In honor of National Public Lands Day, a group of 20 staffers from The Wilderness Society headquarters in Washington D.C. worked side by side with members of the Rock Creek Conservancy on September 27. The crew pulled invasive species, including pernicious plants such as porcelain berry and English ivy, which threaten Rock Creek Park’s native deciduous trees.
“Thanks to the efforts of The Wilderness Society staff, we were able to finish removal of invasive English Ivy plants from trees in a popular section of the park,” says Alex Sanders, Program Manager for Rock Creek Conservancy. “Rock Creek Conservancy is grateful to The Wilderness Society for a job well done, and we hope to work with the Society again to revitalize Rock Creek Park.”
Right in the core of our nation’s capitol, the respite of Rock Creek Park attracts people of all ranks and races just yards from some of Washington D.C.’s main thoroughfares. An enchanting woodland etched by natural streams that form the Rock Creek watershed, the area was in fact among the first national parks designated in 1890, the same year as Yosemite.
In our increasingly urban nation, local green spaces like Rock Creek Park have never been more important to our bond with wilderness, says Paul Sanford, Senior Recreation Specialist at The Wilderness Society. “When people have experienced nature through their local parks, they are better able to connect with the wilderness further away, and they are inspired to protect that wilderness for future generations,” he reflects.
And yet our national parks are radically underfunded and subject to volatile politics. During the recent government shutdown, national parks were forced to close, park employees lost paychecks, and gateway communities missed millions of dollars in revenues.
If there is any bright side to situations that threaten our beautiful public lands, like the shutdown, it is that they cause us to consider what truly inspires us to protect wilderness. What does wilderness mean to us as individuals? Here at The Wilderness Society, we have been asking folks around the country this question.
For many folks, wilderness is much more than a legislated designation. For some, it brings out the poignancy of being human. “Memories of my [wilderness] experience have reminded me of the power of the wilderness and the power of me … and also of the fragility of the wilderness and the fragility of me," says Graham of Portland, Oregon.
As one interviewee in New York City remarked, “The definition of outdoors for me is limited to parks and city streets. Frederick Olmstead, the man who designed Central Park, was a genius. It's quite lovely and is an excellent substitute for the wilderness we've been discussing."
Our thousands of urban parks, green spaces, and national parks, serve as fundamental gateways for the places that The Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser spoke of when he wrote into the Wilderness Act nearly 50 years ago: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Zahniser envisioned a preservation system that would not just protect wild places but also preserve the identity of our nation. It is not just vacations at stake when a national park closes; it is our country’s character. Through places like Rock Creek Park—nestled at the heart of our governing structures—we are reminded of our innate resilience, our union with the wild, and our capacity for stewardship.