Our national parks: Another idea

  • George Catlin's Big Bend on the Upper Missouri, 1900 Miles above St. Louis, c. 1832.

    Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • David M. Kennedy


In 1912, James Bryce, the British ambassador to the United States, proclaimed that the national parks are "America's best idea." Others have called the parks "America's best places." But if the parks are our "best" places, what about all those other places where we live and work and go about our daily rounds? Don't they deserve our respect, too?
The idea of a "nation's park" was first conceived in May 1832, by the Pennsylvania-born artist and ethnographer George Catlin. Traveling up the Missouri River on an expedition to paint the Plains Indians, at Fort Pierre he encountered a large party of Sioux, intoxicated on whiskey received in trade for bison tongues. The mutilated carcasses of some 1,400 bison lay reeking outside the stockade.
Catlin was appalled by this "debauchery of man and nature." He climbed a nearby bluff and pondered "the deadly axe and desolating hand of cultivating man." And then he had his great idea — if only, he thought, "by some great protecting policy of the government," there could be created "a magnificent park … a nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wildness and freshness of their nature's beauty. ..." That is the first recorded statement of what might be called the "national park idea."

Catlin's role in the history of the parks has remained obscure not least because his concept of a "nation's park" was so extravagantly different from the park system that eventually emerged. He envisioned a gigantic preserve sprawling athwart the continent, running from Mexico to Canada and stretching 100 miles eastward from the Rocky Mountain crest. And he saw it as a place valued not only for its flora and fauna and scenery, but for its various human cultures as well.

What we got instead, some 40 years later, was Yellowstone Park. Wondrous as it is, our iconic first national park is a much-diminished version of Catlin's original vision. What's more — as in the notoriously unpeopled photographs of Ansel Adams — the parks were long conceived as places devoid of any permanent human presence.

Catlin was a child of the Romantic Era. He was an "aginner," at odds with modernity and especially opposed to the allegedly dehumanizing effects of industrialization — though, ironically, he had reached Fort Pierre by ascending the Missouri River on the steamboat Yellowstone, an early fruit of the Industrial Revolution. Yet he pined for a pre-industrial age that was already receding into history. "The further we become separated from that pristine wildness and beauty," he wrote, "the more pleasure does the mind of enlightened man feel in recurring to those scenes." More than a century later, the noted environmental historian Roderick Nash struck the same note when he wryly observed that "Cities, not log cabins, produce Sierra Clubbers."

That yearning for timeless, unspoiled Nature as a refuge from the pace of quotidian life still moves us today. But it also reflects a sense of the distinction between Nature and civilization that is no longer tenable.

Thinking about humankind and Nature in opposition to one another is worthless when it comes to living in Nature, something we are all obliged to do. Like it or not, we function as part of the natural order. We are not merely tourists on this planet, here to gaze upon selected exotic landscapes in mute admiration, awe-struck and nostalgic about long-lost eras.

Here the history of the National Parks has another lesson to teach, one not steeped in 19th century romanticism but born of 20th century realities. The 1916 statute that created the National Park Service defined its mission as "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

That language defined a now notorious dilemma. For nearly a century critics have argued that the objectives of "conservation" and "enjoyment," or "preservation" and "use," are not merely incompatible, but downright contradictory. The long and tangled history of the difficulties of Park management hinges on those few spare sentences, touching issues like the flooding of Glen Canyon, or the endless wrangles over snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park. But out of that decades-old struggle some principles of balance and proportion have emerged. They may now constitute the Parks' most important legacy for the new century, one that reaches well beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone or Yosemite.

Preservation and use, or conservation and enjoyment, or wonder and work, should be understood as complementary, not contradictory; as mutually necessary, not mutually exclusive. Those concepts — understood as paired and partnered, not antithetical or adversarial — need to be exported from the places where they have historically been contested — the national parks — and made to inform sound, holistic policy in the wider world as well.

Nature should be honored not just in exclusive enclaves where humans dare to tread only as reverential sojourners. The entirety of the biosphere is the inescapable venue where we must both earn our daily bread and acknowledge Nature's rhythms and glories. Both wonder and work need to become the common stuff of everyday life. We must "de-exoticize" our notion of what is a park, and direct toward the places where we live and labor the same values of respect and stewardship that we have historically reserved for our "best places."

If we can collapse the distinction between our best places and everyplace else, we may begin treating the world in its entirety as a national park, in the manner suggested by Catlin's original vision: a place where people toil as well as worship — a place where we frankly recognize the character of our industrial or post-industrial civilization and do not seek merely to escape from it, or repudiate out of hand the benefits it has conferred on all of us — as the steamship Yellowstone did for Catlin. 

David M. Kennedy is the co-director of The Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University

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