It was the best real estate deal in history. Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States for 2.1 cents an acre.
That vast Louisiana Territory ran west of the Mississippi River, from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, but France owned it. To make matters worse, when Napoleon regained the territory from Spain, he promised not to give or sell it to a third power.
American dreams of growth seemed to be lost. And Washington politicians were afraid Napoleon might prevent our use of the Mississippi River.
Jefferson bargained with the French, hoping to buy New Orleans, the key port in the territory on the Gulf of Mexico. Napoleon needed cash, so the United States paid $11,250,000 for 833,000 square miles of land.
The 1803 Louisiana Purchase included most of the land for the future states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado and Louisiana.
Lucky for us, explorers saw what was coming and promoted the idea of national parks. “Out thar in the Yellowstone,” Jim Bridger said, “thar’s a river that flows so fast it gets hot on the bottom.”
Congressmen listened to Bridger’s stories, and by the Act of March 1,1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Roosevelt headed west in 1883 to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison. That excursion was all it took for the young man from New York to change his thinking, and ultimately, the course of our nation. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests, oil, and gas are exhausted, when the soils have washed into the streams? “
Roosevelt saw our nation’s resources as something to protect and cherish. “It is also vandalism to wantonly destroy what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.”
He tried to protect the Grand Canyon from those who wanted to exploit it “for personal gain,” saying, “I ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it is now. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is.”
Teddy Roosevelt protected 230 million acres of public land. Then, in 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service for the “protection of the thirty-five national parks and monuments and those yet to be established.”
I’ve camped in national parks from Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, to Grand Canyon and Death Valley, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Mt Rainier and Crater Lake. I agree with the National Geographic Society that “they strengthen bodies, refresh minds, uplift spirit, and enrich leisure.”
These days, I feel there’s a pressing need for uplifted spirits and refreshed minds. And I believe protecting our National Parks and environmental resources is a perfect way to keep America great.
Mary Belk lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.