At 250 feet, Temple IV of the ancient Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala was the tallest building in the Americas before skyscrapers arose in the late 1800s. The ancient city is intertwined with a verdant rainforest that gives it an unearthly beauty, so much so that “Star Wars” Episode IV used it as the backdrop for the landing of the Millennium Falcon at the rebel base.
Anything but unearthly, Tikal is the embodiment of national parks in the Anthropocene, or the period during which human activity has become a dominant influence on climate and the environment. More importantly, this national park of Guatemala and UNESCO World Heritage site is a global manifestation of the American act that created the National Park System 100 years ago this week.
What more can we say about the American national parks beyond Wallace Stegner’s phrase: “the best idea we ever had”? A lot. This idea grew from the urge to preserve and conserve nature started by scientific explorers like Alexander von Humboldt who influenced artists and writers like John Muir who in turn influenced politicians like Theodore Roosevelt.
Today, the U.S. has 59 national parks that together are larger than the entire Maya world. Our national parks have in turn inspired the creation of thousands of parks and World Heritage sites around the globe. In fact, at least 100 countries now have national parks.
One of the imperfections of the overall movement to establish national parks was the notion of wilderness – that with these parks we are preserving something untouched by humanity and that we could preserve this virginity into the future. But scientists have long known that human impacts have muddied the notion of virgin wilderness. Today, we increasingly use the term Anthropocene for the Earth’s not so recent history.
For example, a good part of what American explorers called wilderness stripped of human impacts had previously been populated and farmed landscapes. Old World diseases had devastated native populations and ushered in the return of forests that explorers several generations later called wilderness.
We still do not know the extent of these lost peoples and their humanized landscapes, but the more we look, the more our wild lands and national parks show a long-term hand of humanity.
This goes as well for our national parks in places we once thought were wild extremes. Places we now strive to explore: the rainforests of the Amazon that hide cities and farms, of Southeast Asia that surround iconic ruins like Angkor Wat, and of Central America where hundreds of cities are now part and parcel of the Maya forest.
Once thought inimical to civilization, these tropical lands were homes to civilizations and intensive farming systems that flourished for hundreds of years against droughts, sea level rise, and countless other hazards.
Some may fear that the general knowledge that wild lands were once tamer may provide arguments for more human degradation. But this notion only makes these lands more precious to humanity because they represent the deep interweaving of natural and human history in living museums.
Some, like the Maya buildings with their words carved into stones, are also national libraries where researchers uncover once lost writings every year. Our global parks, planted by America’s best idea, represent the mindboggling, rich ecosystems of millions of species and their habitats and niches. Many also represent lost human histories.
More of these parks may provide answers to the most vexing problems of human interactions with nature to come, such as effective adaptations to past droughts, sea level rise and hurricanes. The scientific value of these parks alone should be reason to celebrate 100 years. They can act like a road map for humanity again in the crosshairs of myriad climate changes. We should all celebrate the first century of the national parks for their beauty, scientific value and increasingly rich history of human interactions with the wild.
Tim Beach is Centennial Professor of Geography and the Environment at The University of Texas at Austin.
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