Martin van Buren National Historic Site Illustrates Pres. Obama's Challenges

Welcome to Day # 214 of our "365 Parks in 365 Days" adventure.


Today marks a milestone for our National Park System that I could never and would never have dreamed of - a point where selected units of our national parks will be managed differently than more than 390 others in the system. 


 So this iconic view of Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park may be accessible soon....


According to news reports yesterday,


"Ten days after a federal government deadlock shut down Utah's national parks, bleeding tourism-dependent businesses and towns, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert inked a deal late Thursday and wired funds to the Interior Department that should have park gates swinging open by Saturday morning. ....Herbert wrote to President Barack Obama earlier this week, offering state funding and asking the president for the 'keys to the gates.'  Thursday morning, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell spoke to Herbert by phone, expressing a willingness to consider the state's offer, sparking a scramble to hammer out the deal finalized Thursday evening."


....but you still won't be able to tour the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, a unit of the National Park System that so much money and effort has gone into restoring after it was hit by Hurricane Sandy. NPS Photo.


While everyone knows that I love our parks as much as life itself, I've always treasured the fact that every unit is treated the same. Clearly the iconic parks such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and those in Utah including Arches, Canyonlands and Zion have more cachet than some of the lesser known units, but the concept of them being treated so dramatically differently has never crossed my mind.


Now we're obviously at a new frontier, and while I completely understand the hardships that the shutdown has created in the lives of people who depend on the parks for their living, this selective treatment of a group of parks begs the question, "What about all the other parks and the disruption to the lives of hundreds of thousands of other  people who work for the federal government, including other parks, forests and wildlife refuges?"


At the NPCA gala last night honoring Mayor Bloomberg and former Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar for their visionary collaboration to improve Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City, I got an earful from some of my friends at Delaware North Parks & Resorts. They were furious about the impact of the lingering shutdown on their employees who, they pointed out, live paycheck to paycheck. While I was aghast at Utah, they said bluntly they'd welcome the reopening of the units where they serve, on the same basis.


Like President Obama, the eighth President of the United States inherited an empty treasury. Photo


Simultaneously, I'm hearing about a movement to defy the shutdown and "occupy parks" around the country. While this might sound like a desirable expression of patriotism and ownership of our national treasures, I shudder to think of the consequences. When the Park System is being managed by the dedicated men and women of the Park Service, I am secure in the level of care and respect that both the resources and the visitor get. In the "everyone for him/herself" mode now being contemplated, the depth of my uneasiness cannot be overstated.


I cannot help thinking that this could only happen because almost half of our population does not know the park story and the legacy they represent. What would be the result if every one of the 300 million visitors to the parks each year removed even one single thing? How can we guarantee that our parks will not be ill-used when individuals with varying agendas are using them in re-action against the government? If we thought seven generations ahead as some cultures do, we would appreciate the duty and obligation we have to protect our parks today.


Still, we are Americans and the majority carries - though based upon recent developments including the shutdown I am unsure that this is really still the case. The facts show the shutdown as a direct result of a minority seeking to strong arm the majority. I'm looking for a protest march to join this weekend.



 I can hardly wait to visit President van Buren's home, a National Historic Site, to get more insight into his life and thinking. Photo.


Talking with one of my heroes last nigh, a former Deputy Director of the National Park System, I reminded him how he sparked the idea for this "365" series. One a tour to one of the iconic parks just before last year's general elections, we were hiking together and talking about  current affairs when he mentioned that the only President facing the catastrophic economic conditions President Obama faced was Martin Van Buren in the late 1830s. Not knowing this story, it struck me how much our national parks and historic sites have to teach America, and told  him that we're missing the point if we don't bring these lessons from the parks to the fore.


I recalled the experience Frank and I had at Yellowstone in 1995 when we saw no people of color in the park and resolved that, "instead of complaining about the dark, we'd light a candle" and help integrate the parks. By January 1, 2013, the idea  for "365" emerged full blown and I have striven to live up to my commitment and take a tour of our parks every weekday, especially illustrating the connection between the past and contemporary events.


So naturally today we're off to the Martin van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York, which preserves the estate and 36-room mansion of this eighth President of the United States. Van Buren purchased the estate, which he named Lindenwald, in 1839 during his one term as President and it became his home and farm during his retirement.


According to the New Netherland Institute, which explorers America's Dutch Heritage, (born in America, President van Buren was of Dutch descent)


"Only two months after Van Buren's inauguration for the U.S. presidency, in May 1837, the American economy collapsed. During the Jackson presidency an order was issued that paper money could not be used to buy government lands. As a result of this order eastern banks were transferring massive amounts of specie [hard currency] to western banks because of demand for money fueled by the western expansion. As a result the eastern banks became short of capital and were unable to supply the demand for loans. As the economy started to collapse because of the shortage of capital, depositors started to withdraw their deposits causing a nationwide string of bank bankruptcies.


The town of Kinderhook proudly proclaims the site where President van Buren was born. Photo.


"The above situation caused the country to quickly sink into a deep economic depression, the worst ever. During this time period, of the country's 788 banks, 618 collapsed. Economics as a discipline was virtually non-existent, and the government had no idea of how to deal with the depression. As a result, unemployment was rampant, many businesses, including farms ended up in bankruptcy, and the people suffered.


"The new president, Van Buren, of course received most of the blame, although the previous administration was responsible for the depression because of its ill-advised directives. And the Van Buren administration was helpless to solve the problem. Fortunately, over time the economy corrected itself, but the damage to the Van Buren administration had been done.


"At the 1840 Democratic Party Convention to nominate the Party's candidate for the next four year presidential period, Van Buren received a simple majority for re-nomination. But the Democratic political machine could ignore the convention vote because Van Buren needed a two thirds majority and the political bosses refused to nominate Van Buren for the presidency.


"During Van Buren's presidency there were a few decisions he made that were troubling. Two of the decisions related to the American Indian problem. Against their will he completed the transfer of 20,000 Cherokees to Oklahoma in 1838. And in Florida he had 3500 of the 4000 Seminole Indians removed from the State of Florida as part of the Second Seminole War, a war which had caused 1500 casualties to U.S. forces.


"On the slavery issue, Van Buren had taken a negative stand on the abolition of slavery in the slave states, in order to keep the South and the North united. He was castigated on this decision by many northern abolitionists, particularly many from New York State. However, in 1848, unable to get the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, he ran as a third party candidate for the Free Soils Party. The party's main platform was the abolition of slavery. Van Buren was able to win 20 percent of the vote, a reasonable vote for a third party nominee. However, the time had arrived to exit and he ended his involvement in national politics. He was then 66 years old.


"Positive actions during Van Buren's presidency involved international actions. He was able to defuse two crises with Great Britain over border issues with Canada. He was also able to convince southerners to go slow in admitting Texas to the Union, so that a war with Mexico could be avoided. As a result of his actions as a president and his involvement in politics prior to his presidency, he is viewed as having been a successful president. The economic collapse was largely out of his control. Proper reaction to the depression required the application of specific economic principles which then were not yet known. . ."


Hmmm....the more things change, the more they remain the same? This story just begs for us to delve in and discover more. I am sure that if I'd been able to access the Park Service website I would find a more thoughtful treatment of the two seminal issues of abolition and the Trail of Tears, which underscores both the value of our Park System and the Park Service that manages it, and the tragedy of the current situation. Let's hope that by the time we return for Monday's tour (God willing) we will have far more positive developments to celebrate.   


 If you've missed any of our "365 Parks in 365 Days" adventures, find them here  (Archive) Pick up your indispensable copy of "Our True Nature" while you're on my website. If you don't have it, you can't know what you're missing....


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