Plains — He’s been president of the United States, won a Nobel Peace Prize, and is still a pretty good, pull-no-punches- political pundit.
On Sunday, Jimmy Carter added something else unique to his resume:
Honorary national park ranger.
National Park Service director Jonathan B. Jarvis bestowed the title — and the iconic Ranger’s hat that goes with it — on Carter here in the auditorium of the old Plains High School, now the visitors center and museum of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, which is run by the park service.
“This is indeed an honor for me,” Carter, 91, just before donning the wide-brimmed hat a second time to the delight of the small audience. “I’m not sure what authority this gives me … I know, I’m going to ask the (NPS) to do an even better job with the site here!”
Both are as loyal fans of each other as they are firmly embedded in little Plains, where everything from the farm that the former president grew up on to the train depot that served as his presidential campaign headquarters is included within the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and Preservation District.
But Carter’s significance to the NPS — and indeed, the reason for his honorary ranger title — extends well beyond Plains, Jarvis said.
“This was sort of a gift to the country,” Jarvis said about Carter’s efforts to preserve and protect land and historic sites during his presidency.
During his single, four-year term, Carter created 39 different National Park Service units, ranging from the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, to the Women’s Rights and the War in the Pacific National Historic Parks located in Seneca, N.Y, and Guam, respectively.
In 1978, Carter used the Antiquities Act to designate some 56 million acres in Alaska as National Monuments. The decision initially was extraordinarly controversial both in Congress and in that vast, fiercely independent state.
“President Carter showed enormous courage in using the Antiquities Act to do that,” Jarvis contended in an interview last week. “In many ways, he exemplifies for us the kind of conservation and preservation leadership that is found within the National Park Service.”
Carter put it more succinctly during Sunday’s ceremony:
“Every time I went to Alaska,” he recalled with a rueful grin, “The Secret Service would double my protection.”
Yet by the time Carter went back 25 years later, Jarvis said, he was “celebrated as a hero” for helping to preserve and protect an inconic landscape of glaciers, rivers, soaring mountains like Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) and important native traditions.
Here in Plains, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have a much more up-close-and-personal relationship with the NPS. Both are active board members of the Friends of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and the modest ranch house they’ve lived in since 1961 will eventually become part of the site. They wanted today’s ceremony to have that same intimate feel, and the audience of about 100 people was mostly made up of family members, fellows residents of Plains, park service employees — and a few clearly enchanted vistors who’d come to tour the museum and wound up watching the former president be made an honorary ranger.
And what about that title? Does it come with any special rights or responsibilities?
“He gets the hat,” Jarvis chuckled. “And he’s allowed to wear it anywhere he wants!”