Yellowstone National Park, the oldest node in the National Park Service’s network of remarkable American spaces, was created fifty years before the NPS itself. President Grant elevated the striking collection of geothermal geysers and sharp, snowy peaks to national park status in 1872, 18 years before the creation of its future home state Wyoming and approximately 11,000 years after the first people migrated to the area.

In 1871, geologist Ferdinand Hayden (accompanied by surveyors, chemists, photographers and landscape painter Thomas Moran) had led a massive geologic survey of the Yellowstone region; the images brought back captured the imagination of a nation. While the visual splendor of the region moved Congress and President Grant to establish this unprecedented form of resource protection, the potential for profit-in-preservation mobilized an equally important player in the history of the National Park System: the railroads.

By the mid-18th century, railroad companies had discovered a fundamental flaw in their business model. Trains filled with ore and timber from the Pacific Coast and the Rockies couldn’t arrive frequently enough to satiate East Coast ports and cities hungry to expand. But the trains going back out West were essentially empty. There weren’t yet enough people living past the Mississippi to fill the West-bound cars with supplies and manufactured goods. So, akin to the bizarre contemporary economic forces that stuff U.S. ships bound for China with trash, the railroad companies found a way to fill their West-bound cars.

Just a decade after the creation of Yellowstone Park, railroad lines began to bring out thousands of wealthy Eastern visitors to awe at the harsh grandeur of the Western American continent. More parks, including Sequoia, Yosemite and Crater Lake, soon joined Yellowstone. As the system of national parks grew, so did the allure of the American West in the minds of East Coast urbanites suffering from a metropolitan ennui. Native peoples who had lived in the parks for generations were pushed out of the physical parks and the accompanying historical narratives. Railroad brochures advertised the early parks as wild, untouched spaces that would invigorate and rejuvenate all visitors with the means to get to them.

However, most of the first national parks were so remote as to be inaccessible to all but the wealthiest of East Coast adventurers. So, in the early 1930s, the federal government created a Park a bit closer to home for most Americans. In Virginia’s new Shenandoah National Park, the rhetoric of untouched landscapes became even more tenuous and uncomfortable. Whereas the prior, Western parks had been created out of public (née native) lands, Shenandoah was pieced together from a scattering of small parcels, owned primarily by Appalachian farmers and foragers and acquired through controversial use of eminent domain.

Additionally, the land bore more markers of human settlement than those out West—the mountains were almost entirely deforested, many animal species had disappeared, and houses dotted the landscape. Throughout the 1930s, the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked tirelessly to erase these marks of human influence. They planted thousands of trees, tore down the homes out of which residents had just been evicted, and built Skyline Drive, a sloping, meandering asphalt road that opened the Park to the growing automobile tourism industry. By the time the CCC had finished its landscaping job, the Park was on track to look as it does now: pristine and people-free, occupied only by the hikers and campers seeking the zest of wilderness.

These complicated backstories demonstrate how, historically, the National Park Service has taken a strong stance in one of the biggest debates in the conservation and environmental movements: purity versus use. The NPS has prioritized the recreation of the many (often wealthier urban tourists) over the livelihoods of the few (often working class, rural people making a living off of the land and its products). In doing so, it has chosen purity over use. It’s a position often referred to, somewhat pejoratively, as fortress conservation.

But prioritizing purity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Preservation of beautiful spaces allows them to be enjoyed not just by one generation, but also by the many that follow; the same can’t be said for non-regenerative resource extraction. Without the NPS and its cousins (the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, etc.), there would be no old growth forest left in the United States. The Grand Canyon might have been a dam instead of a geologic masterpiece attracting five million visitors yearly. While tourism dollars certainly can have their own problematic implications, they constitute a lucrative and fairly sustainable revenue stream.

