On-line Book
Cover to America's National Park Service: The Critical Documents
Cover Page


Table of Contents


The Early Years,

Defining The System,

The New Deal Years,

The Poverty Years,

Questions of
Resource Management

The Ecological Revolution,

Transformation and

A System Threatened,

Summaries of
Lengthy Documents

About the Editor

America's National Park System:
The Critical Documents
Chapter 1:
The Early Years, 1864-1918

The Early Years

The origins of the national park idea are the subject of considerable academic speculation. Suffice it to say, however, the concept did not originate over a Wyoming campfire. The processes that led up to national parks are more readily identified but also far more complex. From the arts and literature came the Romantic movement which encouraged the experience of mountains and wilderness. Authors like Henry David Thoreau and Washington Irving exhorted Americans to pursue nature even as the frontier rolled away from them. Landscape artists culminating with Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt presented awesome spectacles that received huge public interest.

The rise in attention to nature coincided with the search for identity and pride among American literati. When compared to Europe's thousands of years of history, its fabric of ancient structures and sites, its rich cultural legacy built on many centuries of interchange, the United States appeared a rude, uncultured backwater. Stung by caustic criticism and snobbery from Europe, Americans looked for elements in their own land to flaunt. In Yellowstone and Yosemite, and indeed the whole western wilderness, Americans had what they needed. America was new, rugged, spectacular, and could be proud of its splendor and its clean slate upon which to develop the human experience.

Yet another motive for national parks came from the American experience at Niagara Falls. The famous falls were America's paramount scenic wonder during the first half of the nineteenth century. However, local landowners had, in their frenzy to maximize profits, gone so far as to erect fences and charge viewers to look through holes at the spectacle. Tawdry concessions and souvenirs, filth, and squalor attended a visit to this most sublime of eastern American features. Clearly government control of such a feature to assure its availability to the public was in order.

The first movement to create a park came amidst the Civil War. Yosemite Valley had been first entered by Americans chasing a band of Indians in 1851. Within five years the situation at Niagara Falls began to repeat itself. Claims on the valley lands were filed and tolls charged. Haphazard tourism began even as the fame of the valley spread to a wondering and suspicious East. Concern for this amazing spectacle and its availability to all comers led Congress to withdraw the lands from alienation in 1864 and turn over the valley and a nearby grove of giant sequoias to the state of California as a public park. The state would continue to manage this first federal withdrawal for a park until 1906 when it was merged with Yosemite National Park.

Eight years later Congress established the world's first true national park. Instrumental in its creation was the Northern Pacific Railroad, beginning a fifty-year period during which railroads became the most profound influence on the establishment of these reserves and on the development of tourism in them. Where the Yosemite withdrawal consisted of a pair of relatively small areas, Yellowstone as an enormous tract of more than 3,400 square miles. The creation of Yellowstone National Park marked the first serious challenge to the culture of land alienation and consumptive use in American history.

The Yellowstone withdrawal was so massive and to many land users apparently purposeless that it was another eighteen years before a second successful park was created. By the end of the century still only five national parks existed, three of them in California. However, Congress was not idle in its preservation efforts and in forming reserves that would later become part of the national park system. During the latter portion of the century antiquities of the Southwestern Indians became a source of interest and gain for many Americans.. Vandals and pot-hunters looted Anasazi and other sites, often destroying structures, not to mention the archaeological record, in their greedy haste. The earliest steps to protect an archaeological site came at Casa Grande Ruin in Arizona. Reacting to vandalism of this ancient adobe structure. Congress attached a rider to a civil appropriations bill in 1889 calling for the repair and protection of the first of what would become the national monuments.

A year later, a separate movement led to the establishment of the nation's first national battlefield park. Although some national cemeteries had been established even during the Civil War, no substantial protection had been provided to an entire battlefield. Initially, of course, the South saw no reason to preserve and celebrate its traumatic defeat. However, by the late 1880s, efforts to heal the nation's wounds and commemorate all who fought in the war led to various associations to protect major battlefields. At the behest of one such group Congress set aside in 1890 the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefields.

Finally, in 1906 the early spate of preservation efforts culminated with the Antiquities Act. The outgrowth of continued clamor for protection of archaeological sites, its chief impact came in section two where the president was given the power to unilaterally declare national monuments on federal lands in order to protect items of historic or scientific interest. The national park system today includes more than fifty national monuments deriving from this legislation (out of a total of more than seventy).

The establishment of the roots of the national park system was matched by a slower but no less important definition of management policies and priorities. In a consumptive society, these parks were novel and, to many, uncomfortable interruptions of business as usual. Much of the ground-laying of national park policy came from recommendations on the management of Yosemite Valley by eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York's Central Park. In his 1865 report to the governor of California, he laid the philosophical foundations of preservation for inspirational purposes and made explicit recommendations on such matters as concession operations, development, scientific protection, and interpretation.

Despite Olmsted's ideas, the pressure to use park resources in traditional consumptive ways was substantial, especially in the huge Yellowstone reserve. Acting to forestall hunting and trapping and further define the degree of protection afforded in a national park, Congress in 1894 passed the Yellowstone Game Protection Act.

By 1912 the parks were well established and reasonably safe from hunting, logging, and mining. Still, in a rapidly changing nation, uses of and threats to the parks evolved, and answers to new questions had to be found. By the turn of the century, automobiles had appeared in several national parks. However, no definitive policy had been established. Instead, reflecting perhaps the piecemeal management that preceded the 1916 Organic Act, auto use in each park was a separate issue. During 1912, Department of the Interior officials, conservationists, and others met in Yosemite to discuss auto use in the valley. Their comments indicate the prevalent attitudes of the time—that all forms of access to parks should be encouraged;

that the primary concern is for the safety of drivers on the rough and twisting roads; and that no damage either to the park or to the park experience is expected from the admission of automobiles.

In 1916 came the most important document in this entire collection. For some years the parks were run as independent units lost in the bureaucratic maze of the Interior Department. In a concerted campaign by Robert Sterling Yard, future directors Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, the National Geographic Society, and many others, Congress was encouraged to establish a National Park Service, place all the existing parks under its management, and spell out the purposes for their preservation. The ensuing act, often known as the Organic Act, and its difficult charge to both preserve park resources and make them available to tourists, form the legal foundation stone of the system.

As a final management statement culminating this long and complex formative period, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane issued a detailed policy statement on management of the parks in 1918. Albright actually wrote the letter reflecting the ideas of Mather and others. The Lane letter addresses concession policy, priorities of protection, and many other issues not elaborated in the Organic Act. With these details of policy established and aired, Mather was set to consolidate and refine the national park system.


Yosemite Act, 1864

Olmsted Report on Management of Yosemite, 1865

Yellowstone Act, 1872

Protection of Casa Grande Ruin, 1889

Chickamauga National Park Act, 1890

Yellowstone Game Protection Act, 1894

Antiquities Act, 1906

Auto Use in the National Parks, 1912

Act to Establish a National Park Service (Organic Act), 1916

Secretary Lane's Letter on National Park Management, 1918


Last Modified: October 25, 2000 10:00:00 am PST

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