08/17/2010 08:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

National Treasures or American Wastelands, the Choice is Ours

The rough, white texture of the bark was still bright in the fading glow of sunset. I turned my head and gazed out over the valley to enjoy the last few moments of it bathed in golden light. Some of the greatest feats of humankind had been achieved since this wood had been stacked together...electricity, the automobile, telephones, antibiotics, the internet and landing on the moon to name a few. I closed my eyes and imagined this place as it must have been back when a Crow Indian warrior used it as a scouting point. At least that is what this teepee-like structure of large wooden branches and logs is thought to have been, a scouting post for Crow warriors watching over the valley for any enemy war parties. What anthropologists do know is it pre-dates 1872, a very special year. That year, President Ulysses S Grant, in a document roughly 26 lines long, founded the country's first National Park...Yellowstone, or as it was originally called The National Park of the Headwaters of the Yellowstone River.

The structure I was standing on was one of several dozen scattered throughout the park that are off the beaten path and rarely seen by tourists. I had come here for four days with Discovery Education to lead a group of youth leaders on an experience exploring this majestic place. Now I was standing at dusk in a wild meadow overlooking the valley at the main entrance of Yellowstone where the Roosevelt Arch stands proudly declaring to all visitors that the Park was "For the Benefit of Enjoyment of the People." President Theodore Roosevelt laid the first cornerstone of the Arch in 1903 and 13 years later Congress created the National Park Service which today presides over 392 federally protected areas of which 58 are designated as National Parks.

There is no question that in the last three and a half months we have experienced one of the greatest natural disasters in our nation's history. The oil spill in the Gulf has damaged both the environment and the communities that rely on it for years to come, destroying a natural treasure that is part of this country's heritage. Spending the last few days exploring Yellowstone reminded me of the other great natural places that exist in this country, treasures that we cannot afford to forget about. As the Superintendent of Yellowstone Park Suzanne Lewis explained to me, "National Parks embody the democratic principles of this country." She went on to explain that in the late 19th century the idea of land that belonged not to the elite or to the royal family but to all the people of a nation was a novelty; a novelty that expanded upon other freedoms such as that of religion and speech that we take for granted today but which were still revolutionary when the Park was founded just 7 years after the end of the Civil War.

Now, National Parks are as popular as ever with record breaking visitation. Unfortunately like so many other places, they are in peril. Indeed, the same problems that made the oil spill so much worse than it should have been...namely a lack of investment in science and conservation, are threatening our National Parks. Indeed, our Park system is plagued by a lack of funding. While budgets haven't traditionally been cut, the annual increases often don't even cover the rising cost of energy, effectively starving these natural wonders of the funds desperately needed to protect and restore them. Other challenges are threatening the parks as well. A familiar refrain I heard over and over from guides and rangers alike was the concern over the effects of an increasingly volatile climate. Warmer winters are causing the mountain pine beetles to survive the cold season in ever greater numbers decimating the forests ecosystems as they kill the trees. One tree in particular, the Whitebark Pine is being particularly hard hit and is disappearing with disastrous consequences for one of the West's most iconic animals...the Grizzly Bear. In a recent article written by former ranger Michael Leach in the Yellowstone Discovery Magazine, "of the numerous food sources that a Yellowstone Grizzly Bear keys in on each year, there is perhaps no single resource of greater importance than the seeds of the Whitebark Pine." Much of the rest of the ecosystem is seeing similar impacts.

Yellowstone is just one of the myriad treasures we are blessed with in this country and I hope that the terrible disaster that has and will plague the Gulf for many years reminds us of the need to protect our natural heritage and in so doing protect one of the greatest parts of who we are. The youth that I have spent the last few days with have enjoyed the fundamental right of all generations to gaze upon the wonders of nature in all its glory. The challenge before us is to ensure that all our children are given the same opportunity. In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt himself, "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value."