“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” — Wallace Stegner, 1983
The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial this year and is ready to move into its next 100 years by restoring its crown jewels and also embracing new parks and a diverse range of visitors. At the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, NPS and the National Register of Historic Places: Landscape Initiative said, the service must “maintain natural, community, historic, and cultural elements” while upholding standards of excellence far into the future. The NPS now boasts of 412 units, including vast tracts of wilderness, important cultural institutions, monuments, and historic landscapes.
Susan Olmsted, ASLA, with Mithun explained efforts to restore one of the system’s jewels: the Mariposa Groves of giant sequoias in Yosemite. Her efforts are about “building resilience for this cherished place.” In the midst of one of the rarest ecologies in the world, there was a parking lot and a tram to accommodate all visitors. People were about to “love these trees to death.” Over a hundred years of fire suppression (natural fires were re-introduced in 1971) had also been a setback for the species. The health and well-being of the trees was put at the center of the restoration plan.
Places like these, which feed into the national imagination and “elevate the human spirit,” are some of the most important elements of the NPS experience. The Mariposa Grove is now on its way back to a healthy and long future and will re-open next summer.
The National Mall, as tapis vert, is in many ways the opposite of the Mariposa Groves at Yosemite, but is no less important to the national imagination as the soaring heights of the giant Sequoia. We gather there for inaugurations and to hear the rallying cry of leaders calling for civil rights. It is, in a sense, the front lawn for all Americans. But with 30 million visitors a year and over 3,000 officially-permitted uses, it was in need of rehabilitation.
Michael Stachowicz is the only turf management specialist on NPS’ staff, and recognizes the importance of keeping the Mall green and healthy. The rehabilitated lawn was “designed for modern use while keeping its historic character.” Millions of feet over many years had caused serious soil compaction, terrible drainage, and patchy green. His rehabilitation efforts included thoughtful grading, specially-grown sod from seed, drainage systems, stormwater cisterns, and engineered soils. His maintenance policy has moved from “damage repair to damage prevention.” He acknowledged sometimes the best thing you can do is ask people to “keep off the lawn.”
Phil Hendricks, ASLA, Robert Peccia & Associates, offered his experience in the creation of one of the newest units in the system: the Waco Mammoth National Monument, in Waco, Texas, as well as his restoration work at the Flamingo Visitor Center and Campground in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Both parks refer back to well documented NPS styles guidelines. The original “park rustic” design was applied to Waco Mammoth, and the Flamingo Resort was restored to mid-century “Mission 66” style, even down to a new coat of flamingo-pink paint.
The NPS seeks to embrace a broader constituency of visitors across its ever expanding urban and natural landscapes, cultural heritage sites, and monuments. With its increasing embrace of public-private partnerships, it’s also finding the funding to continue into its next century. This land is your land, go out and see it.