President Obama and his family enjoyed and praised the beauty of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon during their recent whirlwind western tour.  And Douglas Brinkley has written a doorstopper celebrating TR’s role in creating our National Parks.
But it was RN’s Legacy of Parks program —officially announced thirty-eight years ago tomorrow, that gave the Park Service its late 20th Century legs and pioneered the Nixonian concept of bringing parks to places —especially urban places— where all people could enjoy them.

As a result of RN’s program, between 1971 and 1976, more than 80,000 acres of government property were converted to recreational use in 642 new parks.

PN launched the Legacy of Parks thirty-eight years ago today —on 18 August 1971— at the end of a four-day swing through several western states that ended on the US-Mexican border south of San Diego.

Pat Nixon at the border fence 1971

PN launches the Legacy of Parks at Imperial Beach, California, on 18 August 1971.  She officiated at the turning over of a 370-acre former naval base as Border Field State Park.

In Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, Julie Nixon Eisenhower described that scene:

Two years before [in the summer of 1969], my father had walked south on the beach in front of our house in San Clemente.  The wide expanse of sparkling clean sand was deserted, peopleless because the beach was the property of the gigantic marine base, Camp Pendleton, which adjoined my parents’ property.  It was then that he ordered an inquiry into the use of all federal land.  The result was the Legacy of Parks program, which eventually turned fifty thousand federal acres into parklands, benefiting all fifty states.

On that first Legacy of Parks trip, Mother presided as a $3.75 million, six-thousand-foot oceanfront military tract was turned over to the state of California at Border Field.  During the ceremony, hundreds of Mexicans stood behind a barbed-wire fence separating Mexico and the United States.  When it was my mother’s turn to speak, she asked that the barbed-wire fence be cut because there was no need for a fence that “separates the people of two such friendly nations.”  At the conclusion of the ceremony, she ignored the whispered protests of her Secret Service agents and crossed over the border, her entourage behind her.  The two peoples, many of the Mexicans barefooted, the Californians in cool, brightly colored summer clothes, mingled.  Some of the tiniest children wanted a good look at the First Lady.  When ABC correspondent Virginia Sherwood picked up one of the youngsters and turned to find Mrs. Nixon, she too was holding a child.  As she laughingly clasped hands and signed autographs, enjoying the moment, Pat Nixon was particularly aware on that day of the power and symbolism of being First Lady.

In March 1971, as a result of that early walk along the beach at La Casa Pacifica —the Nixons’new home in San Clemente— RN had announced his plans to open to the public three miles of the pristine beach that fronted or abutted his property (including the famous Trestles Beach that was considered to be some of the primo surfing territory on the West Coast). .   And, in effect, he dared Congress to deny him.  As he told reporters:

I am sending today to the Secretary of Defense a directive that he is to report to the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services that 6 miles of beach and 3,400 acres of upland, which presently are part of Camp Pendleton, will be declared excess and will become available for public use.

In the case of the beach property–and Mr. Ehrlichman will brief you later with regard to the technical details–in the case of the beach property, 3 miles of it will be available starting this Sunday, because there will be approximately a 30-day, and maybe a 45-day period, in which the two committees have an opportunity to veto the President’s declaration of the property being excess. If they do veto it, and I do not expect them to, that would mean that we would have to reconsider what we are doing.

But in that 30-day period, and particularly with the Easter vacation period coming up, we have arranged on a temporary basis to lease 3 miles of beach, the best beach, right in this area, so that starting Sunday all of the many people that like to go to the beach in the Easter vacation period will have 3 more miles of the best beach in the world to go to.

18 August 1971: While PN was in California, RN was at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, preparing the official announcement of his Legacy of Parks program.

The backstory to PN’s August event highlights the ambitious domestic goals and extraordinary accomplishments the administration set out and achieved in 1971.  In his 1971 State of the Union Message —delivered to a joint session of Congress on 22 January— RN described his goal regarding parks:

Building on the foundation laid in the 37-point program that I submitted to Congress last year, I will propose a strong new set of initiatives to clean up our air and water, to combat noise, and to preserve and restore our surroundings.

I will propose programs to make better use of our land, to encourage a balanced national growth–growth that will revitalize our rural heartland and enhance the quality of life in America.

And not only to meet today’s needs but to anticipate those of tomorrow, I will put forward the most extensive program ever proposed by a President of the United States to expand the Nation’s parks, recreation areas, open spaces, in a way that truly brings parks to the people where the people are. For only if we leave a legacy of parks will the next generation have parks to enjoy.

On 8 February, in his Special Message to Congress Proposing the 1971 Environmental Program, RN put some appropriations flesh on those legislative words:

Merely acquiring land for open space and recreation is not enough. We must bring parks to where the people are so that everyone has access to nearby recreational areas. In my budget for 1972, I have proposed a new “Legacy of Parks” program which will help States and local government provide parks and recreation areas, not just for today’s Americans but for tomorrow’s as well. Only if we set aside and develop such recreation areas now can we ensure that they will be available for future generations.

As part of this legacy, I have requested a $200 million appropriation to begin a new program for the acquisition and development of additional park lands in urban areas. To be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, this would include provision for facilities such as swimming pools to add to the use and enjoyment of these parks.

Also, I have recommended in my 1972 budget that the appropriation for the Land and Water Conservation Fund be increased to $380 million, permitting the continued acquisition of Federal parks and recreation areas as well as an expanded State grant program. However, because of the way in which these State grant funds were allocated over the past five years, a relatively small percentage has been used for the purchase and development of recreational facilities in and near urban areas. The allocation formula should be changed to ensure that more parks will be developed in and near our urban areas.

And on 19 August, at Grand Teton National Park, he issued a statement announcing the first fruits of his January proposal:

It has been estimated that some 75 percent of all outdoor recreation enjoyed by Americans takes place within a short distance of their homes. That is why I believe so strongly that we should be doing far more to bring our parks to the people. The Congress has thus far appropriated only $100 million for the HUD program.

Finally, I would point to my establishment of the Federal Property Review Board, which evaluates federally owned properties in order to determine whether they can be converted to park use. Close to 100 such properties have already been identified, and 24 of these, containing more than 5,000 acres, are now in the process of being conveyed by the Department of the Interior to local and State agencies. Mrs. Nixon has sought to encourage this important effort during her trip across the country this week.

Many of the properties which have been released under this program are within easy reach of our larger urban areas. To augment these efforts, we are also preparing a number of amendments to the Federal Income Tax Code which would facilitate charitable donations of property for conservation purposes. I hope to present these proposals to the Congress in the near future.

The combined effect of all these activities will be to provide that full range of outdoor experiences which our dynamic population requires. For some, this program will provide neighborhood parks in the city. For others, it will offer a pleasant setting for a weekend retreat, for an afternoon bike ride, or for a family vacation. For still others, it will provide the chance truly to escape into the wilderness.

I believe our Nation can afford to make these opportunities available. In fact, it is my view that we cannot afford not to provide them. For such a program can significantly enhance the quality of our Nation’s life and spirit–both now and for future generations.

It’s significant that the new President of the Nixon Foundation —Ron Walker— is the man RN chose to head the National Park Service in 1973.  The appointment of this valued staff member and long-time friend was an indication of the importance RN continued to place on his parks initiative.  (And it’s ironic that RN’s extensive biography on the National Park Service website doesn’t even mention the Legacy of Parks.)