National Parks
The American Experience
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No institution is more symbolic of the conservation movement in the United States than the national parks. Although other approaches to conservation, such as the national forests, each have their own following, only the national parks have had both the individuality and uniqueness to fix an indelible image on the American mind. The components of that image are the subject of this volume. What follows, then, is an interpretative history; people, events, and legislation are treated only as they pertain to the idea of national parks. For this reason I have not found it necessary to cover every park in detail; similarly, it would be impossible in the scope of one book to consider the multitude of recreation areas, military parks, historic sites, and urban preserves now often ranked with the national parks proper. Most of the themes relevant to the prime natural areas still have direct application throughout the national park system, particularly with respect to the problems of maintaining the character and integrity of the parks once they have been established. The indifference of Congress to the infringement of commercialization on Gettysburg National Military Park, for example, is traceable to the same pressures for development which have led to the resort atmosphere in portions of Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and other parks.

The reluctance of most historians and writers to dwell on the negative themes of national park history is understandable. National parks stand for the unselfish side of conservation. Take away the national park idea and the conservation movement loses its spirit of idealism and altruism. National parks justify the conviction that the United States has been as committed to do what is "right" for the environment as what is mandatory to ensure the productivity of the nation's natural resources. Without the national parks the history of conservation becomes predictable and therefore ordinary. Taking precautions to ward off the possibility of running out of natural resources was only common sense.

The history of the national park idea is indeed filled with examples of statesmanship and philanthropy. Still, there has been a tendency among historians to put the national parks on a pedestal, to interpret the park idea as evidence of an unqualified revulsion against disruption of the environment. It would be comforting to believe that the national park idea originated in a deep and uncompromising love of the land for its own sake. Such a circumstance—much like the common assertion that Indians were the first "ecologists"—would reassure modern environmentalists they need only recapture the spirit of the past to acquire ecological wisdom and respect. But in fact, the national park idea evolved to fulfill cultural rather than environmental needs. The search for a distinct national identity, more than what have come to be called "the rights of rocks," was the initial impetus behind scenic preservation. Nor did the United States overrule economic considerations in the selection of the areas to be included in the national parks. Even today the reserves are not allowed to interfere with the material progress of the nation.

It has been as hard to develop in the American public a concern for the environment in and of itself within the national parks as it has outside of them. For example, despite the public's growing sensitivity to environmental issues, the large majority of park visitors still shun the trails for the comfort and convenience of automobiles. Most of these enthusiasts, like their predecessors, continue to see the national parks as a parade of natural "wonders," as a string of phenomena to be photographed and deserted in haste. Thus while the nation professes an awareness of the interrelationships of all living things, outmoded perceptions remain a hindrance to the realization of sound ecological management throughout the national park system.

Previous editions of this book have gratefully acknowledged the many friends, relatives, and colleagues who contributed to its research and completion. All, accordingly, will understand if I now refrain from simply listing them yet again. Instead, I would like to give brief acknowledgment to the debt I owe an era, that time when history was about achievement more than about who had done what to whom.

Perhaps, in everyone's insistence to be inclusive, historians have forgotten what true achievement means. I came from that side of the tracks where history now spends most of its time. No one need tell me how hard it was for immigrants, minorities, and working class families to get ahead. I know, because my parents were part of that struggle, wondering like everybody else how to get through another day.

The point is that struggle also meant advancement, not only heartache but opportunity. History as I discovered it lifted the story of America to a higher plane, and me as well. I thank that age for its inspiration if not for its perfectibility, leaving perfection to those who really believe only remorse is now the answer.

Grand Tetons
Teton Mountains and Snake River. Ansel Adams Photograph, ca. 1940, courtesy of the National Archives.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/preface.htm — 17-Mar-2004