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date: 01 October 2020

The National Parks

Summary and Keywords

The national parks of the United States have been one of the country’s most popular federal initiatives, and popular not only within the nation but across the globe. The first park was Yellowstone, established in 1872, and since then almost sixty national parks have been added, along with hundreds of monuments, protected rivers and seashores, and important historical sites as well as natural preserves. In 1916 the parks were put under the National Park Service, which has managed them primarily as scenic treasures for growing numbers of tourists. Ecologically minded scientists, however, have challenged that stewardship and called for restoration of parks to their natural conditions, defined as their ecological integrity before white Europeans intervened. The most influential voice in the history of park philosophy remains John Muir, the California naturalist and Yosemite enthusiast and himself a proto-ecologist, who saw the parks as sacred places for a modern nation, where reverence for nature and respect for science might coexist and where tourists could be educated in environmental values. As other nations have created their own park systems, similar debates have occurred. While parks may seem like a great modern idea, this idea has always been embedded in cultural and social change—and subject to struggles over what that “idea” should be.

Keywords: ecology, environmentalism, John Muir, national parks, nature conservation, religion of nature, tourism

The Grand Canyon is a magnificent wound in the earth—a gash 277 miles long, eighteen miles wide, and a mile deep caused by massive erosion, a scar that is natural, profoundly instructive, and filled with light and color. It has, however, never offered much to humans seeking food or profit. This vast hole is no place for farmers expecting bounteous harvests. Nor has it been a good place to live; for thousands of years Native Americans tried dwelling within its immense chasm and along its flat, dry rims, but they found it a precarious place, filled with danger and privation. Then came miners and timber cutters looking for minerals to dig or trees to chop down but finding only limited potential for either—no coal, oil, iron ore, gold, or silver and little standing biomass in its North Rim forests. Over the past century the canyon, lacking in so many ordinary ways, has found its social purpose as a national park. It has been devoted to recreation, knowledge, and inspiration. Although those offering visitor accommodations or other services can make money here, the highest value of the Grand Canyon, Americans have decided, lies beyond material needs.

Some have celebrated the Grand Canyon as a symbol of the American West or of the United States. But the leading founder of nature conservation, John Muir, after visiting the Grand Canyon, put its meaning in more universal terms: “The view down the gulf of color and over the rim of its wonderful wall, more than any other view I know, leads us to think of our earth as a star with stars swimming in light, every radiant spire pointing the way to the heavens.”1

As it did for Muir, the canyon has offered a great place for deep thinking, where people can ruminate about the history of the earth or contemplate our relation to the universe. It is a place where modern men and women may search for the sacred or at least for a deeper meaning to life, while others rush past them on the trails, trying to break the record for strenuous hiking. These days nearly five million visitors come during the year to experience the canyon, a large portion of them from other nations. Back in 1919 when the Grand Canyon first became a park, only 38,000 visitors came. All the parks in the United States, including a rich array of state and local parks, have seen a similar growth in popularity.

There are fifty-nine national parks in all, and together they draw about seventy million visitors a year (2015), although over the past decade and a half, as park entrance fees and gas prices have increased and incomes for most Americans have stagnated or declined, the parks have plateaued in visitor numbers. In addition to the big nature parks, 349 other sites are managed by the National Park Service and draw another 230 million visitors annually. Those other sites include national monuments and preserves, hallowed battlefields, national seashores and rivers, along with historical sites ranging from Lowell, Massachusetts, and its textile mills to the residences of important figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and John Muir, and even such traumatic sites as the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, California, and Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Such eclecticism should not obscure the fact that the nation primarily associates the idea of “parks” with places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Alaska’s Kenai Fjords, where experiencing “nature” is the dominant purpose.2

Almost all the major ecosystems in the country are represented somewhere in the park system. Not until the late 20th century, however, was any part of the prairies set aside as park land—and then not as a national park but as joint public-private Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve of a mere 10,000 acres in the Flint Hills of Kansas. How ironic that the first articulation of the national park idea came not from canyons or mountains but from what once were unbroken grasslands. The painter George Catlin, as he stood on a bluff near present-day Pierre, South Dakota, in 1832, worried about the survival of the Plains Indians and their way of life based on hunting the bison. He dreamed of setting aside the prairies as “a nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty” (emphasis in the original). That dream assumed the grasslands were “uniformly sterile, and of no available use to cultivating man.” American farmers would, within decades, reject that assessment and plow up the prairies to grow corn and wheat. With an exponentially increasing population, the nation decided that saving Indian hunting ground was not a practical notion.3

For many centuries Catlin’s arresting word park designated an area that European kings and lesser noblemen had preserved from agriculture and stocked with wild animals for their exclusive hunting pleasure. Americans bridled at such aristocratic thinking, just as they rejected the notion of Indians as nature’s noblemen. Any fertile land, the nation insisted, should be widely distributed to people hungry for farms, sustenance, and prosperity. Already in the 1830s rich men from abroad and from eastern cities were competing with the Indians to kill game on the grasslands, but those hunting expeditions, along with Indian autonomy, would come to an end with the Homestead Act of 1862, which opened the grasslands to millions of homesteaders. Big-game hunters of every kind and their prey would almost disappear from the region, along with the desire for a “nation’s park” there. In 1872, however, Catlin’s dream was revived in modified form, when Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the Wyoming and Montana territories.

