National Parks
The American Experience
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Preface to the First Edition

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.

Through personal encouragement and advice, many friends, relatives, and colleagues have contributed to the completion of this study. First mention is reserved for Marie Lundfelt Runte, who never doubted the value of this project nor wavered in her support. A special note of thanks is also due L. Moody Simms, Jr., and M. Paul Holsinger, both of the Department of History at Illinois State University, for their initial aid and counsel. Likewise, Bernard Mason, Albert V. House, Richard Dalfiume, and Robin Oggins, historians of the State University of New York at Binghamton, lent more time and attention to me as an undergraduate than either my discipline or performance then warranted. I am similarly grateful for the indulgence of my good friend and colleague Harold Kirker of the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who cheered and strengthened me during my moments of frustration and indecision.

An interpretative effort of this scope also owes recognition to the work of pioneers and practicing scholars in the fields of American intellectual history, the history of the West, and environmental history. Among them, Roderick Nash, Donald C. Swain, Douglas H. Strong, Richard A. Bartlett, W. Turrentine Jackson, Samuel P. Hays, Robert Shankland, John Ise, Aubrey Haines, and Hans Huth deserve special mention. I am directly indebted to Roderick Nash for encouraging this study from its inception. Richard Oglesby, also of the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Joseph H. Engbeck, Jr., of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and Richard A. Bartlett, professor of History at Florida State University, Tallahassee, similarly read and provided suggestions for the entire manuscript.

Research was expedited by the generous cooperation of the staffs of several libraries, including the Bancroft Library, Library of Congress, National Archives, Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission, and University of California, Santa Barbara. Frederick R. Bell and Jonathan S. Arms of the National Park Service Photographic Division in Washington, D.C., were especially helpful in providing illustrations. In large part, my own research was made possible by Resources for the Future, Inc., of Washington, D.C., which granted me a full-year stipend during 1973-74 to complete my background work and begin writing.

I am grateful to the editors of two journals for permission to repeat here ideas and information first published, in entirely different form, in "The National Park Idea: Origins and Paradox of the American Experience," Journal of Forest History 21 (April 1977): 64-75; "The Yosemite Valley Railroad: Highway of History, Pathway of Promise," National Parks and Conservation Magazine: The Environmental Journal 48 (December 1974): 4-9; and "Pragmatic Alliance: Western Railroads and the National Parks," National Parks and Conservation Magazine: The Environmental Journal 48 (April 1974): 14-21.

To all of you again, my gratitude.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/preface1.htm — 17-Mar-2004