Editor's note: William Tweed, who ended his National Park Service career as the chief of interpretation and cultural resources for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks and now writes on parks and nature from his Sierra Nevada home, was spurred by President Obama's inauguration to reflect on another president's efforts to right the country's economic promise.
The events of this past week and the advent of a new government cannot help but take our minds back to other times in our history, particularly to 1933. It was in that winter, another troubled time in our national history, that Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency. As it does now, the United States in 1933 faced severe and unresolved economic problems. In response, the Roosevelt administration initiated a bold and controversial program of national work. Now, some 76 years later, it is worth looking backward to see what endures of that investment here in Tulare County.
I write this column from the perspective of being a longtime national park ranger. In that work, most of which occurred in the national parks of Central California, I was surrounded every day by the 1930s products of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
For more than a decade, for example, I worked in and around the national park campground at Lodgepole, still a popular summer destination for locals seeking a cool campsite in the heat of summer. In the vicinity of Lodgepole, the New Deal's works could not be missed. To this day, the campground's basic layout, its roads and bridges, its water and sewer systems, its comfort stations, even its amphitheater date from the 1930s.
Starting in the campground, the trail to Tokopah Falls reflected New Deal investment, as did the Generals Highway leading north to Grant Grove, a route opened to the public in 1935. Other local improvements included much of the Giant Forest trail system, the Pear lake Ski Hut, and the road, trail and electrical system at Crystal Cave. In other areas of the park, the story was much the same. Throughout the park, the New Deal built public-use facilities, support infrastructure such as ranger housing and maintenance facilities, and utility infrastructure
In succeeding decades all of these improvements have seen periodic maintenance work, but the New Deal roots of what we all use even today in the parks cannot be denied. More investment went into our national parks in a few years during the 1930s than during all the surrounding decades put together. All this work not only produced facilities of enduring value but also employed hundreds at a time of national economic distress. Now we face a similar time of national crisis and a similar moment of national opportunity. What better investment can we make as a people than insuring that our public lands receive the care they need and that facilities be available in our parks to sustain public enjoyment?
In coming weeks we will hear much debate about how much we should invest in our national future and where we should spend it. As that conversation progresses, I hope many will remember the enduring legacy of the investment made by our grandparent's generation in our public lands and how that investment still produces important benefits today.
William Tweed is a writer and historian who lives in the southern Sierra Nevada. He is working on a book about California's national parks and wilderness areas in the 21st century.