Yellowstone National Park: The First of Many

Yellowstone was the first national park in the world (although it was closely followed by parks in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Finland). Its bands of native hunters were relocated by treaty and forced onto special reserves and were no longer allowed to live within or pass through the park, nor were poachers of wild game permitted within its boundaries. This place, covering 2.2 million acres, was to be a sanctuary for endangered species, safe from guns and arrows, farmers and miners. Here also were preserved the headwaters of the Mississippi, the Snake, and the Colorado rivers and a wonderland of magnificent geysers, bubbling volcanic mud pots, crystalline rivers and lakes, waterfalls with their yellow-hued canyons, lodgepole pine forests and alpine meadows where beaver, bison, and elk could still be found.

The Northern Pacific Railroad lobbied for the creation of this first national park, for it saw some potential in tourism, and its voice was powerful. But making money was not the dominant motive among park supporters. Altruism was more important, along with the idea of healthy contact with nature and hope of moral improvement. The park was intended to teach reverence, promote the greater good, and instill ethical values. One of the park’s most active supporters, Nathaniel Langford, a former bank clerk and member of the Washburn Expedition of 1870, which brought back news of the area’s extraordinary splendor, recalled that his fellow explorers had first proposed staking out private claims but then were persuaded by one of them, Cornelius Hedges, a lawyer and journalist, that there should be “no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great National Park.” Langford agreed with that thinking, calling Yellowstone “a new phase in the natural world; a fresh exhibition of the handiwork of the Great Architect.” From its inception this first park was widely viewed as a place devoted to nature and its divine message, a place where Americans might acquire humility and community.4

Eight years before Congress voted to create Yellowstone Park, it had set aside another, smaller place in perpetuity, the incomparable Yosemite valley. It, too, had been home to Indian people, the Ahwahneechee, but they fell victim to the gold rush of 1849 and were finished off by their rivals, the Mono Paiutes. White men soon arrived with homesteading intentions, but in the latter days of the Civil War, politicians withdrew from private appropriation the entire valley, a seven-mile-long scar carved by glaciers, with sparkling waterfalls cascading down its steep walls. This jewel of geology and botany was turned over to the state of California to preserve. It was to be a symbol of a new era of national peace and harmony, freed of the stain of slavery and secession. The California legislature asked Fredrick Law Olmsted, a writer, abolitionist, and designer of New York’s Central Park, to prepare a report on its preservation. He extolled the valley as a “museum of natural science,” a garden of unique flora, an opportunity to experience “the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature,” and “a trust from the whole nation.”5 The Yosemite valley grant set a precedent for Yellowstone, although Yosemite itself would not become a national park until 1890, when Congress set aside over 700,000 acres surrounding the valley and then, in 1906, added the valley to make the park complete. California had badly managed its trust, disregarding Olmsted’s strong urging to protect the valley’s environment. Thus, through a halting, incremental process emerged the park so beloved today, one of the largest and most popular in the world.

By World War I the nation had accumulated an impressive list of “crown jewels” in the West, including Yellowstone (1872), Sequoia and Yosemite (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903), Mesa Verde (1906), Glacier (1910), and Rocky Mountain (1915). All came from a tangled mix of motives and forces, ideas and values. There was no single philosophy of what a park represented, and there never would be in a nation of many conflicting desires. Businessmen pushed for sites in their states in order to stimulate tourism. Scientists and recreationists had their own agendas. Communitarian and religious thinkers formed a powerful alliance. The U.S. Army, put in charge of safeguarding the parks, had to sort out from those competing voices which should be heeded and which should not. On the whole it decided to elevate noneconomic over economic interests and to preserve the parks in a mostly natural condition.

