What’s a Park For? Agriculture? In America? Really? — Darwin Kelsey

What’s a park for?  That’s an old question, newly explored by historian and environmental writer Mark Dowie in GUERNICA magazine (1/10/12) because of the controversy over allowing the cultivation of oysters inside Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco.

What is a park?  Think Yellowstone.  Think Central Park, in New York City.  Or the little park in your neighborhood – with the swings, picnic tables, and ball field your family uses so often.  Parks are human creations, intended to serve many purposes:  Sports, protecting plants, or wildlife, preserving a historical house….

In most of the world, especially in Europe, traditional food and farming are widely regarded as distinctive and defining features of any region’s history and culture.  It’s considered normal, desirable – even necessary – to protect traditional farms and farming in local, regional, and national parks.  Ten percent of the English landscape falls within the boundaries of a national park – and 90% of that is in agriculture.  Italy’s twenty-four national parks, encompassing over 7,000,000 acres, contain tens of thousands of small farms.

Not so in America.  We tend to think of parks as being for recreation or a different sort of protection.  Most of us haven’t yet equated farming with recreation…and most of us know of parks created to protect “valued” resources from agriculture.  The good news is that is beginning to change:  Food, as well as where and how it is grown, is slowly becoming associated with personal, community, and environmental health – not to mention economic health.

Parks and agriculture may be getting a fresh look in other ways as well.  A group of scientists, conservationists, and park managers will gather in Arizona this Spring to discuss the kinds of “ecosystem services” (pollination, genetic material, flood control, water filtration) parks and protected areas can contribute to the agricultural landscapes surrounding them.

As for us, here at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, in the months and years ahead we’ll be trying to get you used to the idea that CVNP  is the place to go to see (enjoy, volunteer at) some really interesting farms, the place to see real gardens you could R&D (rip off & duplicate) in suburbs (for pleasure and/or profit), and the place to learn how to cook that stuff coming out of your new gardens.  So, stay tuned for the next few years.  Really.

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