Thursday, October 01, 2009

The National Parks in Maryland

By Marc Korman.

As PBS began airing a new Ken Burns’ documentary about the National Parks, the Washington Post decided to pick on one of the lesser known National Park units here in Maryland. The article was a disservice to National Park sites in Maryland and around the country.

When we think of National Parks, we usually think of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other wide open, primarily western landscapes. Burns’ new documentary deservedly focuses on these impressive parks. But they are a small part of the almost 400 units in the National Park System. The National Mall is part of the park system, as is Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania, Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York, and a Cold War missile silo in South Dakota. These sites and many more fall into more than ten different categories that make up the park system including monuments, preserves, historic sites, battlefields, seashores, and trails. It would have been helpful if Burns had helped expose more Americans to the diversity of the National Park System.

In Maryland, there are technically twenty-four national park units, including sections of several parkways and trails. The Washington Post chose to highlight Thomas Stone National Historic Site in their piece, without even mentioning the many other park sites in the area. The Post’s major points seemed to be that no one knows who Stone is, people do not visit the Historic Site, and the Parks have drifted away from their core purpose of expansive landscapes in favor of historic and cultural sites. I have not visited the Stone site, but preserving the home of a signatory to the Declaration of Independence certainly seems in keeping with the purpose of the National Parks. Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia tells the story of the Declaration itself. The Stone Site, as well as other park sites honoring Thomas Jefferson (VA), John Adams (MA), Thomas Nelson, Jr. (VA), and William Floyd (NY), focus on the personalities behind the signatures. Despite the low rate of visitors or name ID of Stone, that seems like a worthy topic.

Many other Park sites in Maryland are far more popular. The C&O Canal National Historical Park is the one I have visited the most, and have written about at MPW previously. As many Marylanders know, the canal was saved from conversion to a highway thanks to the leadership of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where the Star Spangled Banner was born during the War of 1812, is another famous Maryland site. As the Post was disparaging one historic site in Maryland, Chris Van Hollen was hosting his annual event at another, the Glen Echo Park. Glen Echo represents a once popular type of urban amusement park where young and old alike can still ride a carousel that dates back to 1921.

There are many other great parks just a drive away, including Shenandoah, where my wife likes to take me when she gets tired of the Billy Goat Trail in C&O, numerous historic sites in DC, and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina if you are a bit more ambitious.

As PBS airs Ken Burns’ documentary, we should all prove the Washington Post wrong in its negative assessment of the broader park system. Whether you are looking for nature, history, or culture, the National Park System has a nearby unit for you to visit. Go visit some of them, you will not be disappointed.