Additionally, creating, enforcing and valuing spaces that are protected from anthropogenic pollution (to the extent possible in our Anthropocene epoch) preserves wildlife corridors and biodiversity. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert defended the utility and relevancy of the National Park System in the age of climate change, arguing that “the fluidity—or, if you prefer, chaos—that’s approaching doesn’t make parks and national monuments irrelevant; it makes them even more essential.”

Most Americans today would agree that the National Park System is, if not America’s Best Idea (a. la. Wally Stegner), at least one of its Top Ten. However, the top-down attitudes on the best use of land expressed by the NPS throughout its history have made the Service some contemporary enemies as well.

On the centennial of the NPS last month, President Obama announced the creation of a new National Monument in Maine, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. This decision ended years of fierce arguments amongst Maine’s northern residents, pitting loggers and fishermen against one of Maine’s most wealthy philanthropists.

Burts Bee’s co-founder Roxanne Quimby and her son had been trying for over a decade to donate their immense, 80,000 acre swath of Maine woods for use as a national monument, and ultimately, what might be the last new national park on the East Coast. They had encountered bitter resistance from their neighbors, who resented Quimby’s decision to curtail snowmobile and hunting rights on her property in the lead-up to the monument’s creation. The northern Maine communities fighting against the monument also feared the inevitable changes to the economy and culture of the region that an influx of tourists would bring.

A similar, more violent stand-off over preservation and land use occurred at a National Wildlife Refuge (administered by Fish and Wildlife) in Oregon last year. Several dozen anti-federal activists, U.S. Constitutions in pockets, took over the headquarters of the Malheur Refuge and demanded a right to control the land’s use. From Maine to Oregon, anti-establishment political movements have targeted the NPS as a symbol of federal overreach.

Questions about accessibility and inclusivity have also come up frequently during the Service’s centennial year. The Service struggles to attract minority visitors and staff; last year 80 percent of NPS visitors and staff were white. The Park Service recently created the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion to reach out to the growing demographic percentage of Americans who rarely visit national parks and often don’t feel connected to them. Compounding this demographic lopsidedness are concerns of financial feasibility, calling into question Nicholas Kristof’s recent reflection in the New York Times about the joyous, democratic nature of the parks. While fees are low, travel can be expensive and opportunity costs high; many Americans can’t afford to spend a week (or a summer) backpacking, nor buy a plane ticket to many of the still-relatively-hard-to-reach parks.

All of these considerations, historical and contemporary, leave the Park Service at a crossroads. The Park Service has spent a hundred years grappling with how to balance preservation “for the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” with the sacrifice that national parks require from other People—and how to make these preserved spaces more accessible.

Recently, parks and historical sites nationwide have more fully acknowledged both the incredible dedication and the uncomfortable losses that serve as the foundation for the entire park system. At Cuyahoga Valley National Park, for example, small-scale working farms provide a glimpse of what the landscape might have looked like in the 19th-century, serving an educational as well as a conservationist purpose. Still-fruitful orchards planted by Christian missionaries in the 1800s are a key attraction at Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. Moving forward, the Park Service must continue to reject the mythic conception of untouched wilderness in favor of more robust historical-geologic narratives like these.

To truly connect with visitors trying to “Find Their Park,” the Park Service should acknowledge the history of exclusion that is woven into the history of conservation and leisure recreation in America while striving to make the invaluable cultural inheritance the Park System now contains more accessible to all Americans. In short, as it looks forward to its next hundred years, the National Park Service must welcome people back into the parks.

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  1. This article raises some important issues. However, it also reaches some conclusions that are not based on well-documented facts. For example:

    – The “myth of untouched wilderness” does not exist; it was just plain romanticism and tourism promotion. In fact, conservationists have never believed in “untouched wilderness.” They have always known that American landscapes had long been inhabited or utilized by Native Americans, and they know that centuries of Western exploitation have further reduced the ecological integrity of remaining wildlands. National parks are not about preserving “untouched wilderness”; they are about restoring and protecting natural systems and processes to ensure diverse and self-sustaining ecosystems now and in the future. It is no coincidence that Yellowstone National Park is at the core of the most intact ecosystem in the lower 48 United States.

