America’s National Parks

Their principles, purposes, and prospects

Frederick Law Olmsted in Yellowstone National Park

Park visionary Frederick Law Olmsted at Lake Landing in Yellowstone National Park, 1921 

Harlan P. Kelsey, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection
Many have assumed that Frederick Law Olmsted was the theorist behind the creation of Yosemite National Park, but no evidence exists to suggest that a theory preceded the establishment of the park at all. Olmsted probably was one of the gentlemen of taste, fortune, and refinement to whom Conness had referred, and it is true that immediately upon the creation of the Yosemite Park, Olmsted was named chairman of its board of commissioners. Laura Wood Roper, Olmsted’s biographer, calls him “the unsung theoretician of the national parks movement” because in 1865 he wrote a report that “formulated the philosophic base for the establishment of state and national parks.”

This report has a history as uncertain as that of the Yosemite legislation. The first and obvious point is that it was not written until the year after Yosemite was established. After being appointed head of the board of commissioners, Olmsted drafted the report to articulate his views on the purpose of the park—and on the measures to be taken to assure the fulfillment of that purpose. But the report was suppressed, presumably by Whitney, because it sought state funds that might have cut into the Geological Survey’s appropriations. According to Laura Wood Roper, who discovered the report in 1952, there is no evidence that anyone knew its contents during the eighty-seven years of its disappearance. There were only fragmentary references to it in the press, and park advocates seem never to have relied upon it. Olmsted may have been not only the unsung but also the unknown theoretician of the movement for national parks.

Olmsted’s curious position necessarily raises the question of the origin of support for the creation of the park system. Speaking of places like Central Park in New York and the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, he once made a statement that was equally true of the national parks:

Parks have plainly not come as the direct result of any great inventions or discoveries of the century. They are not, with us, simply an improvement on what we had before. . . . The movement . . . did not run like a fashion. It would seem rather to have been a common spontaneous movement of that sort which we conveniently refer to the “Genius of Civilization.”

Yet something about the notion of creating the parks must have struck a responsive chord in a great many people, for numerous independent groups of citizens in various places, a lot of writers and journalists, and many people in Washington joined in a single thought—with the result that by 1916, when the National Park Service was established, there were already fourteen national parks in existence.

There has been a good deal of searching for deep meaning in the scanty information surrounding the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone and the other early parks. But the most likely explanations are pretty straightforward. In this period of relentless disposition of the public domain, it was reasonable to fear that even the most magnificent scenic sites might soon be turned over to the plow and to the destructive grazing practices that John Muir immortalized in the phrase “hoofed locusts.” The pressures for private settlement were accompanied by the prospect of tourism. By 1869, more than eleven hundred visitors had come to Yosemite.

For all its remoteness, exactly the same prospect was in store for Yellowstone, established eight years alter Yosemite. It did not take much imagination to realize that the area’s rock formations and geysers, so fantastic that early reports of them were widely disbelieved, would become one of the world’s great attractions just as soon as decent means of access could be arranged.

Part of the mythology of Yellowstone is that the idea for the park was conceived by one of the area’s early exploratory parties at an after-dinner campfire in 1870. One member of the group is supposed to have suggested a money-making scheme that involved land claims near the geysers, when another interposed to say that private ownership of so wonderful a region ought never to be countenanced; that it ought to be set apart by the government and forever held for the unrestricted use of the public. “This higher view of the subject,” according to Hiram Chittenden in his early book, The Yellowstone National Park, “found immediate acceptance . . . . It was agreed that the project should be at once set afoot and pushed vigorously to a finish.”

The story is an attractive one, but it has been put in proper perspective by the scholar Hans Huth. In his book Nature and the American, Huth reports the discovery of some letters written in 1871 by A.B. Nettleton, an agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Nettlelon passed on a suggestion which struck him “as being an excellent one, viz: Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever. . . . If you approve this would such a recommendation be appropriate in [the] official report [of the U.S. Geological Survey]?” Subsequently, the Northern Pacific became the principal means of access to Yellowstone and its first major concessionaire.

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