Find Your Park, Find Yourself

Cape Cod Times
Saturday, April 9, 2016
Cape Cod National Seashore

by Courtney Butler, SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador

Cape Cod is one of the most popular destinations in all of Massachusetts. People endure hours in their cars for a single moment on its shores. But how many of us really know this place?

Most visitors, and even many locals, are unaware of the Cape’s native Wampanoag culture. Or that the Mayflower landed here before its pilgrim passengers settled in Plymouth. Or that Henry David Thoreau routinely walked this 25-mile “bare and bended arm” of sand and authored numerous uplifting accounts of his journeys.

Even less recognized is that Cape Cod is changing. Regardless of when you came here last, it’s different now. Erosion claims up to 40 feet of oceanfront each year — sometimes half that in a single storm. The recent increase in the gray seal population is a source of entertainment for tourists, though folks seem less amused by the predatory great white sharks that have followed. And as global temperatures rise, birds that used to winter on the Cape are ranging farther north, and many species of plankton — a primary food source for many marine animals — are in disconcerting decline.

Still, one of the largest unknowns here on the state’s eastern tip is that we are home to a national park: Cape Cod National Seashore. I’m a volunteer ambassador with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national organization dedicated to building the next generation of conservation leaders. As the National Park Service gears up for its 100th anniversary later this year, there are “centennial volunteer ambassadors” like me at scores of parks across America, reaching out to local communities and beyond, and encouraging people to discover the histories, wonders and responsibilities of national parks.

Yes, I said “responsibilities.” National parks are public lands and you, me, all of us are “the public.” We own places like Cape Cod — sorry, no timeshares — and therefore have an obligation to see that they are valued and protected well into the future.

For me, that means volunteering to spread the word, organizing service projects, and keeping an eye out for endangered shorebirds. For others, however, it may start with seeing Cape Cod National Seashore in a whole new light.

The rich history of this land means no matter where you are from or where you are going, you will likely share a bond with almost everyone else. If not, just stand on a dune with the surging ocean to one side and the tranquil bay on the other, and you’ll see Cape Cod National Seashore as the middle ground that erases disparities and restores peace of mind.

Through SCA, I’ve found diversity within the national park system functions much the same way. But there is also cause for concern.

National parks have been called America’s best idea, but for many they are becoming an afterthought as modern life accelerates, ties to technology increase and people migrate to cities. Additionally, nearly 80 percent of park visitors are white, which means huge portions of the country’s richly diverse population enjoy no connection to national parks. And the numbers of young visitors have been sliding for years.

These trends are clearly unsustainable if the second century of national parks is to equal or exceed the first. Climate change offers a perfect example of what happens when we turn our backs on nature with no consideration of the consequences. This year’s National Park Service centennial offers all of us “deed holders” a perfect opportunity to stop acting like absentee landlords and explore the public lands we own.

The United States is home to more than 400 national parks, monuments, battlefields, memorials and historic sites in addition to Cape Cod National Seashore. These amazing places collectively represent a deep, common heritage that connects us in so many ways. And when you “find your park,” as the centennial slogan implores, you’ll find those bonds. You may even find yourself.

— Courtney Butler, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, is an intern at the Cape Cod National Seashore for the Student Conservation Association, for whom she wrote this essay.

See this column in the Cape Cod Times