It's July 4th! I hope you are enjoying your barbecues, the fireworks (if your towns aren't burning up in the wildfires), and the baseball games. The day celebrates our declaration of independence from Great Britain, and it means a lot of things to different people. The Declaration itself meant we were about to fight a war, and that is part of the meaning of independence, but what means even more to me is that a country was established with the intention of doing things differently than had ever been done before.
There was the concept of individual freedoms and rights, which through a long tortured history of more than two centuries have finally been granted to most, but not yet all of our citizens. We've fought wars to protect the freedoms of others, most notably the Second World War. We've led the world in technological advancements, including the first moon landing. There are many things to be proud of as Americans.
I hope you will give a moment's thought today to one of our greatest ideas of all: the idea of preserving the best of our natural wonders in a system of national parks and monuments. Before President Lincoln set aside Yosemite Valley in 1864 as a protected reserve, and before the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, no country had really given any thought to preserving the most spectacular landscapes within their borders.
But we did. We set aside somewhere around 160 national parks and monuments for ourselves and for future generations. We decided to preserve and protect these lands from the kinds of economic development that would spoil the essential nature of these landscapes. The idea has caught on, and now national parks and world heritage sites can be found across the planet.
Many of the parks are set aside because they are the ultimate expression of geological processes. Think of the geysers and volcanism at Yellowstone, the Colorado River and two billion years of sediments at Grand Canyon, the glacial valleys and granite outcrops of Yosemite. I take my students out there because these parks are among the best places to appreciate the long geologic history of our continent; we know that year to year, the outcrops that tell the story will not disappear under pavement or shopping centers.
There are many reasons that one can have pride for one's country. The national park system is one of the reasons I am proud of the United States of America. Our national parks have problems, and they are perennially underfunded, but they are there, and will be for a long time. They deserve our love, support and respect. Happy 4th of July!