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They made us do it

Long Story Short

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The cover story this week, starting here, details the struggle to make national parks more inclusive. And it focuses on parks in Colorado, including Mesa Verde National Park.

The first national park in Colorado, it was signed into existence in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, preserving Anasazi cliff dwellings that may date as far back as the Dark Ages in Europe. Mesa Verde, Roosevelt said, was our Machu Picchu.

He would have saved it sooner if he could have, but he had to contend with powerful Coloradans who seemed chiefly concerned with buying and selling and mining whatever they could get their hands on. There was silver in the area, and pot hunters were busy scavenging native artifacts to sell to European collectors.

Enter Virginia Donaghe McClurg, who had come to Colorado from New York, and Lucy Peabody, an Ohio native. Both women were Roosevelt Republicans, which is something like what we would call a progressive today. Odd ducks on that frontier, they campaigned for saving Mesa Verde, and steadily built support, convincing Coloradans that the past mattered more than a mess of pottage.

When people lobbied Roosevelt to do something controversial, he was known to tell them to make him do it. That's what Peabody and McClurg did.

Our parks could yet be more inclusive, but as often as not they were born of democratic struggles against economic interests. In just that way, they have always been enlightened.

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