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National parks are distinctly an American institution. The national park idea had its inception in the United States, the first of such parks was established here, and the parks of this country have served as a model for the rest of the world. Sixty-five years ago no national parks existed. Shortly afterward the Yellowstone was created by act of Congress. Today the United States has 22 national parks. Moreover, these areas have been studied by officials of foreign governments and have served as the basis for park creation and management in Canada and South America, in Europe, and even in Asia and Africa.

Mesa Verde NP
A Valuable Find at Mesa Verde National Park

Americans may well be proud of their parks. These areas contain the most magnificent scenery in a country replete with scenic features; many of them are of historic interest, some containing the ruined homes and implements of maintaining life of an otherwise forgotten people of a thousand or so years ago; and others are of such scientific interest that some of the best colleges of the country use them as outdoor classrooms in which to conduct summer schools.

More important yet, from a broad viewpoint, the national park system is a definite expression of the highest in our American code of government–equality for all.

In the United States the best of our natural scenery and our most interesting scientific and historic places are retained in public ownership, for the benefit and use of all the people. In the Old World, before our national park idea was imported there, the reverse condition obtained.

The history of the social use of lands is interesting. Always in the early days, as one traces the rise and fall of nations, organized government meant organization for the ruling few. The choicest lands were reserved, in princely gardens and forests, for the mighty of the earth. Heavy, almost inhuman, punishments were meted out to the person of humble station who shot a bird or 4-legged animal in a well-stocked preserve maintained for the shooting parties of the lords of the manor.

For instance, when at the height of their power the Kings of England had as one of their most cherished prerogatives the power to convert any area they wished into a preserve for their personal pleasure in the chase. But they went too far, and the people and the barons combined to force on King John that great constitutional code, the Magna Carta, in which were certain laws limiting the kingly powers in regard to disposal of such lands.

It was a far step, in years and in social progress, from King John's time to a day in 1870 when, out on our western frontier, a group of men voluntarily relinquished their legal and moral right to profit through private ownership of the area now included in Yellowstone National Park, and instead started a movement that two years later resulted in the creation of our first national park. Out of this movement also grew the great national forest system mentioned elsewhere in this paper.

During the first three quarters of the nineteenth century the geysers and hot springs formations of the Yellowstone region were visited occasionally by Indians and by white trappers and hunters. Stories of the wonders of the geysers and strange hot springs filtered out. At first disbelieved, eventually they resulted in the official investigation of 1870. As the explorations were about completed, members of the party gathered about the camp fire one evening, discussing the marvels they had seen. They talked of the disposition of the area, all free public lands, suggesting that the individual members file claims, one taking the geysers, another the beautiful canyon of the Yellowstone River, and so on.

Then came the momentous suggestion that resulted in our great national park system. Cornelius Hedges, a lawyer of Montana, advanced the thought that the individuals forego personal gain in order that the region, so unlike anything else in the country, be reserved as a national park for the benefit of the people for all time. The idea caught the imagination of those present and they agreed to return to their homes and work for the establishment of such a park. As a result, Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 by act of Congress as a "pleasuring ground" for the people of the Nation.

No other national parks were created until 1890, when the Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant Parks in California were established, followed in 1899 by Mount Rainier in Washington. Since then the national park system has progressed steadily.

Map of NPS Units

Even before the Yellowstone, however, the United States Government showed its interest in the public ownership of lands valuable from a social-use standpoint. In 1832 the Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas was established by act of Congress, because of the medicinal qualities believed to be contained in the waters. According to tradition, even the Indian tribes of the vicinity, who had long battled for the ownership of the healing waters in which they believed the "Great Spirit" to be ever present, had finally declared a truce under which the benefits were extended to the sick of all tribes. In 1921 the Hot Springs Reservation became a national park. It can in no sense of the word be called our first national park, however, because in its early reservation there was no idea of park use; it was definitely a place for the treatment of sick people. Now, while the hot springs are still available to the people under proper regulation, the area itself is a beautiful park, with motor roads and trails winding over and around its wooded hills, and recreation and relaxation are stressed almost as much as the use of the hot waters.



Last Modified: Tues, May 23 2000 09:38:48 am PDT

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