Origin of the National Park Idea

The concept of national parks was one of the most popular ideas the United States ever produced. It stemmed from the desire to protect special places for visitors’ present and future enjoyment.

Since Yellowstone was designated in 1872, the concept of what constitutes a national park has expanded significantly. The original focus on natural wonders has evolved to include sites that chronicle human history, educate, and elevate the quality of life.

Origins of the National Park Idea

The grandeur of the American West inspired the idea of national parks. There, vast landscapes, still untouched by development filled the eye. Artists, authors, and scientists struggled to capture the beauty they encountered and to record and share their discoveries. But they worried. What would happen when westward expansion arrived on the doorstep of the wilderness?

Artist George Catlin, during an 1832 trip to the Dakotas, was perhaps the first to suggest a novel solution to this fast-approaching reality. Indian civilization, wildlife, and wilderness were all in danger, wrote Catlin, unless they could be preserved "by some great protecting policy of government...in a magnificent park.... A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild[ness] and freshness of their nature’s beauty!"

A New View of the West

Encouraged by art, literature, and science, a powerful preservationist viewpoint gradually emerged. Even without a national policy or one designated agency, individual sites won protection.

In 1861, Congress appointed Ferdinand Hayden, head of the government's new geological survey, to lead a fact-finding expedition to the region at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. The area, situated in the Montana and Wyoming territories, had been an attraction for explorers, trappers, and prospectors since the late 18th century.

There were numerous accounts of its strange features, geysers, hot springs, and holes of bubbling mud, but it was not until Hayden’s team of geologists, botanists, and zoologists returned from their trip that the U.S. government had a full account of the area’s wonders.

The First National Park Emerges

Hayden strongly advocated for setting the Yellowstone region aside as a national park, and it did not take long for him to convince Congress. Congress approved the legislation in early 1872, and on March 1st of that year, President Grant signed the bill designating 2.2 million acres of land as "a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

The second section of the bill gave the Secretary of the Interior responsibility for "the preservation, from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition."

Early Policies

The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed presidents to proclaim permanent forest reserves on publicly-owned land—legislation that led to national forests. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave presidents authority to protect sites of historic significance as national monuments.

Congress also authorized the preservation of four major Civil War battlefields during this era, designating them as National Military Parks.

Other parks followed: Sequoia (1890) Mt. Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902) and Yosemite (1890). Over time, the federal government established policies on the preservation of natural resources: Laws and presidential decrees, however, did not solve real-world administration problems.

In Need of Oversight

While some of the national monuments reserved under the 1906 Antiquities Act were located in areas controlled by the Department of the Interior (DOI), others were on land supervised by the Department of War or the Department of Agriculture. With responsibility divided among several departments, who would make the rules, and could they possibly be consistent?

The problem was no single federal agency had the authority to operate and advocate for these parks and monuments. Individual sites received uneven attention and minimal federal support.

Last updated: March 10, 2016