Revisiting America’s Best Idea: Obama’s Park Legacy

This article is part of our ongoing “Revisiting America’s Best Idea” series. In this piece Tom Warwick examines the impact President Obama has had on the parks during his time in office. You can read the series’ introduction post here, and the first piece of the series here.


Tom Warwick

“I still remember traveling up to Yellowstone National Park, coming over a hill, and suddenly seeing just hundreds of deer and bison for the very first time….That’s something I wanted my daughters to understand when I brought them back to the very same spot at Yellowstone a few years ago. It’s something I want to preserve for our kids, grandkids, and generations to come.” -President Obama

Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, I tuned in Tuesday night to watch President Obama deliver his Farewell Address.  The President’s speech, in addition to making me shed a single manly tear, addressed the challenges we can expect to face in the coming years and touched on some of the accomplishments that will ultimately become consolidated into history as the Obama legacy. Among these issues, unsurprisingly, were: the creation of the Affordable Care Act, the mission against Osama Bin Laden, record job growth, and the expansion of marriage equality.  Missing from his speech however, was mention of one of his largest tangible contributions to the future of the country, his massive expansions to our National Parks System. President Obama has used the executive powers of his bully pulpit to build an impressive, if not highly publicized, collection of conservation achievements. In his eight years, the President has managed to place an enormous amount of federal land under protection, taken steps to instill the importance of conservation into a new generation of Americans, and has helped to reinvent the image of the National Park System, reinvigorating it and making it more representative of our entire nation.

Since he took office in 2009, President Obama has placed more land under federal protection than any of his predecessors and, as of Friday, has officially created more National Monuments than any other President, including the ol’ Bull Moose himself, Teddy Roosevelt. While the numbers on their own are impressive, the importance of these acts goes even further than simple quantitative reasoning, they represent shots fired in the war on global climate change, and they represent a single President’s sincere desire to do all he can to protect our planet. In 2010, with the Republicans regaining control of the House of Representatives, the President’s climate priorities suddenly were met with a major road block.  With many members of Congress refusing to even acknowledge the existence of climate change, let alone do something about it, President Obama needed to call an audible. In the spirit of TR, the President turned to executive action as his main weapon against climate change, using his authority under the Antiquities Act to move his agenda forward. By placing areas like the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument under federal protection, the President has ensured that essential ecosystems currently in danger of disappearing will endure for the enjoyment of future generations of citizens and for the study of future generations of scientists. By placing this land under federal protection, he is taking a giant leap for for conservation of the planet on behalf of all Americans, and has crafted a legacy, largely unseen, but rivaling that of the original Conservation President.

While the preservation of so much land and water would be impressive on its own, President Obama has gone even further than merely expanding the size of the National Parks. He has also helped to redefine their focus.  One of the most common complaints leveled against the National Parks have been that they are utilized primarily by older white middle class Americans. Last year, while the parks attracted a record 293.8 million visitors, less than a quarter of those visitors were minorities. While there are a number of theories as to the lack of minority interest in the parks, the most frequently cited explanation is that the stories told by our parks do not represent the contributions made by  African-American, Latinx, Asian and Native American explorers and adventurers. President Obama has taken steps to try and fix this problem by establishing parks and monuments that that do exactly that. As recently as Friday, President Obama has used the authority given to him under the Antiquities Act to preserve areas like the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Stonewall Inn, and Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement Headquarters. Each of these locations, and the others like them, help to communicate stories of America that have been largely ignored or unknown. Their monumentalization helps better fulfill the mission of the parks by making the Parks System more representative and reflective of the country as a whole.  

In addition to helping to expand the appeal of the parks across demographic lines, President Obama has also taken steps to help expand the appeal of the Parks System across generational lines through the “Every Kid in a Park” program.  The program is based off of the realization that many kids don’t visit the parks because they can’t get there easily.  As a result, the Department of Interior has worked to help schools and families arrange field trips and visits by providing trip-planning tools and helping to cover transportation costs of field trips for schools with the greatest financial need.  Additionally, the DOI has arranged for every fourth-grader in the nation to receive an “Every Kid in a Park” pass that will grant free admission to all of America’s federal lands and waters for a full year. The hope is that by exposing America’s youth to the parks at a young age, that we can instill in them  an appreciation for the natural beauty of the country and that they will continue to visit and advocate for these parks, and carry our nation’s rich tradition of conservation onward into the future.

It is unlikely that twenty years from now President Obama will be remembered for his National Parks policies.  Regardless, his actions have ensured that the principles behind the park service — the idea that our natural and cultural resources should be preserved for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations — continue on. #ThanksObama.


You can read the next post in the series here.

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