With a title like that you could be excused for thinking I was writing a summary piece about one, or multiple, general assemblies. No, this is a bit of a departure from the typical style for my July Fourth reflection, but please bear with me.
As I began thinking about the piece for this year my mind drifted towards the centennial of the National Park Service. In case you did not know, it turns 100 on August 25th. In a patriotic spirit it has recently gained the popular title “America’s Best Idea.” That comment alone, made by Wallace Stegner in 1983, should be patriotic enough to end the post here and go watch the parade. The complete quote is “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
But this thought was not unique to Stegner. Franklin Roosevelt said “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”
Or as the first director of the Park Service, Stephen Mather, said
“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section…. The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.”
“Who will gainsay that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness…. He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.”
(Quotes from an NPS web page of quotes)
It is sounding very Presbyterian to me actually – the availability to all and the participation of all for the greater good – but it would make sense as one of the early advocates for wild space, John Muir, was born in Scotland and exposed to Presbyterianism there. His very religious father had an early Presbyterian affiliation before drifting through a variety of leanings and activities that had ties to the Restoration movement, specifically the Campbellites. But I digress.
As regular readers know, I have a great love of the outdoors, for the recreational opportunities and inherent beauty. But on a higher level for their spiritual connection as much as for their democratizing influence. And while the area around the Yosemite is one of my favorite areas, the earliest area that was a “thin place” for me was the Adirondacks of New York.
In case you are not familiar with the Adirondack Park it might help to know that it comprises one-third of all the land area of the state – over 6 million acres and growing – making it the largest state park in the country. That makes it larger than any national park in the contiguous United States. It is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies National Parks combined. Of that area in the park, 2.6 million acres are Forest Preserve owned by the state – still an amount making it larger than any national park besides some Alaska parks and Death Valley.
But what makes the area truly unique from a public land stewardship point of view is the foresight that the leaders of the state had regarding the land. As more land was clear-cut for lumber the forest preserve was created in 1885 and the Park in 1892. In 1894 New York wrote a new state constitution and included this clause:
The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.
This was part of the constitution ratified by the citizens of New York and is known to many as the “Forever Wild” paragraph. Twenty times the voters have approved exceptions or land deals allowing sale or use of certain lands for reasonable causes from expanding a municipal cemetery to building two ski areas. But on this holiday it is notable that this must be done by an action of the citizens.
Over the years I have found a number of areas that are for me thin places. But still, for a variety of reasons there is none as thin as the New York State Forest Preserve. And I am looking forward to a return visit later this summer.
And on this Independence Day, I give thanks for civic-minded leaders and citizens that have the energy and foresight to create, maintain, care for and preserve public lands for the benefit of all.