(As prepared for delivery –August 22, 2016)
A mountain sunrise, a towering waterfall, an icy glacier, a forested glade, a kaleidoscope of corals, boundless wildlife. These sights stir the soul, nourish our imaginations, and reaffirm our humanity.
They are increasingly rare outside of national parks. America’s national parks are one of our greatest gifts to the world. For 100 years, the parks’ guardians and stewards – the men and women of the National Park Service – have never flagged in their dedication to these sacred places.
The world’s first national park, America’s Yellowstone, was established in 1872. Shortly thereafter, Australia established Royal National Park in New South Wales in 1879. As in so much, the United States and Australia were pioneers in the conservation and preservation of our priceless national treasures – the natural landscapes that define and uplift us.
A love and appreciation of nature’s grandeur is part of what it means to be human. Australians cannot be parted from your “sunburnt country” of “sweeping plains [and] ragged mountain ranges” any more than we Americans can be separated from our “purple mountain majesties.”
In my three years in Australia, I have had the great privilege to visit many of your national parks – Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, and of course Uluru. These landscapes inspire the same awe, the same sense of majesty – they hold the same mysterious allure – as my favorite U.S. national parks.
By virtue of their largely unchanged landscapes, national parks have the power to transport us to the past. I live that history whenever I visit America’s parks. Let me tell you about my three favorite parks.
My earliest memory of a national park is Fort Raleigh in North Carolina. This is the site of Roanoke, the first English colony in North America. A rough start for what would become the United States of America. The people of Roanoke disappeared, and it is now referred to as the “lost colony.”
Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska is America’s largest national park. At 13.2 million acres, it is larger than Switzerland and six times larger than Yellowstone. Nine of the 16 tallest mountain peaks in the United States are in this park – four are above 16,000 feet. Nature is in charge here, and it does not defer to rank or title. Australia is not the only country to lose a politician to the forces of nature. In 1972, a small airplane carrying U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and Alaska congressman Nick Begich was lost over Wrangell-St. Elias, never to be found. I remember dog sledding up a glacier in this amazing park – and enjoying quiet so deep – you could even hear the beat of a bald eagle’s wings as it flew overhead.
At Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia the waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers come together in an ancient and, picturesque landscape. It is here that abolitionist John Brown fired some of the first shots in the battle to end slavery in America, forecasting the great Civil War to come. I have visited this beautiful park almost every year I have been alive.
President Obama said it best: “[O]ur national parks reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us.” He made this statement in June when inaugurating the United States’ newest national park: The Stonewall National Monument in New York City. It is the site of the historic Stonewall Uprising in 1969, an event that sparked the modern LGBT civil rights movement in the United States.
Here in Australia, in places like Uluru and Kakadu and countless others, the landscape is the living embodiment of Indigenous history and culture. For millennia, Indigenous Australians have served as caretakers of their natural world. A role also played by Native American communities in the United States. It is a role we would all do well to emulate.
To borrow words from America’s conservation president, Theodore Roosevelt: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. […] Keep it for your children [and] your children’s children.”
Our national parks are also critical to safeguarding biodiversity and key to the conservation and rehabilitation of endangered and threatened species – from the grey wolf in the United States to the Tasmanian devil here in Australia.
Protecting these treasures helps ensure that our children and our grandchildren experience the beauty of our national parks as an immersive adventure – places for running, reflecting, climbing, exploring, and learning – not just as museum exhibits or pictures in a book.
Films as glorious as the one we are about to watch cannot truly capture the splendor of our natural world. This weekend, I encourage all of you, as the filmmakers themselves urge, to go out and “discover the wild places that belong to us all.”
It is up to all of us to preserve these places for our posterity. In doing so, we rise to the standard established long ago by the citizens of Athens – who took an oath to leave their city – their world – not only, not less, but richer, more beautiful, and more abundant than that which they were given. Thank you and enjoy the film!