Natural Reserves and Parks

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Natural Reserves and Parks


Natural reserves and parks are areas of land or water set aside by governments or private groups to preserve them from uncontrolled development and exploitation. In international discussion, the term protected areas is used to denote all types of land and ocean areas where access and development are restricted in ordered to protect, at least partially, the natural character of that area. Not all protected areas are pure wilderness; in some cases, human settlements remain within the boundaries of the area.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The Wilderness Ideal and the World’s First Parks

The setting aside of parks and other protected areas for the sake of preserving their original or natural character is historically recent. Until the nineteenth century, a landscape set aside as a park was generally a private or royal land on which deer and other wild animals were kept for recreational hunting by the ruling classes. These landscapes were not intended for public use, or to pre-serve wild landscapes as such. For centuries, the penalty for illegal hunting in a European royal park was typically death.

The colonization of North America brought Europeans into sustained contact with a less-tamed land than could be found anywhere in Europe, including vast forests, lakes, mountain ranges, and rivers. Although Native American practices had modified many of these ecosystems, their influence was minor by modern standards or even by those of the early European settlers, who brought with them plow-based agriculture, livestock herds, and logging. With the gun, steel ax, and steel plow—tools not yet available to Native Americans—the settlers shaved off whole forests, caused widespread soil erosion, drove indigenous species such as the wolf and deer out of New England, and made other drastic changes. The earliest Puritan settlers did not look kindly on wilderness, as they saw the relatively unmodified landscapes inhabited by Native Americans, and did not wish to preserve it. On the contrary, they viewed the wilderness as raw, meant for conquering, cultivating, and transforming into a new Eden.

By the mid-nineteenth century, even after two centuries of taming and exploitation, much wilderness still remained in North America, and the early Puritan aversion to wilderness was being replaced by admiration. The literary and artistic movement known as Romanticism, which began in Europe in the late 1700s, called attention to the moods and beauties of nature and was an influence on American naturalists. In 1832, the artist George Catlin (1796–1872) suggested that some of the Great Plains region of the American West be set aside as a “nation’s park” in order to preserve Indian culture and the buffalo (an animal unique to the New World). In 1862, in his essay “Huckleberries,” Massachusetts native Henry Thoreau (1817–1862) became the first person to express the modern ideal of the wilderness park when he wrote, “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” At that time, such an idea was radical; publicly owned land set aside and kept wild for the sake of its wildness did not yet exist.

Wilderness tourism began to flourish in the mid-nineteenth century, as ordinary citizens and families from cities and towns sought out wild areas for amusement and relaxation. Admirers of nature, joined by entrepreneurs who hoped to exploit the business poten-


BUSHMEAT: Meat from wild animals killed for food. Poaching (illegal hunting) for bushmeat has contributed to population stress for many species of animals in Africa, including the great apes, and has also resulted in disease outbreaks in man from consuming the meat from wild animals.

ECO-TOURISM: Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas that promotes conservation, has a low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.

INDIGENOUS SPECIES: A species that is native to its region, but may occur in other regions as well.

SUSTAINABILITY: Practices that preserve the balance between human needs and the environment, as well as between current and future human requirements.

tial of what would now be called eco-tourism, urged that the Yosemite Valley of California be set aside as public land. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) granted the valley to the State of California “for public use, resort and recreation.” There was as yet no thought of preserving the wild character of the region for its own sake. Business leaders also moved Congress to set aside the Yellowstone region of what is now Wyoming in 1872, creating the world’s first national park. Scottish immigrant John Muir (1838–1914), naturalist and lover of wilderness, agitated successfully for the creation of a larger, nationally owned park around the Yosemite valley, which Congress did in 1890. These were the beginnings of the world’s first national park system.

Meanwhile, the national forests and other categories of protected federal and state land were also being set aside. The first national forest, reserved not primarily for recreation but to secure a sustainable supply of timber, was the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve, created by an executive order in 1891. The Adirondack and Catskill State Parks in New York were established by the government of that state in 1892, making them the oldest and, in the case of the Adirondacks, still the largest nonfederal parks in the United States. The 2.7 million acres (11,000 square km) of the Adirondack Park that are state-owned comprise a larger area than most national parks; the whole park is about the size of Vermont. In 1903, the first National Wildlife Refuge was created on Pelican Island, Florida, by order of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919).