In 1916, during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, a new agency to manage the growing list of parks was established, the National Park Service (NPS). Its origins suggest a slight shift in thinking and power. Two of its leading supporters, Congressmen William Kent and John Raker, along with Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, all from northern California, had successfully fought to dam a pristine valley named Hetch Hetchy, located within Yosemite National Park and as sublime in the eyes of some as the nearby Yosemite valley, in order to create a water supply for San Francisco and a source of electricity. In that fight they had defeated no less than John Muir, the park’s most famous interpreter and defender, who wanted Hetch Hetchy left just as it was. Henceforth the parks, the victors decided, should be devoted to “wise use” of its natural resources. With authority over the parks shifting to the NPS, their social purpose took a turn toward utilitarianism, although it was still not the crass utilitarianism of laissez-faire economics. Dams were declared a compatible use, but the NPS’s brand of utilitarianism would never allow hunting, timbering, or farming, for it saw its mission as protecting the unspoiled natural beauty of the places put in its charge and putting that beauty to its best use, pleasing the public. One might call that mission a more refined utilitarianism, for the parks were supposed to satisfy, above all, the people’s need for natural beauty unblemished by private greed.

The language in the Organic Act establishing the National Park Service left the agency with a seemingly contradictory charge that would not change over the next hundred years: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”6 How those words could be reconciled would go through many permutations as American culture changed, but always they would leave the NPS struggling with a divided mission.

John Muir’s Legacy

No one continues to be more associated with the creation and expansion of national parks than John Muir. Loser though he was in the battle over San Francisco’s appropriation of Hetch Hetchy, he continued, long after his death in 1914, to influence public thinking and the conservation movement. His many books have remained in print to this day, including his rhapsodic guide, Our National Parks, first published in 1901.

Muir was a complicated man, not least in his thinking about nature and park preservation, and he was usually outspoken and often controversial. In the mountains he was a preservationist, but in the lowlands he was a farmer. In the mountains he saw the necessity of bringing in more tourists to support their protection. In the lowlands he loved to watch the birds and squirrels but felt compelled to poison them occasionally to protect his crops. Most essentially, Muir was the prophet of a new religion in America, the religion of nature. The national parks were central to that religion, for they represented nature at its purest, far away from the everyday world of toiling to raise food. As a religious prophet, he drew on his Judeo-Christian and particularly his Scottish Calvinist roots, but at the same time he was nontraditional and modern in his embrace of pantheism, democracy, science, technological progress, and internationalism. He was modern also in his commitment to justice, although his concept of justice was focused less on human relations and more on breaking the persistent anthropocentrism of his fellow citizens.

Like many park enthusiasts, Muir was an immigrant to the United States, arriving in 1849 at the age of eleven with his family from the North Sea shores of Scotland. His father staked out a new life in frontier Wisconsin, becoming a farmer but mainly becoming an evangelist for a more strictly Bible-based Protestantism. Early on, a serious breach developed between the two men. It widened when the son left home for the University of Wisconsin, where he encountered science and secularism. A draft evader during the Civil War, he later returned to the United States and found work in a wagon-wheel factory in Indianapolis. A workshop accident nearly blinded him and, in a state of shock, sent him off on a walking tour through the South. Eventually, in 1868, he made his way to California, heading straight to Yosemite valley, where he dwelt for the next five years, enraptured by his surroundings. There he felt free to reinvent himself.

At age forty-two, Muir gave up some of that freedom when he married the daughter of a prosperous physician and landowner and came down out of the mountains to help manage their large fruit farm near Martinez, California. Within a decade, however, he had grown weary of those farm duties and material pursuits. Joining the political movement for nature conservation, he was largely responsible for the establishment of Yosemite National Park, while other parks and monuments owed much to his influence too, including the Petrified Forest in Arizona. In 1892 he became the first president of the Sierra Club, established in San Francisco to encourage interest in and protection of the Sierra Nevada forests and parks. Until his death he remained the club’s president and late in life became friend and ally of the great conservation-minded president Theodore Roosevelt.

The National Parks

Figure 1. John Muir standing with President Theodore Roosevelt on the heights above Yosemite Valley. 1903.

Reproduced with permission from John Muir College, Holt-Atherton Library, University of the Pacific.

Muir’s life may now seem to have turned out bourgeois and conventional, but under the surface he was always to some extent a rebel and an outsider. Back during his travels through the war-ravaged South, he had angrily rejected bourgeois society’s views of nature, particularly the view that the world was made for humans and that other species had no intrinsic value. Late in life he published that journal under the title A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, with its harsh critique of “Lord Man” assumptions left intact. Such hierarchical thinking always violated his deep egalitarianism. Every species exists for itself, he believed, and should not be classed as good or bad on the basis of its usefulness to civilization. That belief shaped his vision of the parks as a refuge for all plants and animals against farmers, industrialists, and even tourists anxious for their personal safety from dangerous creatures.

