Sometimes I despair of the federal government. For example, when it launches aggressive wars. Or when it murders, tortures, disappears, or abducts people in the name of its citizens. Or spies on its citizens. Or becomes weighted down by special interest money to the point that it looks incapable of taking on any significant social or economic projects for the good of the public.
But then I spent Monday doing research at the National Parks Service Office of International Affairs. The office is a small one—in terms of size and personnel—but its staff had nonetheless fielded my e-mail request about looking at their documents and, when I showed up, turned over their conference room to me, piled up documents on the table, and pointed me to the library in case I needed more.
The U.S. model of National Parks was hugely influential across the world, and other nations emulated what has been referred to as our country’s “best idea”. This was particularly the case in the aftermath of the Second World War, when countries across Asia and Africa were gaining their independence from European colonisers. This transitory period is what drew my interest, as part of my work is on documenting the fate of National Parks in East and South-Central Africa after the end of colonial rule.
My time in the office was all-too brief, but when I left, it was not only with some useful historical material. It was also with happiness about the good work that so many small, unheralded offices like this one do every day. Under constant threat of budget reductions, public servants offer technical and managerial expertise. During the period I study, the new heads of many of Africa’s national parks toured USNPS facilities. They marvelled at Yellowstone, wrote glowing reviews of training sessions, and took home ideas about how to make their parks—developed by Europeans as exclusionary, colonial spaces—into the “people’s playgrounds” that existed in the United States.
Offices like this one which promote appreciation for our natural world, mutual understanding, and international cooperation seldom make the news both because of their small size and the comparatively uncontroversial nature of their work. But it is heartening to remember that they exist, and that they are a part of that other, more hopeful set of endeavours carried out by our government in our name.And I personally couldn’t have asked for more attentive hosts, who were kind enough to join me for lunch, offering insights and suggestions and contacts against the backdrop of a map of our country’s National Parks and our efforts in the service of conservation abroad. It was a research day every bit as invigorating as the icy air of the “polar vortex” which awaited me as I bid them a farewell at the end of the day.