May 2015

The greatest gift

By David Feela

No other campers in sight, which partly explains why I could not figure out how the campground was arranged. Also dark, which added to the mystery. I was just a young man strapped for cash, arriving very late and intending to leave very, very early. A sandy patch of dry ground near a small stream made a perfect mattress. I listened to a trickle of water play like a harp until I fell asleep.

I’d been counting on a few rays of sunrise near daybreak to rouse me, not the sound of a nickering horse three feet from my ear. A stern male voice like old-time television’s Mr. Ed commanded me to climb out of my sleeping bag. I peeked outside and saw a mounted ranger staring down from his saddle at the bundle that was me. When I finally sat up he said, “You have failed at picking a campsite.”

How could I have failed? I slept very well.

He pointed with his outstretched arm toward a graveled area at least a hundred yards away, not anywhere near my sweet little stream. I promised to move at once. He told me he’d be back to see that I did. That’s when I rolled and packed my gear, grabbed my backpack, and executed my one and only great escape from a national park.

Of America’s 407 national-park units, over my span of 62 years I’ve visited only 77, though some more than once. Aside from that one time, I have dutifully stopped at every entrance station and paid my required user fee. The park in question was located in California, but I won’t get more specific for fear my Senior Pass might be revoked. To be offered approximately 84.4 million acres of America’s most treasured heritage for my last birthday – best gift ever.

Any U.S. citizen who reaches age 62 is permitted, for a one-time fee of $10, permanent free access to most of the park system’s facilities where user fees are typically required. I have worried for years that politicians would do away with the program before I reached my golden age.

In 2007, for example, administrators at the National Park Service decided on a change, ridding itself of the elegant name for its popular Golden Age Passport and adopting the generic term “Senior Pass,” by which the program is known today.

No big deal, you might think, but when I was in my 50s I was sure Congress would simply reduce the fees for seniors each time they entered a park. I can, after all, go to a thrift store and get a 10 percent senior discount on Tuesdays, eat at many restaurants off a senior menu, or qualify for a reduction on my property taxes. Perks for the elderly are nice, but they pale when compared with the privilege of receiving unobstructed access to our public lands.

Yellowstone achieved the status of becoming what is popularly acknowledged as America’s first national park as early as 1872. Later, the 1906 Antiquities Act granted presidents the power to set land aside in the public’s interest, to designate unique acreage for protection as, say, a national monument. Since then 16 presidents from both parties have exercised their authority to protect America’s heritage.

Partisan politics has pushed the current Republican-controlled House to pass legislation on to the Senate limiting the president’s authority to deposit exceptional cultural and natural beauty into the land bank for posterity. H.R.1459, if you haven’t heard about it – nicknamed the “no new parks” bill – is a politically charged measure, predicated on the notion that our current president is abusing his authority by designating culturally significant sites as national monuments, none of them especially large when compared to the acreage some of our former presidents have set aside.

To me it’s gratifying that our presidents, upon leaving office, have seen fit to endow the public with a sense of history too easily forgotten. Left up to business, the public would be gifted with acres of coal and oil fields, gravel pits and shopping strips. Wall Street’s insistence on unrestricted profit has already created an economic preserve for the wealthy, one that guarantees America’s purple mountain majesties will be replaced with acres of industrial and commercial parks.

I can’t help looking forward to the completion of every presidential term, hoping to be gifted with additional public land. As our nation ages we need more places for our expanding population, if only to see how America was, and still is, beautiful.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at