In his early years in California he moved toward an even more radical point of view, once again challenging society’s prevalent attitudes. The standard notion of God, he decided, was too imbued with antinature prejudice, making the earth and all its creatures the playthings of a transcendental being who would someday destroy it all when it had served his purpose. In contrast, Muir’s “God” was immanent in nature, more of an indwelling spirit or harmonizing force that flowed through the natural world. One day, during an excursion into Hetch Hetchy, Muir scribbled in a notebook his own understanding of the divine: “Beauty is God, what shall we say of God that we may not say of Beauty?”7 To discern the divinity animating all nature one needed no written scriptures, seminaries, or churches. Anyone could find it for himself. For Muir the highest moments of religious ecstasy came through journeys into wilderness, places that he wanted to save as parks.

Muir’s do-it-yourself religion rejected traditional theology but not modern science. He trained himself in such fields as botany and geology to understand more fully the mechanics of natural beauty. Every plant, he felt, but most especially the great forests of the Sierra, were revelatory to anyone who studied them systematically. Even the glaciers that had carved Yosemite valley were a form of divinity that science could illuminate. They had once destroyed part of the earth, but they had produced a higher beauty.

While others of his era struggled with the implications of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Muir did not. His only objection to the new biology was its frequent use of words like struggle or conflict, for in Muir’s mind nature displayed not violent competition but always a progressive harmony. Conflict was not the dominant pattern in nature, he insisted, but rather cooperation among all the elements and forces. In Muir’s understanding, nature was forever dying, rebirthing, changing, improving, and becoming more beautiful and godly over time. He did not find in the Sierra a fixed or static order to be locked up forever in a museum. The aim should be to preserve a natural world constantly in the making. Science was the best guide to that evolving perfection, revealing the unseen power that brought coherence out of chaos.

The national parks, therefore, were sacred lands that science could help interpret. Many peoples, including the American Indians, had also identified sacred sites and made them off-limits to mundane activities. The national parks were different only in size, dependence on scientific interpretation, and legal ownership by government. Here an ancient piety, the “natural beauty-hunger” in all people, rich or poor, might be nourished in up-to-date ways. The sacred parks should be open to all people but not to people’s agriculture, business, or commerce. A dam in Hetch Hetchy was a form of sacrilege. Muir wrote: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar . . . [N]o holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”8

The National Parks

Figure 2. The controversial Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park, which became the site of a city water reservoir.

Reproduced with permission from John Muir College, Holt-Atherton Library, University of the Pacific.

Religions, along with secular ideologies, commonly require at some point a leap of faith and a capacity to ignore contrary evidence. From Buddhism to Catholicism to Marxism, many belief systems often have ignored or smoothed over evidence of abuse of power. They have all had trouble explaining the coexistence of evil with good. Muir was no exception. Just as other religious thinkers had overlooked the shortcomings of their gods, he tended to ignore the dark side of nature. While critics in his day never confronted his religion of nature, they did criticize him for being weak in humanistic terms, insufficiently attentive to society’s needs. Today, that criticism continues more strongly than ever. Some have argued that safeguarding sacred places is no longer so compelling a social need. Muir’s vaunted wilderness, critics have said, is as much a fiction as God. Nature’s beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and national parks get too much attention, while the mundane places where we live receive too little. Muir, it has become popular to say, should have spent more time talking about the health needs of cities, industrial workplaces, and the working class. In short, the religion of nature has lost some of its cultural force, for reasons plaguing all religious and secular faiths.

Yet after the flooding of Hetch Hetchy valley, no national park in the United States would suffer in the same way. When, in the 1950s, the government sought to dam and flood Echo Park canyon in Utah, located within Dinosaur National Monument, a coalition of opponents managed to stop it for reasons Muir would have applauded. Despite much debate and controversy, his preservationism would gain ground in the nation’s thinking about the parks. Many would repeat his warning that the nation lacks sufficient reverence toward godly beauty. His parks as sacred places, for all their hordes of visitors, would continue to lay a strong hold on the human, and not merely the American, imagination.

Managing and Mismanaging the Parks

The first director of the National Park Service was Stephen Mather, whose views would prove at least as important as John Muir’s in setting park-management standards over the 20th century. His associate director and successor, Horace Albright, along with later park superintendents, would make sure those views would dominate well into the 1950s and 1960s. Mather was a descendant of the 17th-century New England preacher Increase Mather, but he had devoted himself to business, not religion, founding a borax-mining company that made him rich. Devoted to healthy outdoor recreation, he was no lover of uninhabited wilderness, as Muir had been; he loved the national parks all the same and wanted more Americans to join him there. Growth was his ideal in parks visitation, as it had been in borax sales. With more visitors, Congress could be persuaded to appropriate more money, which could be used to improve trails, roads, and buildings. At the same time he saw his agency’s mandate as protecting natural scenery—making parks more popular across the nation while saving and embellishing their beauty.

