“Where we stand determines what we see,” writes Edward Linenthal (p. 133) in one of this book’s twenty-three independently written chapters, each designed to inform the interested layperson about a different facet of the National Park Service’s 400-plus units, 84 million acres, and 150 million museum objects. Standing in the national parks, the reader will see a Park Service with a long and rich, although hardly unblemished, history as the caretaker of the nation’s shrines—of wilderness, of recreation, of history itself, of democracy. This book is a labor of love, a celebration of “the American experience expressed in place” (p. 3) and an invitation to both appreciate the national park system and help shepherd it into the future. But it is not blind love. The twenty-eight essayists, mostly NPS affiliates or scholars, ask difficult questions: Is nature static or dynamic? Will preservation of biodiversity in national parklands require extensive “meddling” (p. 265) in the face of rapid human-caused climate change? How has the NPS failed to accommodate and honor Native people, and what are the appropriate steps forward? How does NPS negotiate the razor’s edge of presenting Civil War and civil rights landscapes in a manner incorporating solid scholarship at odds with public memory? Equal parts essay collection, travel guide, and coffee table centerpiece, the book will appeal to multiple audiences. A tightly argued and persuasive introduction and conclusion, along with clear and frequent signposting, ensure that a coherent narrative arc spans a wealth of contributors and chapters. Each essay explores a different theme, concluding with examples designed to showcase a few parks that embody the chapter’s focus. The approach neatly accomplishes the goal of introducing complex topics such as the difficulty of preserving biodiversity in a changing climate or managing the park system’s enormous museum and archival collection, exhorting the reader to both learn and take action, and inspiring the urge to get outside right now and visit a national park. A plethora of high-quality color photos and salient quotes in the margins every few pages along with a comprehensive list of “Sources and Resources” including mobile applications (p. 289) make this book as easily skimmed as it is devoured. The emphasis on the richness and complexity of the national park system is invaluable. While monumental scenery receives full recognition, and is rightly cited as the raison d’être behind the national park idea, at least half the contributors focus on the two-thirds (!) of park units east of the Mississippi River and near or in urban areas. The strongest narrative overtones evoke Franklin Roosevelt, Archibald MacLeish, and the inseparability of national parks and democracy. Indeed, for historians Dwight Pitcaithley and Edward Linenthal, the park system’s real strength lies in its duty to interpret difficult problems in American history, from the Civil War to Japanese internment to the Sand Creek massacre. Perhaps the book’s greatest success is its contributors’ ability to take such a tremendous diversity of national park units and present them as a unified whole working to represent the range of American culture, history, landscape, and biodiversity, with no one part less important than the others. National parks are essential to the maintenance of biodiversity, respect for the world and its inhabitants, and ultimately, the authors firmly believe, American democracy. Consequently, parks must adapt to changing social, political, and climatic conditions and must, as Melia Lane-Kamahele writes in one of the most powerful chapters, employ indigenous worldviews alongside traditional NPS approaches to achieve “binocularity,” a sort of convergence on a single point from two different views. One significant issue escapes notice, perhaps due to timing. The National Park Service holds approximately a seventh of all federal lands. And yet public lands controversies, so relevant only a year after the book was released, receive the barest of mentions, despite a clear willingness to engage tough themes. Overall, the “great public commons” (p. 262) has a powerful advocate in this book. It is a welcome, insightful, and richly varied contribution to the literature on the national parks. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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