04 Development of the National Parks

National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Research in the National Parks: The Robbins Report

Development of the National Parks

As background for its study the Committee was concerned with learning something of the development of national parks in the United States.

In his history of the United States, Henry Adams pointed out that in 1800, the Nation as it then existed held 5,300,000 persons. Nearly one-fifth of the people were Negro slaves; the true political population consisted of four and one-half million free whites, or fewer than one million able-bodied males. The land was still untamed; forest covered every portion, except here and there a strip of cultivated soil; the minerals lay “undisturbed in their rocky beds; and more than two-thirds of the people clung to the seaboard within 50 miles of tidewater, where alone the wants of civilized life could be supplied. The center of population rested within 18 miles of Baltimore and the interior of the country was little more civilized than when La Salle and Hennepin found their way to the Mississippi more than a century before.”

Adams added that with the exception that half a million people had crossed the Alleghenies and were struggling with difficulties of their own “in an isolation like that of the Jutes or Angles in the Fifth Century,” America had changed little in more than half a century. The old landmarks stood nearly where they had before. The same bad roads and difficult rivers, connecting the same small villages “stretched into the same forests as when the armies of Braddock and Amherst pierced the northern and western wilderness; nature was rather man’s master than his servant, and the five million Americans struggling with the untamed continent seemed hardly more competent than the beavers and buffalo which for countless generations made bridges and roads of their own.”

How do we find our country today? We have a population of more than 180,000,000. We have and are building an almost incomprehensible network of highways, turnpikes and speedways. We can cross the wide continent in less time than it took to send a letter from Baltimore to Washington in 1800.

Domestically, we are faced with the challenge of growth. Our postwar industrial expansion, although not as great as some would like, is changing the face of the land and the habits of millions. In the early days Americans with few exceptions, were too interested in the exploitation of a continent to be concerned about conservation of natural resources. Thomas Jefferson practiced contour farming on his Virginia plantation, Patrick Henry is reported to have said that “he is the best patriot who fills the most gullies,” and Washington himself stated that the proper management of land was the thing least understood in Virginia. But general interest in conservation is of fairly recent origin.

It is somehow fitting that one of the earliest of the prophetic voices raised on behalf of the creation of national parks was that of an artist. In 1833, George Catlin, the great painter of Indians and the West, published in the Daily Commercial Advertiser the hope that the western regions “might in the future (by some great protecting policy of government) be preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come” the primitive environment and its native inhabitants.

The next important voice raised in behalf of Catlin’s park conservation plan, Huth, inNature and the American, [1] reports, was that of Emerson, who in 1844, in a speech entitled “The Young American,” stated that the “interminable forests should become graceful parks for use and delight.” And in 1847, a similar idea was suggested by the painter Thomas Cole, who felt that it was necessary to save and perpetuate the disappearing wilderness.

National parks, as we know them today, first came into being when the Congress by the Act of March 1, 1872, created Yellowstone National Park. That park was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Establishment of Yellowstone National Park pointed the way to a new type of land use which has served to guide this country and other nations of the world.

During the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, the geysers and hot springs of the Yellowstone region had been seen by a few trappers and hunters. Their stories of the wonders of that wilderness area filtered to the outside world. At first disbelieved, their persistence finally led to the explorations of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in 1870. The members of that party confirmed the rumors of the outstanding natural features of the Yellowstone region.

Cornelius Hedges, a member of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, propagated the new idea regarding the disposition of public lands. He proposed that the Yellowstone area should not be privately exploited, but should be preserved as a national park for the benefit of all of the people for all time.

No other national parks were created until 1890, when the Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks in California were established, followed in 1899 by Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. Others have been created since 1900, bringing the present total to 31. The latest is Petrified Forest National Park, established December 9, 1962.

The most important legislation affecting national parks, and perhaps the most far-reaching in its effects since the approval of the Act establishing Yellowstone National Park, is the Act of June 8, 1906. That Act gave the President of the United States authority “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”

The national parks and national monuments that came into being between 1900 and 1915 were administered by three different departments. There was no unified or systematic federal plan or policy for the protection, administration, and development of the areas whose characteristics and uses were closely related .

In 1915, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, realizing the important and distinctive type of conservation represented by these areas and the advantages of unifying the parks and monuments into an integrated system, appointed Stephen T. Mather as his assistant to devote his energies entirely to park matters. Under Secretary Lane’s guidance, Mr. Mather and his assistant, Horace M. Albright, drafted the bill which became the Act of August 25, 1916, establishing the National Park Service as a bureau of the Department of the Interior.

In connection with the Federal Government’s reorganization in 1933, many additional areas were transferred to the National Park System. Section 2 of Executive Order 6166 of June 10, 1933, issued pursuant to the Act of March 3, 1933 (47 Stat. 1517), relating to reorganization of the Executive Department, transferred the monuments, military parks and allied areas, and the National Capital Parks, administered by other federal agencies, to the National Park Service on August 10, 1933. Executive Order 6228 of July 28, 1933, clarified Executive Order of June 10, 1933, in that it limited the national cemeteries transferred from the War Department to National Park Service jurisdiction to those contiguous to, or connected with, national military parks and monuments.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that the massive growth of population throughout the world — in the United States from four million in 1700 to more than 200 million predicted by the close of the century — is a direct threat to survival unless we learn the lesson of conservation and wise use of our natural resources, and the term “wise use” includes conservation of spiritual and intellectual values as well as material ones. National parks and the national park idea, which originated in the United States, are powerful influences contributing to this wise use of natural resources.

1University of California Press.

<< previousnext >>