Before Mather took charge, the parks had already seen changes that compromised their ecology. Crater Lake, for example, early had been stocked with exogenous fish for the angler, and other parks would also introduce new species to attract sportsmen. Then hotels had appeared in all the parks for overnight visitors, and automobiles and railroads had begun arriving at their entry gates. A local enthusiast in Yosemite had introduced the popular entertainment of the “fire fall,” which entailed burning a pile of logs and then pushing their embers over the walls, cascading through the darkness to the delight of those below. Dangerous animals, from wolves to snakes, had been killed routinely, and no less a nature enthusiast than Theodore Roosevelt had urged the total eradication of cougars, who were in his mind vicious and cowardly ruffians that should have no place in nature. Other animals were put into park zoos for public amusement, and the bison of Yellowstone had become a kind of livestock, managed to maximize their numbers. Then there were all the private inholdings that the government could not eliminate, lands where mining and logging threatened. The NPS decided to tolerate such distortions and intrusions. None of them, it was said, violated the agency’s core mandate, which in Secretary of Interior Lane’s words meant emphasizing “public recreation and public health” while “conserving the scenery.”9

By concentrating on the visual landscape, the NPS felt it would be a good steward and win approval. It became an agency bent on development—development that was “natural” in appearance, carried out by sensitive architects who would keep the parks “rustic” and “scenic.” Every park, it was decided, needed a wide, smooth road into its most beautiful features, but the NPS did not envision a gridiron of roads into the remote backcountry. Good design could give man-made structures a charm and fitness to their surroundings. Wildlife must be scrupulously protected, at least those with popular appeal and nonthreatening to tourists. People should feel as safe in Yellowstone or Yosemite as in their urban homes or city parks.

The longtime NPS historian Richard West Sellars has summed up his agency’s early goals: “To present to the public an idealized setting of tranquil pastoral scenes with wild animals grazing in beautiful forests and meadows bounded by towering mountain peaks and deep canyons . . . a paradise of beauty and richness, free of fires and predators . . . places where American people, through ‘clean living in God’s great out-of-doors,’ could renew their spirits and become better citizens.”10 Promoting religion and morality remained important social values in the parks, but under federal management Muir’s harmonious nature had become more toothless and bloodless and more open to human intervention. Humans, the NPS decided, could improve nature.

In his parks-for-people campaign, Mather set out to expand the park system and particularly to include more places outside the American West. Before he retired in 1929, the NPS added Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes (1916), Lassen Volcanic (1916), Denali (1917), Arcadia (1919), Grand Canyon (1919), Zion (1919), Shenandoah (1926), and Grand Teton (1929). The next decade would bring under park protection Carlsbad Caverns (1930), Great Smoky Mountains (1934), Everglades (1934), and Olympic (1938). The list extended NPS presence into Maine, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida and into the distant territories of Hawaii and Alaska.

Then, as the parks became more uniform, sanitized, and institutionalized, the scientific community began to question their management, beginning in the 1920s and continuing after World War II. Scientists questioned, above all, the policy of exterminating predators, whether they were wolves, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions or otters, skunks, ravens, and pelicans, the latter guilty of eating too many fish in the lakes. NPS was not unique among federal agencies in waging war against predators; the U.S. Bureau of Biological Control shot animals and spread poison on public and private lands alike, to make the nation safer for ranchers and farmers and to remove any animal competitors of fishermen and hunters. No “varmint,” it was declared, should have a place in the national paradise. But at the 1923 annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists, prominent zoologists protested what they called a campaign of “extermination.” Led by Joseph Grinnell of the University of California at Berkeley and George Wright, a wealthy and independent wildlife biologist, they criticized the NPS for selective preservation. Preserving scenery and popular species for public enjoyment should not be the only goal. The agency, they argued, should carry out scientific research and protect the ecological integrity of the parks.

Those complaints continued, off and on, for decades, but with only limited effect. Predator control ended in Yellowstone in 1933, but by then there were no wolves left and no replacements allowed. The agency hired almost no one to do science, and management based on ecological science was not part of its administrative culture. The appointment of Conrad Wirth, a landscape architect, as NPS director in 1951 solidified that science-free culture and distanced the parks more than ever from both its Muir legacy and its contemporary critics. Over the period from 1956 to 1966 and ending when the NPS would become a century old, Wirth launched Mission 66, a program to expand and revitalize the parks for a postwar, affluent, mass-consumption, and automobile-loving society. In that program the agency spent one billion dollars on improving visitor facilities—interpretive centers, scenic highways, campgrounds, water and sewer infrastructure, and fire control—while the private concessioners allowed within the parks expanded their hotels, supply stores, and shops. Dozens of new sites were added across the country, although only three of them were of national park status, most notably Canyonlands. Then, during the 1960s, the NPS began planning a series of national recreational areas (NRAs) near major metropolitan areas like New York City and San Francisco. These would cost large amounts of money to acquire and manage, and they would blur the line between urban and wild parks. By the end of the century these initiatives and others would bring the whole system to cover an area of nearly ninety million acres, equivalent to the size of California. Yet for a long time those acres allowed no room for ecology.