    – The article contends that Native Americans were driven off lands they lived on to create national parks. This claim is highly questionable. For example, Natives were driven from Yosemite Valley long before the park was created, because they were impeding development by settlers. Of course, most of America was inhabited or used in some way or at some time by Native Americans, so all of us descended from more recent immigrants share some blame. But the real driver of Native American persecution and displacement has never been nature conservation, but instead private and corporate agriculture, resource extraction, industrialization, and urban development.

    – The contention that national parks are elitist does not square with the fact that in 2015 the National Park System broke all records with more than 300 million visitors from all over America and around the world. In contrast with other popular attractions, such as Disney World, concerts, or baseball games, national parks are one of the biggest bargains available for family vacations.

    – As the article notes, many people cannot afford to travel to national parks. However, this is not the result of National Park Service elitism; it is because there are not enough parks near major cities. We need a lot more new parks for the people, such as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, which is within a day’s drive of about 50 million residents in the region.

    – The assumption that “working class, rural people making a living off of the land and its products” are necessarily better off without national parks is not supported by the facts. For example, the economy of forest industry-dependent town of Millinocket, Maine, has collapsed over the last two decades, without a national park. In contrast, the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, has a healthy and diverse economy — which includes both fishing and tourism — thanks to adjacent Acadia National Park, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

    The National Park System is not perfect. Nothing is. But it needs to be judged in the context of the record of other public and private approaches to land and water management. From this perspective, national parks provide the strongest protection for both natural and historic treasures, the highest quality public education, and the most outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation of any management system.

  2. Strangely confused article.

    It complains that national parks are remote and “inaccessible”, then that a nefarious “profit” motive was in play when the train companies built railroads to the parks. How did the author wish people to get to the parks before cars became common. How many people would reached the parks without train transportation?

    The claim of that most early park visitors were “eastern elites” is simply false. Most visitors were from the west in the early days. It’s also oddly unreferenced. Surely the author has access to early visitation records in her eastern elite Yale University.

    The claim that Native Americans were removed to create nationsl parks was long ago debunked. They were removed before the parks were created for military, commerce, homesteading, ranching, logging, war profiteering, and more generally, racist manifest destiny reasons. To ignore that overwhelming power structure (including land grant colleges as Yale was) is a classic politically regressive move to pit oppressed groups (in this case Native Americans and nature) against each other instead of confronting the power bases abusing both of them.

    In this regard, the author’s later nostalgic and fawning references to loggers and ranchers is bizzarre. Surely she’s aware that it was loggers and ranchers who drove hundreds of thousands of Native Americans off there lands, and vast numbers to the grave in pursuit of profits and homesteads. And thst is was these same people who opposed the parks.

    I’m especially dissapointed in the author’s description of the racist, violent Bundy family militia as anti-establishment protestors demanding “a right to control the land’s use”. No. They declared ownership of the land as a God given gift to white ranchers. They siezed it from the public and built roads and latrines on Native American archeological sites. Prior to this they vandalized Native American cultural sites in Recapture Canyon, UT and Gold Butte, NV. Anti-establishment indeed.

    Final, it borders on academic fraud to write an article on the topic of National Parks and elitism without absolutely no mention that the primary argument put forth to create the parks was to prevent them from being privatized as playgrounds, logging plantations and ranches of the wealthy. In response to elitist land tenure abuses in Europe, the parks were expressly created to ensure lands were owned by and managed for the public. Thus early park booster Frederick Law Olmstead warnef of the “monopoly, in a very peculiar manner, of a very few very rich people.” Unless parks were established to stem the great western land grab, “the great mass of society, including those to whom it would be of the greatest benefit, is excluded from it.” There can be no credible review of elitism, democracy and the parks which does not explore this overriding and very well documented motivation and value system.

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