Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." Indeed, there is no better keeper of America's natural and cultural heritage than the national park system.

While celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Western National Parks Association earlier this month, how touching and appropriate that actor Ted Danson presented U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva with an award named after Ted's father. "Ned" Danson was an archaeologist and director of the Museum of Northern Arizona from 1956 to 1975. He also served as a board member for the Western National Parks Association, which established the Edward B. Danson Award in 1986 to honor exceptional support and loyalty to national parks. Ned Danson also served on the National Park System Advisory Board and was instrumental in establishing Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site as a unit of the National Park Service in 1965.

Like the late Ned Danson, Grijalva has demonstrated an understanding of the importance of our national park system. Park designation protects not only wonderful landscapes like our local Saguaro National Park and Chiricahua National Monument, but also places where the most important stories in American history are represented. Those include Fort Bowie, Tumacacori and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan. Important archaeology sites such as the Casa Grande Ruins and Chaco Culture National Historical Park also are preserved, interpreted by experts, and made available into the future for our children and grandchildren to visit and enjoy.

As Grijalva said in his remarks that evening, "We are talking about a living legacy that is for all Americans."

A longtime advocate for protection and preservation of our national parks, Grijalva is a member of the Congressional Park Caucus, and a ranking member of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. Among other successes, he fought to protect the Grand Canyon from the threat of expanded uranium mining and to expand the role of young adults and youth in working with our public land. He also advanced the National Parks Centennial Initiative.

The congressman also recognizes the tremendous economic benefits of the national park system. In 2011, almost 279 million people visited national parks and other park units (recreation areas, historic sites, etc.), spending $12.9 billion in local gateway communities. Tucson has long benefited from being the hub to the national parks in our region, with $21.9 million in local economic benefit and supporting 294 jobs in 2011 alone.

We are grateful to Grijalva and the Danson family for being national park champions.

James E. Cook is executive director of Western National Parks Association, a nonprofit education partner of the National Park Service headquartered in Oro Valley. Visit www.wnpa.org for more information.