On the surface, you wouldn’t think that Abraham Lincoln was a generally happy man, given all that was on his plate as U.S. president from 1861-65. Yet even in the midst of The Civil War, Lincoln retained a glimmer of hope for the eventual reunification of the United States of America. Lincoln envisioned things that would help heal and bring people back together following the bloody conflict. some of them seeds eventually leading to the birth of our first national parks.
In 1864, Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant into law, the first legislation setting aside land for preservation and the public’s enjoyment and use. It also protected the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove of sequoia trees, at that time one of the largest unlogged stands of this species remaining in California.
In the decade following Lincoln’s assassination and The Civil War, President Grant established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872. Some years later, after the U.S. frontier was officially declared a done deal, Yosemite and neighboring Sequoia national parks were created under President Benjamin Harrison in 1890.
In 1903 President Teddy Roosevelt traveled and camped in Yosemite with conservationist John Muir. They had lengthy spirited conversations about the future importance of America’s remaining wild places as they camped under the stars, and upon Roosevelt’s return to Washington he expanded Yosemite’s boundaries to reflect its current size of over 1100 square miles.
Roosevelt created a slew of new national park and monument designations from 1901 to 1909. Establishment of the National Park Service shortly followed in 1916, creating a federal agency charged with protecting and managing the rapidly growing number of national parks. It was woefully underfunded and understaffed at its inception, and in 2020 the trend continues as the N.P.S. strives to manage and protect a staggering 420 national park units.
Who knows what Abraham Lincoln’s take would be on the state of our union today. His recognition of nature’s enduring value and power to bring forth the better angels of our human nature inspire me to believe that all is not nor ever lost. Doing what we can today to remain hopeful and continue taking inspired action is most crucial.
When we step back and allow ourselves a more detached view of humanity’s time on earth, we more clearly see how we’ve been continually building upon the efforts and lives of others, many whose names will be forever lost to history and the ages.
Today, we’re also creating stories and legacies for others. I hope future generations will thank us for what we did for the greater good of all, rather than ruing us for allowing selfishness, greed and short-sightedness to trash the planet and their future.
As we honor Yellowstone turning 148 this March and the 50th official Earth Day in April, let’s redouble our efforts to protect and preserve special places, alongside our air, waters, soil and environment. We are the only species that consciously and unconsciously trashes our planet, whether it’s through environmental destruction, war, violence and other means.
There is no Planet B to move to for anyone- maybe that’s what Lincoln recognized and felt on a palpable level. It’s up to us and our nature to nurture and safeguard this thread, this connection, this fragile miraculous lifeline we maintain with the natural world.