These American Lands: Parks, Wilderness, and the Public Lands: Revised and Expanded Edition

These American Lands: Parks, Wilderness, and the Public Lands: Revised and Expanded Edition

by Dyan Zaslowsky

ISBN: 9781559632409

Publisher Island Press

Published in Calendars/Nature

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Sample Chapter



The National Park System

By moonbeam and the bagged yellow light of two hundred glowing farolitos, fifty foreign guests steered their way down a tight passage into the Cliff Palace Ruin at Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. Out on the far edge of candlelight, in the back of an Anasazi chamber, a Ute Indian sat cross-legged and played the oboe. "I have wanted to come here for a thousand years," murmured a man from Kupang, Indonesia, cradling himself against a slick-rock pillow. In the gently orchestrated darkness of this late summer's night in 1984, he and the others must have felt the truth in the fact that the world would be poorer without such places as Mesa Verde—without, on a grand scale, the whole national park system of the United States.

Along with free public education and private philanthropy, the creation of natural national parks ranks among the few thoroughly American contributions to world culture. And the success of the United States' venture has encouraged the establishment of more than 1,200 national parks in over one hundred countries. The hundreds of units in our own national park system, encompassing more than 89 million acres, are the portion of federally retained lands that Americans encounter soonest, understand best, and cherish most. Touching affirmation of this is evident in letters written to National Park Service officials by battle-worn soldiers during several wars. A soldier wrote one such letter from Europe during World War II:

I had no conception of how much the national parks could mean in wartime until I came here. If you could hear the men talk of our parks and forests, you know how great a part they play in the American scene. When the talk turns to "before the war," it is invariably ... the hours spent with rod and reel on lake and stream, the camping trips, the quiet nights in the pine woods ... and it is those things that these men are fighting for, as well as for their homes, sweethearts, wives and families.

The fifty-one full-fledged parks cover about 80 million acres. Many of these—Yosemite, Yellowstone, Olympic, for example—are considered the "crown jewels" of the system by virtue of their extraordinary natural beauty and wildness, but the system has grown well beyond its original and revolutionary purpose of preserving spectacular landscapes for the pleasure of the public. In the past century it has sprouted numerous monuments, preserves, lakeshores, rivers, seashores, historic sites, memorials, military parks, battlefield parks, historical parks, recreation areas, parkways, and other additions—all preceded by the word "national" in official usages, and all intended to inspire or edify the public. The diversity of the group commemorates not only the continent's natural gifts, but the course of its human events as well. This combination has at times strained the National Park Service's ability to cover all bases. The jurisdiction of the Park Service, with its billion-dollar annual budget and more than eight thousand full-time employees, ranges from the 8.3-million-acre Wrangell—St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska to the one-third-acre Ford's Theatre National Historic Site in the District of Columbia. The agency must perpetuate the backwoods solitude of Wyoming's Grand Tetons, and accommodate an audience of 9,500 on the rolling lawn of the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.

Such diverse responsibilities have aroused the complaint that the mission of the National Park Service has been muddied. Rather than concentrate on administering a few things very well, some critics charge, the Service diffuses its energies and talents among too many duties of a contradictory nature. If so, it is symptomatic of a paradox that has haunted the agency ever since 1916 and the Organic Act that created it. The Service's mission in regard to the national parks, that act stated, was "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife 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." But at no point did the act define precisely how this delicate balance between preservation and public pleasure was to be accomplished or maintained—and there still are no precise guidelines to solve one of the Park Service's most persistent modern dilemmas, as succinctly outlined by Ronald A. Foresta in America's National Parks and Their Keepers: "If use destroys, how can a management policy both accommodate use and preserve the natural area? A mandate which is inherently contradictory must, by logical extension, become a management dilemma—a problem for which there is no solution that does not violate a restraint."

Ironically, contradictions in American society itself once provided the national park system with its greatest support. As Joseph L. Sax wrote in Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks:

The happy convergence of many disparate interests permitted Congress and the public to sustain contradictory, but compatible beliefs that permitted a park system to flourish: On one side the repugnance of the seemingly boundless materialism that infused American life, a spiritual attachment to untrammeled nature, and a self-congratulatory attitude toward the preservation of nature's bounty; and on the other a commitment to economic progress wherever it could be exacted, nationalistic pride, and the practical uses of nature as a commodity supportive of tourism and commercial recreation.


