America’s National Parks

Their principles, purposes, and prospects

Early Hunters in Yosemite

Early Hunters in Yosemite, ca.1890 

National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection
The recognition that Yellowstone and Yosemite would soon become places of great public attractiveness created an urgent sense that means must be taken to protect these treasures from destruction—a concern that was by no means hypothetical. Only a few years after Yellowstone National Park had been established, and before the federal government was yet fully in control of its acreage, an official report lamented that

hunters have for years devoted themselves to the slaughter of game, until within the limits of the park it is hardly to be found . . . the ornamental work about the crater and the pools had been broken and defaced in the most prominent places. . . .The visitors prowled around with shovel and ax. chopping and hacking and prying up great pieces of the most ornamental work they could find; women and men alike joining in the barbarous pastime.

A similar concern had received wide publicity in regard to Yosemite. In 1854 some quick-money promoters visited the Mariposa Grove and denuded several of the sequoia trees of huge portions of their bark, which they shipped to London to be exhibited for a fee. Ironically, the size of the trees from which the bark came was, to Europeans, so large as to be beyond belief, and the exhibition, thought to be a fraud, was a financial failure.

The callous misuse of these natural marvels was widely reported and sympathetically attended to, doubtless because there already existed at least one famous example of a great scenic area that had not been preserved as a public park and had suffered badly as a result.

Until the beginning of the automobile era, the most famous and popular tourist attraction in the United States was Niagara Falls. Beginning in 1806, the land around the falls began to be sold into private ownership, and by mid-century two evil consequences of private acquisition were already notorious. Entrepreneurs, to take advantage of the water power, had leveled large areas, stripped away the magnificent native foliage, and built a succession of claptrap buildings, factories, and shops that made Niagara one of the earliest victims of American cityscape blight. At the same time, swarms of petty swindlers took up posts at every point near the falls; tourists were importuned, cajoled, lied to, harassed, and abused by hack drivers, landowners, and every sort of self-appointed guide. By the 1860s not a single point remained in the United States from which the falls could be viewed without paying a landowner an entry fee. Niagara was already a well-known lesson when the first western parks were being created, although it was not established as a public reservation until some years later.

The idea of national parks was not only a natural response to the unhappy experience of Niagara, it also harmonized with a principle that was at the very crest of its influence in American public-land policy. The Yellowstone-Yosemite era was the period of the freeland policy, of the Homestead and Desert Land Acts. Every American family was to have the opportunity to own its farm free of monopolization by the rich. The application of that principle to the great scenic wonders could not be realized by granting a sequoia grove or Grand Canyon to each citizen. But it was possible to preserve the great scenic wonders and prevent their appropriation by private interests by holding them as public places to be used and enjoyed by all.

Olmsted put forward exactly that idea in his 1865 report. Those who are rich enough, he said, reserve for themselves rural retreats as large and luxurious as those of the European aristocracy. They take the choicest natural scenes, and the means of recreation they provide, as “a monopoly of a very few, very rich people.” Unless government intervened to keep the nation’s scenic grandeur in the public domain, “all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body will be closed against the mass of the people.”

To a reader of Olmsted’s report, the most striking fact is that while the parks movement may have been initiated by the elite, it was certainly not for the elite. It is at once obvious why Olmsted’s kind of park policy commended itself to a Congress that had recently enacted the Homestead Act. Jeffersonian idealism and practical concern with preventing despoliation of great natural resources conjoined to make the establishment of the national parks a far less surprising decision than it might at first appear. And, of course, proposals to preserve scenic places followed a period of romantic idealism that had swept the country—the religious naturalism of Thoreau and Emerson, romanticism in the arts, and nostalgia for what was obviously the end of the untamed wilderness, already in submission to the ax, the railroads, and the last campaigns against the Indians.

The parks also appealed to a tenacious American desire to measure up to European civilization. What little discussion one finds in early congressional debates over the parks is full of suggestions that our scenery compares favorably to the Swiss Alps and that we can provide even more dazzling attractions for world travelers. In the awesome scenery of the mountainous west, America had something with which it could at last compete with Europe on an equal plane.

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