Park Passage

The president’s new plan to get kids into national parks (for free!) is awesome. Here’s why.

Glacier National Park
Credit: Photo: Tom Bricker

Listen up, parents.

The president of the United States of America has just launched a program to give the country’s fourth-graders and their families free access to the National Park System for an entire school year. The initiative, called Every Kid in a Park, celebrates the 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016.

I know what you’re thinking: Thanks, Obama, but what we really wanted was tickets to Disneyland.

But I’m with the president here. Kids today need more time in the woods (or desert or prairie, or whatever they’re into).

Myriad studies show that nature is good for our health. Playing outside has been linked to reduced obesity, higher vitamin D levels, better distance vision, and higher scores on standardized tests. Greenery has also been shown to relieve stress and improve mood.

But what science has yet to quantify is how many times you’ll be able to tell the story about that time you picked a leech off your leg. Or what it was like to camp next to a lake in the full throes of mosquito-hatching season. Or how little you feel next to a redwood. Or how quiet it gets when you’re standing between a mama bear and her cubs (not recommended).

Once upon a time, when I was 24, the National Park Service taught me how to set a boar trap, handed me keys to a truck and a .357 revolver, and set me loose in the biggest block of wilderness east of the Mississippi. (There was also lots of paperwork, training, and vetting by the Student Conservation Association, but we can leave that out of the movie montage.)

My mission: Protect the biodiversity of the Great Smoky Mountains by killing as many invasive wild hogs as possible.

Wild pigs are basically sentient rototillers. They plow through topsoil and creek beds, eating everything in sight. The Smokies are home to quite a few species that only exist in the Smokies, animals like the red-cheeked salamander and Jones’ middle-toothed land snail that live on the ground, well within pig gobbling range. Wild boar, on the other hand, are an invasive species introduced in the early 1900s by sportsmen—hence, the eradication program.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Credit: Photo: Miguel.v

The season I spent in the Smokies was glorious. All the beer weight I’d gained in college melted off as I hoofed mile after mile each day to check, set, and reset traps. I tangoed with wild turkeys and squirrels, which would abscond with my boar bait and trigger my traps. I shot pigs and took blood samples to test for diseases that might be passed to livestock. I read Edward Abbey, grew a big, ugly beard, and howled at the moon.

But most of all, I fell in love with the wild, by way of the National Park System.

Of course, you don’t have to volunteer to kill pigs (it’s not for everybody) to come away from a national park trip changed. You can do it in a weekend, or, if you’re really strapped, a single day. Each national park is different, but they all have something awesome to offer.

I’ve spied a mountain lion slinking out of sight in the Badlands of South Dakota, slept beside a driftwood fire at Washington’s Shi Shi Beach, and snowshoed after fresh bobcat tracks in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado—all for much less money than a day pass to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

And you can, too. You may not realize it, but no matter where you are, there’s probably a piece of park not far off. I grew up in Acme, Pennsylvania, thinking all our national parks were out West and a world away. I’d never even heard of the Smokies, though they were about equidistant to all the beaches my family and I trucked to every other summer.

So get out there and let a crayfish pinch your daughter’s thumb. Put a spider on your son’s neck. Let them get poison ivy in all the worst places, scrape their knees while climbing trees, and hit each other in the eye while skipping rocks. It won’t kill them—but it will probably make them better citizens of this world.

In order for kids to care about the birds and the bees and the truffala trees, they have to first develop a personal connection with them. And that’s tough to do if nature is something you only experience when your science teacher pops in the Planet Earth DVDs.

There are 59 national parks in the United States, covering almost 52 million acres. Some are little more than a single historical landmark, while others are larger than entire states. (The Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska is bigger than Maryland.) There’s even a website to help you Find Your Park.

Parents, Obama is doing you a solid here. Take the dude up on it. The rivers and rocks and woods are good for us. And the kids who care about such things are good for the country—and all its glory.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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