It was a long journey from the happy condition described by Sax to the frustrations of today. It began in 1832, but not, as one might expect, because that was the year that Congress withdrew the region of Hot Springs, Arkansas, from appropriation by the various land laws and declared it the first natural federal preserve. Hot Springs was valued not for its scenic grandeur or even its claim as a natural wonder, but for its perceived medicinal value; this was the great age of hydrotherapy, and Congress believed that all Americans should have access to the curative waters that bubbled up in that part of the Ozarks (Hot Springs, in fact, did not formally enter the modern national park system until 1921). The real beginning that year took place a thousand miles to the northwest, at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, where a young artist stood amazed at the beauty of the country all around him. His name was George Catlin. His specialty was painting Indians, and to find them he had gone aboard the first steamboat to ascend the Missouri as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone. He surveyed the untamed landscape along the river and wrote in his journal that that place, or some other place in the West, ought to be set aside as a "nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the freshness of their nature's beauty." Catlin added that "I would ask no other monument to my memory, nor any enrollment of my name among the famous dead, than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution."

As an artist who used nature as the backdrop of his paintings, Catlin was more sensitive to natural beauty than were many of his countrymen. Yet he may also have been reacting to the sense of cultural inferiority that penetrated the young, entrepreneurial nation. National park historian Alfred Runte maintains that the park movement sprang originally from America's desire to appear as refined as the older nations of Europe. But the United States, barely emerged from the cleared forests, had no cathedrals, no Roman ruins, and no intricate gardens that bespoke human triumph and national greatness. Writing in his Sketch Book in 1819, Washington Irving shared a common view when he said he preferred to "wander over the scenes of renowned achievement—to tread, as it were, in the footsteps of antiquity—to loiter about the ruined castle—to meditate on the falling tower—to escape, in short, from commonplace reality of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past." At about the same time, James Fenimore Cooper acknowledged that Europe contained the "sublimer views," unless the United States resorted to "the Rocky mountains and the ranges of California and Mexico"—which at that time were as foreign to the United States as was Europe.

Aggravating this sense of cultural anxiety was the fact that Americans had generally left their most scenic areas in a shambles. Niagara Falls had been recognized as the nation's greatest natural spectacle, but by the 1830s its cliffs were combed by rogues and unscrupulous operators, who laid claim to the best overlooks and then charged tourists exorbitantly for the view. Fly-by-night enterprise cluttered the area, turning the place into a cheap circus. The setting had become so tawdry that when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Falls in 1831, he urged an American friend to "hasten" to see the place before all its grandeur was lost. Delay, Tocqueville warned, would mean that "your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest round about is being cleared. I don't give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract."

The fact that some Americans were beginning to see the disgrace for themselves and realize (as Catlin did) that symbols of national greatness lay in another direction was not sufficient to make Congress try to protect "scenery," not even in 1864, when it turned the Yosemite Valley over to the state of California for operation as a park. This casual gesture, made by a Congress preoccupied with the Civil War, hardly preserved the valley. Since the state did not mind commercial enterprise—but, indeed, encouraged it—the valley was soon victimized by the same kind of exploitation (including grazing and logging this time) that had made such a mess of Niagara Falls.

Yosemite was sublime even in disgrace, but little known outside its own state. In Wyoming Territory, however, a few hundred miles southwest of the spot where Catlin had discerned his vision of a "nation's park," lay the Yellowstone country, the subject of widespread if sometimes incredulous fascination almost from the beginning of the nation's expansion into the trans-Mississippi West. It lay untouched by anything but wonder, and had for a long time.

First word of the Yellowstone region was brought to civilization in 1807, when John Colter returned from a solo trip. Colter had been a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but, in 1805, enticed by the possibilities of fur trapping, he asked to take his leave. He was released, and Lewis's journal makes this note: "The example of this man shows us how easily men may be weaned from the habits of civilized life to the ruder but scarcely less fascinating manners of the woods. Just at the moment when he is approaching the frontiers, he is tempted by a hunting scheme to give up those delightful prospects and goes back without the least reluctance to the solitude of the woods."