In 1963, two sharp challenges of NPS stewardship came from the outside: the Leopold Report and a similar one by the National Academy of Sciences. Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall requested them, but their reception with the NPS would be sometimes halting, sometimes hostile. Professor A. Starker Leopold, wildlife biologist at Berkeley and son of the famed Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold, chaired the first report, formally entitled “Wildlife Management in National Parks.” That report identified many ecological failures in the handling of plant and animal life within the parks. It was time, the report concluded, to end all interference with natural ecological dynamics. “Biotic associations within each park,” Leopold and his colleagues argued, should be “maintained or where necessary recreated as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed” before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. “A national park should present a vignette of primitive America.”11 Using the date of 1492 ce as the baseline for restoration, the report pointed out that no one could know exactly the precontact ecology or the impact of Native Americans; therefore, they would restore wolves to the park, but not hairy mammoths or saber-toothed cats. Leopold and his committee were staunch preservationists, as Muir had been, but they were also restorationists. They rejected the Mission 66 policy of modernizing the parks because of its effect on fauna. Then the National Academy of Sciences report, known as the Robbins Report after its chairman William Robbins, added fire. It characterized the NPS as confused and uncertain and pointed out that parks are “dynamic biological complexes” that should be allowed to evolve on their own terms, free from human interference. Both reports saw the parks’ highest purpose as protecting ecological integrity as well as educating the public in ecological understanding and ethics, but not as providing scenic drives or outdoor recreation.12

The next year (1964) Congress passed the Wilderness Act, written by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, whose founding president had been the elder Leopold. That act set aside under the strictest protection 9.1 million acres. (Eventually, 105 million acres would be protected as wilderness across the nation, with more than half of those acres in Alaska.) “A wilderness,” the act defined, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”13 Forty percent of those acres would lie within the national parks; almost as many acres (34 percent) would be located within the National Forest System, despite the fact that its nearly 200 million acres were devoted to “multiple use,” but especially to timber production. Both agencies often fought against wilderness designation, and the NPS resented the implied criticism of its stewardship of wildness in the parks.

Slowly, however, the parks came to accept a change in direction, pushed along not only by scientists but also by a rising tide of environmentalism that was ecological in philosophy and angry about pollution, overpopulation, rampant consumerism, and government collusion with business in overrunning the limits of the earth. That movement had begun with the detonation of the atomic bomb and a growing fear of radiation raining down on land and sea or of all-out nuclear war and annihilation. The parks seemed less important in view of that danger and the scale of global environmental problems. Still, they offered a chance, despite their ecological degradation, to restore nature to beauty, health, and integrity, a process that might spread beyond park borders to encompass the globe.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 pushed the parks even more vigorously toward ecological restoration. Two decades after that act, Yellowstone officials were at last ready to reintroduce the gray wolf into the park’s ecosystem. Without wolves to check their numbers, the elk had exploded, vegetation (especially willows and cottonwoods) had declined, and other species had felt the cascading effect. To redress that imbalance, fourteen wolves arrived from Canada at the park’s Lamar valley in 1995 and were released. They survived and reproduced, until nearly a hundred wolves were roaming the park and eating the surplus elk. By this time the public had decided, with the scientists, that wolves belonged in nature, and began lining up along park roads with cameras and binoculars to watch them. A small revolution in attitudes had occurred, and America’s parks would never be the same.

More lands began coming under park protection. In 1980 one of President Jimmy Carter’s last official acts was to set aside a huge amount of Alaska as national parks. The largest of them was Wrangell–St. Elias, covering 8.3 million acres and nearly four times as big as Yellowstone, lands where wolves and grizzlies could live with their prey in a relation of natural regulation. Here the Kennecott Company had mined copper, but the mines were defunct, and the wilderness still survived in all directions. With those grand Alaskan additions, the United States solidified its boast to have the finest park system in the world. Controversies would not end, nor would change in what parks meant to people. Nonetheless, that ongoing struggle would not diminish the significance of the parks, whose global impact may rank as high as or higher than American democracy, capitalism, or Hollywood.

By the 21st century every nation on earth, whether old or new, had national parks of their own, usually modeled after those of the United States but often with variations reflecting different histories and ecologies. Setting aside parks and nature reserves has become an international project, adding more and more complexity to the “parks idea.” The United Nations, reflecting that global conversation but clearly following the American lead, has set up a World Heritage program to identify natural and cultural sites around the world for preservation. On that list are fourteen American parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.

