Why I want to be 'the Pat Patterson'

of National Parks 

I want to be just like Pat Patterson.


My interest was aroused when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson introduced him thus at the beginning of Episode 7 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey "You can't really tell (Clair) Pat Patterson's story without going all the way back to the time long before the Earth, our home was built, when the stars brought forth its substance."


 This young man  I met at the Grand Canyon National Park last month told me he just graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Miami, and wanted to see the canyon before going home to Grenada. With his degree in hospitality, I asked why he didn't get a job with the national parks. "There's a hospitality industry in the national parks?" he asked in amazement, though we were just steps away from one of the most famous hotels on earth - historic El Tovar.


Really? To my amazement, I learned that while trying to determine the age of our planet, this geochemist "geek" stumbled upon a substance that was being commonly used in society in the 1960s which was virtually invisible and yet threatened the life of every human being. Horrified, he made up his mind to put a stop to it. But to do so he had to overcome the public's lack of information:, the opposition of the powerful petroleum industry, and the "science" that insisted lead in gasoline had no proven effect on human health.


Thankfully, Patterson's tenacity paid off, and we've had the benefit of unleaded gasoline since 1974. Today we have zero tolerance for human exposure to lead as we know it causes grave health problems and severe learning disabilities.



 The historic El Tovar offers luxury lodging and amenities on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Several modestly-priced lodges are also available.


In contrast to Pat, our "discovery" is life affirming and eminently beneficial. The similarity is that the National Park System is virtually invisible to the growing majority, and some entrenched interests prefer that it remain so.


". . .If minorities do not like going to the parks, it is their loss. But, please don't let us be duped into thinking it is our loss. Many of us look to the parks as an escape from the problems caused by ethnic minorities. Please don't modify our parks to destroy our oasis. . . " wrote one of my fellow Floridians in 1994, responding to an article about the Park Service's efforts to provide more information to America's minority populations.


This week, April 19-27, 2014 is National Parks Week. Concurrently, a story broke this same week affirming  U.S No Longer an Actual Democracy with little apparent push back from the public. If Pat were around and focusing on this issue, he might see the suppression of information about our parks as just as much a danger to our country and people as lead was prior to the 1970s.


 Wouldn't you love to drive through Yellowstone National Park that's 11 times the size of New York City, watching bison, antelope, mountain goats, wolves and  bears in their natural environment, and return to the comfort of Old Faithful Inn at night?


The National Park System contains the places where significant events in our history took place such as the turning point in the American Revolution; the Women's Rights Movement; the Abolition Movement; the Civil War; the Civil Rights Movement; the Labor Movement and many other places that showcase our country's natural beauty, history and culture. They attract millions of multi-national visitors each year who come here to enjoy these assets and learn our story. Yet the growing majorities of Americans of African, Asian and Hispanic descent know little about them and feel unsure they'd be welcome or comfortable visiting them.


As a naturalized American who arrived at JFK Airport at age 28 with a seven-year-old daughter and $1 in my pocketbook, I can attest to the transformative power of our National Parks and the higher quality of life they allow you to live. Because I have stood in so many places where history happened, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to carry on the legacy of those who stood on the side of protecting human dignity and retaining a heritage for our descendants. The fact that today my countrymen and women could accept without protest the idea that we have become an "oligarchy" ruled by elites boggles my mind.


Queen Elizabeth, President Kennedy (and me and Frank!) have stayed at the gracious Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, within sight of El Capitan  and Half Dome, two of the most scenic natural wonders on earth. Ken Karst Photo.


As Pat saw the miasma of lead fumes corroding the bodies and minds of Americans in the 1950s and helped put a stop to it, today I am engaging you, my fellow Americans, to slough off the fog settling over our democracy by learning our country's history in our national parks. It will motivate you to care more and to see how big an investment has been made on our behalf, and that we have a responsibility to carry that forward.


The National Park System is utterly democratic, utterly egalitarian, and abounds in every state of the Union. It started out in the 1870s as "a pleasuring ground for the American people. . ." and persists today "for the benefit and enjoyment of this and future generations. . ." A $10 Pass gets you into every national park in the country for the rest of your life if you're 62 or older, and if you're younger it only costs $80 per year. Most units don't even have entrance fees.


I wish I had Michael deGrasse Tyson's platform to talk about our national parks, but I am encouraged that Pat Patterson succeeded with a lot less resources and technology. The movement towards our national parks and the Great American Outdoors is growing around the country. They're in the season finale of NBC's Parks and Recreation this Thursday, April 24 when Leslie Knope makes the nail-biting decision whether to join the National Park Service.


  "This one's for you!' wrote my friends at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens ( a unit of the National Park System)  as they shared this photo of young Marlene Reyes who visited the park over the weekend, showed off her multiple Junior Ranger badges and is hoping to visit Yellowstone this summer.


With many of us around the country working together, I look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future when I feel like Pat must have felt in the 1970s - where the faces I pass on the streets radiate with joy brought on from their relationship with nature and our national parks. Where our democracy is refreshed with the passion and pride brought on by the knowledge of what our ancestors went through to create the United States of America, and what we owe it to future generations to protect and pass on.


Can you be satisfied to do less?


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