The solitude of the woods led Colter to Yellowstone Lake, the land of geysers and of falls higher than those of Niagara. He returned to St. Louis with rich pelts and richer tales of boiling springs and towers of water that rose one hundred feet. Apparently he "saw too much for his reputation as a man of veracity," wrote the historian Hiram Martin Chittenden. No one believed him. The place he described was jeeringly known as "Colter's Hell." It did not help matters that Jim Bridger, a mountain man, was apparently the next English-speaking person to return from the area with breathless descriptions. Bridger was well-known as a man who played fast and loose with the truth. He confirmed Colter's sighting of geysers and hot springs, but he embellished these realities with glittering reports of petrified birds that sang petrified songs, of mountains made entirely of glass that had the property of telescopes and so transparent that a person could walk right into them if he wasn't watchful. And so the region of the Yellowstone remained little more than a fantasy land for most of the busiest years of the westward movement. Between 1804 and 1870 there were 110 scientific explorations west of the Mississippi River, but only one of them was assigned to the Yellowstone region, and that was not until 1859. In that year, Captain W. F. Raynolds was ordered to report his findings around Yellowstone, so that the stories of nature's opulence could be either confirmed or denied. At one point Captain Raynolds stood where he could see the entire region of the park. But he got no closer. News that the Civil War had erupted reached him, along with orders that sent him back to the States. In his wistful report, Captain Raynolds noted that duty compelled him to content himself with "listening to marvelous tales of burning plains and immense lakes without verifying these wonders."

Finally, in 1870, an exploration party of nineteen men from the Montana Territory organized a trip that would once and for all set the record straight. Cornelius Hedges, the member of the party who usually receives credit for coming up with the national park idea, noted that "a more confirmed set of skeptics never went out into the wilderness than those who composed our party, and never was a party more completely surprised and captivated with the wonders of nature." Even Old Faithful cooperated. When the party came within several hundred feet of the geyser, a massive flume of water shot 150 feet into the air. The popular story is that while Hedges, Nathaniel P. Langford, and other expedition members sat around their campfire at the junction of the Gibbon and Firehold rivers one night, they discussed Yellowstone's possibilities. Once their reports were published, Yellowstone would, of course, be exploited to the fullest. Hedges, with Langford supporting him, rejected this scenario and decided that the Yellowstone country should be set aside as a national park, preserved in its natural state. Whether or not such a conversation took place is debatable. Historians now believe an employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad by the name of A. B. Nettleson first passed this suggestion on to his superiors in Washington, D.C. Moreover, even if Hedges did bring up the subject of a national park, he did not originate the idea, because a few years earlier he had heard a Jesuit missionary make the same suggestion while giving a talk on Yellowstone in Helena, Montana. And as early as 1865, Montana Territorial Governor Thomas E. Meagher had voiced a similar proposal. Whoever originated the notion, it was clearly an idea whose time was near. In 1871, Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden took his Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories into Yellowstone with artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. Moran's paintings and Jackson's photographs were added to the support material of a growing number of park promoters. By now, these included no less than Jay Cooke of the Northern Pacific Railroad, who backed the idea on the quite proper assumption that anything that promoted the wonders of the West could do wonders for his railroad.

The promotional flurry paid off on March 1, 1872, when Congress created Yellowstone National Park as "a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." With the easy establishment of Yellowstone, Congress inaugurated the dubious tradition of creating a park without appropriating money for its protection. The government operated under the delusion that the park would pay its own way once visitors started streaming in. The delusion was a fortunate one insofar as it led to the establishment of the park; once it was created, however, there was no money to operate it. For the first five years Superintendent Nathaniel Langford donated his time and services. For the next twenty-two years no superintendent had the legal authority to detain or discipline the countless vandals and poachers who infiltrated the park once its fame spread. A superintendent could do no more than evict an offender from the park; the closest seat of justice lay 250 mountainous miles away, in the town of Evanston. Moreover, Yellowstone's enabling act contained no provision for the protection of wildlife, leaving game vulnerable to slaughter. The buffalo in the park constituted one of the few wild herds left in the country, but poaching reduced their number from 541 to twenty-two before Congress finally appropriated funds to buy domesticated specimens to breed with the remaining wild ones.

Excerpted from "These American Lands: Parks, Wilderness, and the Public Lands: Revised and Expanded Edition" by Dyan Zaslowsky. Copyright © 2013 by Dyan Zaslowsky. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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