigrates the stature of the other fifty-nine parks that proudy carry the title of National Park.