In majesty of national parks, an argument for collective action

Those who oppose government forget the great things it can accomplish

August 09, 2011|By Thomas F. Schaller

CHATHAM, Mass — .—Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy signed legislation creating the Cape Cod National Seashore, which protects a 44,000-acre stretch of land across six towns ranging from the northernmost tip of Provincetown some 40 miles south to include the barrier beaches and coastline here in sleepy Chatham, situated at the Cape's "elbow."

With the benefit of a half-century's hindsight, the creation of the National Seashore seems a remarkable achievement. This is most obviously true for the Cape, its residents and the millions of people who come here every summer to swim, sail, fish or just relax in the sand with a book and a cold drink.

But the 50th anniversary is also cause to celebrate a more meaningful story, one that matters even to Americans who have never set foot on Cape Cod. It's a story about foresight and preservation — and, yes, democratic government at its best.

Before discussing that, and without getting too maudlin here, consider the wondrous physical beauty of the United States. I've had the good fortune to visit about 30 other countries, and all but a half-dozen of America's 50 states. What those travels taught me is that, in terms of sheer geographic beauty and breadth, America has it all.

We don't have the planet's largest river, but we have the mighty Mississippi. We can't claim the highest mountains or largest desert, but we have the Rockies and Alaska's Mt. McKinley, the Mojave and the Badlands of South Dakota. Australia boasts the Great Barrier Reef, but as a scuba diver I can assure you the views in the Florida Keys 40 feet underwater are as spectacular as from dry land above. The rocky cliffs of Maine's Acadia National Park and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon are different, but equally breathtaking.

OK, so it did get a bit maudlin there, but you get my point: We are blessed to live in a country so chock full of awe-inspiring physical treasures.

But what nature created we, as a nation, had to protect and cherish. And starting with Yellowstone National Park in 1872, we have done just that: We have set aside the lands, but also dedicated the resources to safeguard and promote these spaces as national parks and recreation areas.

For the Cape Cod National Seashore, preservation means protecting lands that paid witness not only to many a great beach party or boating trip, but also some key moments in American history.

Prior to the advent of GPS technologies and the building of the Cape Cod Canal to allow ships traveling between Boston and New York to avoid the treacherous waters of the Outer Cape, so many ships ran aground here that in the 1870s the federal government created on Cape Cod the U.S. Life Saving Service — the forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard. And on the cliffs of Wellfleet, the cell phone age began in 1903 when a tower built by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first two-way, wireless trans-Atlantic messages, between President Theodore Roosevelt and Britain's King Edward VII.

"The full story of the [National Seashore's] creation is a remarkable one," writes Steve Desroches, in a recent Provincetown Magazine essay commemorating the 50th anniversary. "In our present political age, gridlock and standoffs seem to be more the norm, and not just on a federal level. For six towns on Cape Cod to work with the federal government to protect a national treasure is an accomplishment that presently could not be replicated."

Among our political disagreements — Bill Clinton's impeachment, the Bush-Gore recount, the Iraq War, the recent debt ceiling fight — the battles to conserve our most sacred lands seem comparatively tame. We value private property in America, but most of us believe there are certain places that none should own so that all of us may enjoy them.

I'm tempted to say Mr. Desroches is wrong — that we can, in fact, replicate such feats. But I fear he is right. Worse, I fear we have forgotten that government itself, and our will as citizens to act collectively toward shared outcomes, is something to cherish and preserve for the future, too.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. Email: schaller67@gmail.com.

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