On Oct. 25, we opened Boston Mill Visitor Center as the new front door to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. To prepare for the project, we asked visitors and community members what they wanted to know about the park. We also asked staff about frequently asked questions. One question stood out: Why is Cuyahoga Valley a national park?

Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects a wealth of natural, historic, and recreational resources. Before the visitor center project, we often described the park as a place with a fine collection of features, each with its own interesting story. While visitors showed their appreciation for this diversity, we did not always excite their imagination. We realized that when visitors ask why this valley is a national park, they want to know what makes it worthy of national park status.

In Boston Mill Visitor Center, we did not lose track of the park’s diversity, but tied it to a holistic story that speaks to this park’s value as an important place within the National Park System. This big story has two big elements. First, the park stands out for its metropolitan location. Second, it is a park of, by, and for people.

The park’s geographic context is the first thread. It makes this park different from most of the other 60 national parks, which are primarily large parks in rural settings. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a river valley between two cities. While it is small compared to rural national parks, its 33,000 acres is large for a metropolitan setting. The size creates different kinds of experiences and opportunities for resource protection than typical near cities.

The relationship between the Cuyahoga Valley and cities goes beyond proximity. The Cuyahoga River, Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, and Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad provide links that visitors can travel between the valley and cities. The park and cities also share history, beginning with the Ohio & Erie Canal.

The canal brought commerce through the valley. It also sparked growth of Akron and Cleveland from small villages into industrial powerhouses. The valley became the cities’ countryside where people turned for food, stone, timber, and a place for outdoor recreation. This relationship made the valley an important place and set the stage for future protection as a national park.

We introduce the second thread with a quote from former Congressman John Seiberling. He described Cuyahoga Valley as "a park by, of, and for the people." This thread highlights how people are fundamental to the story of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Visitors may see national parks as primarily natural places. However, all have a history of people associated with the land. Here, it is especially true.

Over 500 generations have lived in the Cuyahoga Valley, touching every acre of land. Over 100 years ago, people started taking action to protect the valley’s lands and waterways. Community and local political support led to the park’s establishment in 1974. A national Civil Rights-era program, Parks to the People, aided the local effort. This program valued having federal parks in places more accessible to people. Today, visitors make their own experiences in the park, becoming part of its story.

The idea of being a park "by" people captures the tremendous human efforts to transform the valley into a national park. Work has gone well beyond designating the park and setting a boundary. Many restoration initiatives have improved the park ecosystems and historic resources. More projects are planned in the future. We present the park as aspirational — a place where the future can be better than the present--and hope we motivate visitors to work for change in their own community. At the same time, we recognize that the transformation has not benefited everyone, especially long-term residents of the valley.

We repeat the word "renew" throughout the visitor center to capture the big idea of the park. We like this word because it reflects the role of people in actively transforming the valley to create this national park. We focus on the Cuyahoga River to emphasize this story, presenting the 1969 river fire and Cuyahoga Valley National Park as contrasting icons. We also like the word because it reflects the personal renewal that comes when people have the opportunity to make a national park part of their daily lives.

Boston Mill Visitor Center is at 6947 Riverview Road in Peninsula. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Call 330-657-2752 for more information.

Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.