The history of nature conservation, from the local to the global level, is far from over. In the United States, where millions of acres without roads or much economic use are still unprotected, and in the rest of the world, especially on the less populated frontiers of Latin America, Africa, and Asia and the encircling oceans, there is much more that can be done and probably will be done. Nature conservation marks a new phase in human history, in which governments are expected to protect nature from abuse and preserve water quality, biodiversity, and scenic wonder. Nature, according to both American and world thinking, should be valued to some extent for noneconomic purposes—as an intricate order that humans should preserve where practical, establishing places where nature can be studied and encountered on many levels and that afford glimpses into something bigger than ourselves.

Discussion of the Literature

In 2009 PBS (the Public Broadcasting System) aired a six-part series called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” produced by Ken Burns and written by Dayton Duncan. The subtitle came from Wallace Stegner, one of the West’s most widely admired novelists and park supporters. The television series was highly successful with viewers, acclaimed by many as the Burns team’s best documentary ever. The series was generally laudatory and enthusiastic, a love letter to the parks, with little criticism of their origins, their history, or their management by the National Park Service. By the date of that program, however, a noncritical perspective was not shared by some historians and other scholars. As the parks increased in popularity, not only among Americans but also among foreign visitors, some scholars within the academic community shifted toward a more critical mood.

Representative of an older, enthusiastic tone was John Ise’s ironically named National Park Policy: A Critical History (1961). A 700-page fact-filled tome written by a socialist economist at the University of Kansas, the book was critical only toward the politicians, businessmen, and indifferent public who had so often thwarted “the few unselfish, and idealistic men and women” behind the parks. Similarly, Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, first published in 1967, was emphatically on the side of nature conservation, the value of wilderness, the national parks, and American exceptionalism. During the decade of the 1960s the environmental movement was moving forward at full throttle, and in the next decade it would help create the new field of environmental history, which began in close harmony with the Sierra Club and other groups working to protect nature from human abuse. Early environmental historians often looked back to summer vacations in the national parks they had enjoyed with their parents, which had opened their eyes to the natural world. If there was any criticism of the parks or the conservation effort they represented, it tended to come from the right side of the political spectrum, from those who felt that conserving scenery, wildlife, or ecosystems should not be a government responsibility.

That historical perspective began to change as a more iconoclastic generation began to appear in the 1980s and to complain that the history of wilderness and park preservation needed more scrutiny and skepticism. The iconoclasts may have been environmentalists as well as historians, but their environmental values tended to emphasize human needs, the rights of minorities, and the priority of addressing urban problems over protecting the natural world.14 Largely that backlash came from a powerful movement among historians who sought to put race, class, and gender at the core of concern, while casting nature, ecology, and environment into the shadows and even seeing them as threats to social justice. Now the “dispossession” of Native Americans from what became national parks became a popular theme, as represented in works by Mark David Spence and Karl Jacoby. Spence focused on several classic parks in the West as anti-Indian, whereas Jacoby wrote in defense of poor whites as well as Native Americans. Conservationists, these critics maintained, were racists or elitists, seeking to protect “white spaces” from use and abuse by nonwhite or poor people. Obviously, Indians, in fact, had been forced to yield their land claims to invading Europeans, but often they found rectification through court action and financial compensation that the parks critics ignored. Moreover, it should be said, every acre of American soil had involved some kind of dispossession, allowing cities, suburbs, farms, and college campuses to be built, so that the parks were hardly unique.15

Indians were excluded from owning territory and hunting within the parks, as were whites, but it was also true that in many parks Indians soon came back in as employees, cultural interpreters, and even tourists. Over time the parks became more racially diverse and more multicultural in their visitors but also in their defenders. Few Americans of any race, class, or gender called for abolishing the parks.. More than ever parks became identified with “the people,” or at least with tens of millions of people. Nor was it ever easy to say what those who were not visitors to parks or other nature-conservation areas thought about those places or how they were managed.

Henceforth, writing about the parks needs to address fresher topics, including the history of working-class and nonwhite attitudes toward the parks, the role of parks in promoting American science, the proliferation of parks in other countries and the transnational flow of ideas about nature conservation, and the influence of parks in creating a mass culture more broadly supportive of environmental ethics and reform.

