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For more than a century, national parks have amazed and delighted. But they’ve also divided. A longtime Sunset writer takes a look at America’s Best Idea in the age of anxiety

It’s one big chunk of rock. Stand on the Yosemite Valley floor, and El Capitan rises more than 3,000 feet above you, begging to be photographed. You step back to position your smartphone, trying to squeeze all of its granite grandeur into the frame. 

It’s a legendary tradition, one that started in 1861, when an aspiring photographer named Carleton Watkins arrived in this valley and tromped around, lugging an enormous camera of his own design. The glass-plate negatives the camera produced were big enough to capture all of Yosemite’s magnificence and changed not only Watkins’s life but also the world. Reproduced in lithographs and 3-D stereoscopic views, the pictures introduced Americans in Boston and Washington, D.C., to the valley’s wonders. They helped spark a dream, that a place this beautiful shouldn’t be logged or gold mined but set aside so that the American public could enjoy it. Which is why, on June 30, 1864—in the bloody midst of the Civil War—President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill proclaiming that Yosemite Valley should be “held for public use, resort, and recreation,” its protection “inalienable for all time.” 

Today, 153 years later, the United States contains 59 national parks (along with hundreds of national monuments, seashores, and preserves). They are vastly popular, last year drawing 325 million visitors. Yet in a political season that sometimes feels like a second Civil War, the parks’ future has seldom seemed more uncertain. 

I’m one of those people who’s been coming to Yosemite for decades, always trying to get a good photo of El Cap, never quite succeeding. As a writer and a Westerner, I have long thought of the national parks as part of my DNA. So this year, when they became a divisive political issue, I needed to investigate and see whether the potential threats to our parks were real. 

“None of us saw it coming,” says Athan Manuel, director of the Lands Protection Program for the Sierra Club, when I phone him at his office in Washington, D.C. “People got out of the gate quickly.” He’s talking about the concern around  the national parks–related protests that rose up as President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.  

“National Parks Going Rogue” read a headline on usatoday.com, as Redwoods and Badlands National Parks’ Twitter accounts—operated, reportedly, by former park employees—expressed defiance of the newly proposed environmental policies. The “official” tweets stopped, replaced by a new anti-administration Twitter account: @AltUSNatParkService. Today it has close to 90,000 followers.

Now, a few months into the new administration, environmentalists like Manuel and others at groups like the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) are identifying potential hazards to the parks and working to combat them. “We have so many areas of worry,” says Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. “It’s almost hard to narrow them down.”

One big threat is to the integrity of national park lands. It’s unlikely that parks themselves will be logged or mined—even now, they are mostly considered sacrosanct. What’s dangerous is what happens on public lands just outside the parks. “We may see a push for oil drilling outside Zion,” Manuel says. “You could have uranium mining adjacent to Grand Canyon.” This development puts at risk the air and water quality, as well as the visitor experience inside the parks. 

A second threat is legislative. Despite its snooze-inducing name, the Antiquities Act of 1906 has been essential to protecting public lands. It gives the president the authority to establish national monuments without having to go through Congress. Many of these designations eventually become national parks—like Grand Canyon, which President Theodore Roosevelt established in 1908, and, later, Utah’s Arches and Wyoming’s Grand Teton. “This act has been used by presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, to establish monuments for over 100 years,” says Pierno. “Now there are serious efforts to take away that authority.”

Pierno reminds me that in his final days in office, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to establish Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. Many of the state’s politicians, including the governor, see the monument as an example of the federal government overstepping its bounds, taking land that would be better managed at the state and local level. Some have asked for the monument designation to be abolished. 

And then there’s climate change. On a warming planet, Manuel says, “you’re going to see a lot more wildfires in parks like Yellowstone. Joshua Tree may have fewer Joshua trees.” Alaska parks are especially vulnerable. “Tundra doesn’t stay frozen all year-round. The glaciers of Kenai Fjords are vanishing.” 

Both Manuel and Pierno say they hope to find common ground with Ryan Zinke, former Montana congressman and new secretary of the interior. In fact, he and the NPCA already agree on one major priority: fixing the parks’ longstanding infrastructure problems, including updating aging roads, sewers, and visitor centers. 

National parks may sometimes spark political battles, Pierno says, but most Americans see them as above politics. “Conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, the parks are beloved by all,” says Pierno. “Everybody has a national park story.”

We’re used to thinking of the national parks as warm and lovable, the Tom Hanks of government entities. Nobody dislikes them. But in reality, many people have. Teddy Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to preserve the Grand Canyon because a hostile Congress wouldn’t let him do it any other way. When Wyoming’s Grand Teton became a national monument, a senator called it “a foul, sneaking Pearl Harbor blow.” Even famously green Northern California could be divided. When President Kennedy proposed Point Reyes National Seashore, one Marin County newspaper ran an op-ed entitled: “Pt. Reyes Seashore? No!” Some opposition was economic—Wyoming ranchers and Marin County dairy farmers worried about losing their livelihoods. Some of it was, and is, Western anger at being bossed around by a federal government based 3,000 miles away. 

Sunset magazine has been a big part of the national park story in the West—both the anger and the admiration. The cover of our first issue, May 1898, promised to introduce readers to Yosemite. From that month to today, we’ve explored the West’s parks frequently and passionately. Often we told readers how to get the most out of Bryce Canyon or Glacier or Haleakala. But we also worked to protect parks. We lobbied for the creation of California’s Redwood National Park and Washington’s North Cascades. We warned about threats from smog and neglect. Other more purely environmental publications were louder, sure, but we told ourselves—and I think it’s true—that when you want to persuade people to agree with you, it’s not always good to scream. 

Still, we’ve done enough over the years to generate thousands of angry letters and emails. Once, when I was accompanying former Sunset travel editor and environmentalist Martin Litton on a trip, we actually generated hisses from two tables of angry diners at a Sierra Nevada cafe. Litton—craggy, white-bearded, highly recognizable—had spent years pushing for an expansion of Sequoia National Park, a crusade I was going to write about for the magazine. Our fellow diners didn’t approve of the plan. Or of us. There was nothing warm or lovable about the scene. 

I’ve been thinking about that lunch a lot this year. It was the first time in my life I ever felt like anybody’s enemy. It can be unsettling to be reminded that sometimes you need to fight for things you love. Do we want Kenai Fjords without glaciers? Do we want uranium tailings running into the Grand Canyon? If we don’t, what do we do about it?

Of the park-services employees who protested back in January, the Sierra Club’s Athan Manuel says, “It was really heartening. They were protecting the places that make America, America.” The national parks are what they are, in part, because Carleton Watkins lugged a heavy camera through the wilderness. To protect them now, how much weight are we willing to bear?