The History of National Parks

The History of National Parks

by Allie Skalnik

What prompted the creation of National Parks? By 1832, Americans were realizing that fewer and fewer places could be called wild and untouched by civilization. The fear was that industrialization would sweep through every wild place in the country, and that wildness, a representation of freedom, something we have defined as uniquely American and integral to our national identity, would be lost. The works of John Muir, for example, and also Transcendentalists, helped to shape the way Americans of the time viewed nature. Transcendentalists believed that the source of such a spiritual understanding of the world should come from nature, and they fostered an appreciation for nature never before seen in America that pushed against the culture set by manifest destiny. They were known for their paintings, depicting awe-inspiring, sweeping landscapes that put humans into perspective as insignificant figures of the land. 

John Muir brought an appreciation for wild places that even people who had lived in the city their entire life could appreciate and identify with. He was among the loudest voices for the inherent value of nature. It’s is undeniable for anyone who has ever admired the default desktop on an Apple computer that National Parks are, if nothing else, beautiful. Furthermore, that image has become a part of the image of America. The Grand Canyon, the Smoky Mountains, Old Faithful–they rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Parks Service every year, attracting tourists from all over the world. This national image is undeniably important because it powerfully unifies the country. 

In the 1860s, California put laws in place to protect Yosemite Valley. However, this was not yet a National Park. Yellowstone was the first National Park in 1872, and since then, National Parks have grown to a total of 418 distinct areas controlled by the Park’s Service, including memorials, monuments, seashores, and more. Previously, all parks were privately owned. The idea that federal lands should be accessible to the public was completely foreign. Furthermore, the concept that the federal government should use their power to protect the natural wonders of America was even more radical. 

We view the purpose of National Parks today to be the conservation of wild lands. However, the view of the conservation in Yellowstone at the time is nearly irreconcilable in comparison to our view of conservation today. A selling point of National Parks was for them to be moneymakers for the federal government. 

While conservation was certainly talked about by conservationists like John Muir, who pushed for more National Parks after Yellowstone, these ideals were not clearly represented in the implementation of National Parks. 

There were no strict regulations on how humans were meant to interact with wildlife, and hunting was even allowed, resulting in the eradication of wolves in Yellowstone until their re-introduction in 1995. In Yellowstone, a number of hotels were built in the early years that remain there to this day, and before the Park’s Service was created under Woodrow Wilson, National Parks were run by the military. These things more faithfully reflect the tourism agenda rather than conservation, and this pull between the two forces has been playing out since the beginning. 

We still see it today. While the most famous of the National Parks have many paved paths, hotels, stores, even extensive transportation systems, these are all mostly developments from a previous age of thinking, and while these systems will be maintained, the Parks Service intends not to implement similar systems in the future if they can avoid it. In fact, they have made steps towards getting rid of some of these systems when possible. 

For example, the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite had many paved paths that the Parks Service deemed unnecessary and a harm to the environment. In 2018, they took out the paved path and replaced it with accessible trails. In addition, they relocated parking away from wildlife. 

In calculated efforts such as this, the Parks Service demonstrates a change in the interpretation of their mission. Now, the general consensus is that National Parks are meant to conserve nature first and foremost. Of course, that does not mean making them isolated from humans, since that defeats their purpose (not only to inspire us, but to remind us of what matters). It means reducing our impact on the environment whenever possible to ensure National Parks will continue to flourish for years to come. However, this interpretation is expected to continue to evolve as the pull between conservation and tourism persists. This debate continues today because both of these ideals are entirely valid and have their downsides if pushed too far. Pure conservation without allowing human access to these natural wonders, nor the sacrifice of nature in favor of tourism is the ultimate goal of National Parks, and so the debate will continue on. 

But why do National Parks matter? I touched on it briefly before, but that, too, has many answers. 

Finally, Wallace Stegner answer for why we should have National Parks: “[National Parks are] the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” 

I am a firm believer that appreciating National Parks makes us better stewards of the earth, and hopefully, better stewards of the future. 

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