Primary Sources

The main archival source for studying America’s national parks and the larger system of which they are part is the National Archives, College Park, Maryland, in Record Group 79. These are the National Park Service records, including photographs, maps, and records of its many directors, agency reports, and the reports of regional offices. There are also separate holdings for the major parks, for example, Acadia, Crater Lake, Denali, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, and for many of the national monuments and other categories, for example, Death Valley, Saguaro, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The Department of the Interior and the War Department, which administered the parks in their early decades, are important sources too; the U.S. Army was put in charge of safeguarding the parks before 1916. The Department of the Interior records cover the early years of the National Park Service, from 1916 to 1933. Scholars should also know that many parks have their own on-site libraries, which may contain useful primary materials or microfilm copies of records deposited elsewhere.16

Many private citizens have played important roles in the development of the parks or in their interpretation and commentary, and some of them have left archival records. The John Muir Papers are perhaps the most important—an outstanding collection, carefully kept at the Holt-Atherton Special Collections department of the University of the Pacific Library in Stockton, California. Although they are biased toward the parks located in the Sierra Nevada, Muir’s papers reflect his travels all over the American West, including Alaska, and to foreign places that may later have become parks. Although an older microfilm edition of the papers exists and can be found in other libraries around the country, the University of the Pacific has now digitalized Muir’s correspondence, journals, photographs, and drawings for online access.17

Olaus and Margaret Murie, active in park issues in Alaska and Wyoming, have left their papers to the Rasmussen Library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Two academics who played key roles in national park policies were Joseph Grinnell and A. Starker Leopold; both of them have their papers in the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley. Also in the Bancroft Library are the papers of George Bird Grinnell, a key figure in the establishment of Glacier National Park, as are the papers of noted post–World War II conservationist David Brower, who fought to protect national parks in the Colorado River watershed from dams. Wallace Stegner, who famously called the national parks “the best idea we ever had,” has left his papers to the Special Collections of the J. Willard Marriott Library of the University of Utah.

Various conservation organizations have been important in park history, including the Sierra Club, the Save the Redwoods League, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Wilderness Society. Their papers are available at libraries well equipped for archival management and public access—the first two at the Bancroft Library, the latter two in the Conservation Collections of the Denver Public Library.

Further Reading

Berringer, Mark Daniel. Selling Yellowstone: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.Find this resource:

Frank, Jerry J. Making Rocky Mountain National Park: The Environmental History of an American Treasure. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013.Find this resource:

Gissibi, Bernhard, Sabine Hohler, and Patrick Kupper, eds. Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global History Perspective. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.Find this resource:

Harvey, Mark W. T. A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Jacoby, Karl. Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Kaufman, Polly Wells. National Parks and the Woman’s Voice: A History. 2d ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Miles, John C. Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Pritchard, James A. Preserving Yellowstone’s Natural Conditions: Science and the Perception of Nature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Righter, Robert W. The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: American’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Rothman, Hal. America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.Find this resource:

Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing/Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.Find this resource:

Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Spence, Mark David. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Tyrell, Ian. “America’s National Parks: The Transnational Creation of National Space in the Progressive Era.” Journal of American Studies 46 (November 2012): 1–21.Find this resource:

Wakild, Emily. Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks, 1910–1940. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Worster, Donald. A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) John Muir, “The Grand Canyon of the Colorado,” Century Magazine 65 (November 1892): 108.

(2.) For a full list, see Wikipedia.

(3.) George Catlin, Indians of North America, vol. 1 (1841; repr., Philadelphia: Leary and Stuart, 1913), 295.

(4.) Nathaniel Pitt Langford, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park (1903; repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), 117–118, 122.

(5.) Frederick Law Olmsted, “Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite and Big Tree Grove,” The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, vol. 5, The California Frontier, 1863–1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 506, 511.

(6.) The language originally came from a congressional report: U.S. Senate, Committee on Public Lands, National Park Service, 64th Cong., 1st sess., S. Rep. No. 662 (1916).

(7.) John Muir, “Tuolumne 1872,” John Muir Papers (Stockton, CA: Holt-Atherton Library, University of the Pacific), microfilm edition, reel 23, frame 361.

(8.) John Muir, “Hetch Hetchy Valley,” in The Yosemite (1912; repr., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 261–262.

(9.) Richard West Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 57.

(10.) Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks, 70, 88.

(11.) A. Starker Leopold et al., “Wildlife Management in the National Parks,” in Transactions of the Twenty-eight North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, ed. James Trefethen (Washington, DC: Wildlife Management Institute, 1963), 32, 34, 43.

(12.) National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, “A Report by the Advisory Committee to the National Park Service on Research,” August 1, 1963, TS, x, xi, 31, 43.

(13.) National Wilderness Act, 16 U.S.C. ch. 23 §2, c (1964).

(14.) William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (January 1996): 7–28. Cronon, in an afterword, makes the admission that the religion of wilderness, or nature, that he was critiquing “is my own.” The full essay appeared earlier in a compilation he edited, Uncommon Ground: Reinventing Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995).

(15.) See Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Karl Jacoby’s Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poaches, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

(16.) A helpful guide is Edward E. Hill, comp., Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the National Park Service, PI 166 (1966).

(17.) The John Muir Papers can be accessed through the University of the Pacific’s University Library website.