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THE NATIONAL PARK wilderness NPS Arrowhead logo

the single national park purpose

The ideas we hold today about wilderness preservation in National Parks are the result of many years of growth. The seed was planted long ago by those men who worked for the establishment of the first National Parks. They saw a goal and pointed out a direction—but the entire concept did not emerge full grown at once.

Congress strengthened this movement and gave approval to it in the laws establishing National Parks and the National Park Service. These laws, and accompanying tradition, form the firm base for the policies of today. However, the strength of the National Park preservation movement derives less from them than from attitudes and beliefs that have evolved through the years among, people concerned with National Park matters. This includes a very substantial body of American citizens and their Congress, as well as the National Park Service itself.

The best safeguard of a principle is the peoples' understanding and appreciation of it, their conviction about it, and their dedication to it.


What is this modern preservation philosophy, and how has it developed?

In 1864, Congress established a new pattern of public land use when it ceded Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California, to be held inviolable for all time "for public use, resort, and recreation." But an event 6 years later marked the real beginning of the new pattern of thinking that set the destiny of the National Park System.


For 6 weeks, in 1870, a party of Montana citizens had been exploring with increasing awe, the remarkable country which today is known as Yellowstone National Park. At the end of the trail, they sat around a campfire, talking of what should happen to this land in the future. And that group of practical-minded private citizens were so moved by the sight of strange natural wonders and the impact of primeval wilderness that they put aside all thought of personal gain. They then and there resolved that this wonderland should be forever preserved in public ownership, set apart as a National Park for the use of all the people of America.

Web Edition Note: The campfire story was later proved to be untrue, but remains as part of the cultural heritage of our National Parks.

Three things in the establishment of Yellowstone are especially worth remembering. The first is that Yellowstone was envisioned as a public park, for public use and enjoyment. This was not a place to be locked up, isolated, and held from the people.

The second is this: The public park proposal came as a counter proposal after private ownership was considered and rejected. Preservation then meant primarily preservation against private control and commercial exploitation. The founders could hardly have foreseen that the natural wonders and the wilderness quality of this vast area could ever be endangered by the mere fact of public use; that preservation would come to mean preservation against overuse, inappropriate use, or overdevelopment; or that the park would need to be defended against competing kinds of public use. But, these are the major problems of the National Park Service today.

Thirdly, Congress set aside the whole of Yellowstone, reserving not merely a geyser, a canyon, or a spectacular waterfall, but the total scene in all its vastness and variety. The men who defined the first National Park were thinking in wilderness terms.


Other National Parks followed, and again, much of the moving force came from individuals who were inspired by their experiences in the wilderness they sought to preserve. We associate Colonel George Stewart and Gustavus Eisen with Sequoia and John Muir with Yosemite. So, too, do we associate William Gladstone Steele with Crater Lake, Enos Mills with Rocky Mountain, George B. Doerr with Acadia, Mark Squire and Dave Chapman with Great Smoky Mountains, and Ernest F. Coe with the Everglades. Thus, to a very large degree, the motivation for the establishment of many National Parks was a product of wilderness experience and wilderness appreciation.

Today, broad direction comes from a national office, but, for the development and protection of each individual National Park or Monument, specific plans are made by the men who are closest to the natural scene—the Superintendent of each park, his staff and professional aides. The inspiration of the wilderness continues to motivate the management of the National Parks.


The laws which are, in effect, the Constitution of the National Parks, are:

The separate Acts of Congress establishing and pertaining to each of the National Parks.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizing the establishment of National Monuments by Presidential proclamation.

The Act of 1916 that established the National Park Service.

While this Constitution may be subject to interpretation in the light of new knowledge and changing circumstances, its broad principles cannot be changed: That National Parks are special areas—"dedicated and set apart . . . as public pleasuring grounds" to be retained in a "natural condition." Such words are found in the law establishing the first and all subsequent National Parks.

The National Park Act of 1916 extends these same principles equally to the National Monuments. There is no difference between a National Park and a National Monument in this regard—both are dedicated areas to be preserved for public enjoyment.


Because the Act of 1916 is the basic authority and basic guide for the administration, protection, and use of all areas within the National Park System, it is worth our special attention. What does it really mean, and how does it apply to modern circumstances?

The key part of the act reads:

"The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."


This basic act uses the singular form of the word "purpose"—a single objective, not several. That single purpose inseparably combines use with preservation!

To isolate and emphasize either use or preservation to the exclusion of the other can seriously distort park planning, confuse park management, and imperil the validity of the whole National Park concept. What, then, is the nature of this amalgam of use and preservation which we seek to define?

The National Park System is a national resource—a natural resource, a historical resource, a cultural resource. Like minerals, water, timber and soil, it has value to man only when it is made useful to man.

Parks differ from other resources, chiefly in the nature of their products. Mines, timber, and cattle yield material products required by the Nation. Parks yield the products of knowledge, refreshment, and esthetic enjoyment equally required by all people. The direct way, and essentially the only way, these products are obtained is through the intelligent and appropriate use of park resources by people.

Does this mean that the primary purpose of a National Park System is to provide pleasure, enjoyment, knowledge, and inspiration? Is this all?


How does preservation fit into this picture?

It fits in a most fundamental way, for the 1916 act is a clear recognition of a basic principle—the recreational, cultural, and inspirational products of parks are supplied by the natural scene, undamaged and unimpaired. To change the character of the park scene, or to modify or impair the natural environment, destroys a part of its capacity to yield those benefits to the human mind and spirit.

Preservation is not an end in itself, but a means to the kind and quality of enjoyment which the National Parks were established to provide.

The problem of today is not one of striking a balance between preservation on the one hand, and use, on the other. The basic problem concerns use itself. What is appropriate park use? The answer to this question not only determines what a park visitor may do, and what developments are required, but gives the whole concept of preservation meaning and purpose. Can wilderness prevail indefinitely against all of the varied demands of an expanding economy? Yes, when wilderness contributes its proper part in meeting those demands, when the use benefits that flow from its unimpaired natural scene are sufficient to justify its continuation. The National Parks are evidence of this fact.



The natural environment is the essential resource of a scenic park or monument, the resource from which appropriate and beneficial enjoyment directly emanates.

This is the law, the tradition, and the philosophy which must guide all planning for each area, whether its distinction lies in a particular feature of scenic or scientific interest, or in an expansive wilderness.

The wilderness proper serves all park visitors. Those who penetrate it gain its fullest rewards. But, it is the part of a National Park that is not intensively used that makes it a park, and the undeveloped wilderness beyond the roads furnishes the setting and the background. Take away the background, and the park atmosphere of the whole disappears, and with it a very large part of the pleasure of those whose only contact with wilderness is experienced as they look outward over it from the roadside.

Wilderness areas, and the quality of wilderness which must pervade the most visited part of a National Park, are a primary resource—a resource to be cherished and guarded, a resource whose benefits each park visitor is entitled to enjoy.

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Last Modified: Sat, Feb 1 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT

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