In 1916, Congress passed legislation creating the National Park Service in order to oversee the growing system of national parks. In 1933, scores of federally owned monuments and historical sites were transferred to the care of the National Park Service. To this day, the Park Service remains in charge of many human-made sites such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Protected Lands Today

The more than 380 monuments and preserves managed by the National Park Service cover 83 million acres (336,000 square km), with holdings in every state but Delaware. The National Forests cover about 190 million acres (769,000 square km), over twice as much area as the national parks. The Bureau of Land Management oversees an additional 264 million acres (1 million square km) of land. The degrees of protection accorded to land managed by the federal government range from zero, as in the case of lands leased for strip-mining by the Bureau of Land Management, to complete prohibition on human entry, as in especially sensitive park locations such as nesting areas.

City and state governments maintain tens of thousands of parks or public recreational spaces. These range in size and degree of wildness from playgrounds to large wilderness preserves such as New York’s Adirondacks Park or Alaska’s Wood-Tikchick State Park, which is as large as the state of Delaware.

The Global Picture

During the twentieth century, the concept of the national park became global. By the early 2000s, over 90 countries had set aside areas of wild land as national parks. The creation and scientific management of protected areas is encouraged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international group whose members include over 1,000 governments and private organizations. The IUCN, which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and works closely with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), states that its mission is “to influence, encourage, and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.”

According to the 2003 United Nations List of Protected Areas, as of 2003 there were at least 102,102 protected areas in the world covering 7.3 million square mi (18.8 million square km). The United States contained about 8% of this protected area. Excluding marine protected areas, about 6.6 million square mi (17.1 million square km) of land were protected, some 11.5% of the world’s land surface—an area almost as large as South America. The IUCN defines a protected area as “an area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means” (2003 UN List). Biological diversity (also called biodiversity) is defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity, a 1992 treaty ratified by 189 countries (not including the United States) as “the variability among living organisms from all sources… ‘including’ diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.” Slowing the global loss of biodiversity is one of the main priorities of most groups managing protected areas today.

As already mentioned, reserves and parks span a range of wildness, from monuments to pristine wildernesses. The IUCN recognizes six main categories of protected area:

  1. Stricture Nature Reserve or Wilderness Area, managed mainly for science or wilderness protection;
  2. National Park, managed mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation;
  3. Natural Monument, managed mainly for conservation of specific natural features;
  4. Habitat/Species Management Area, managed mainly for conservation through management intervention (rather than, say, by direct exclusion of certain activities, such as logging or fishing);
  5. Protected Landscape/Seascape, where “the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant aesthetic, ecological and/or cultural value” (2003 UN List), managed mainly for landscape or seascape conservation and recreation; and
  6. Managed Resource Protected Area, an area managed mostly for sustainable exploitation of natural ecosystems (for example, a national forest).


The world’s largest single protected area and largest wilderness, the continent of Antarctica, is centered on the South Pole and covers almost 5.4 million square mi (14 million square km). It is not counted in the United Nations’s 2003 reckoning of global protected areas, although the UN does state that the continent is part of “the world’s protected areas estate.” Antarctica is not under the jurisdiction of any single government, but is governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which applies to all points south of 60° south latitude. The Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, in force since 1998, declares that Antarctica is a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”

Private Preservation

Due to bureaucratic delays and political opposition to the acquisition of land by governments, not all sensitive natural areas can be preserved by government action. In the United States, in 1946, a small group of ecologists (scientists who study the interactions of organisms with each other and the environment), frustrated by the lack of government action to preserve key natural areas, formed a private group called the Ecologists Union. In 1950, this group changed its name to the Nature

Conservancy. In 1961, the Nature Conservancy purchased a 60-acre (0.25 square km) parcel of land in New York State. By 2008, the conservancy was working in over 30 countries, employed more than 700 full-time staff scientists, had protected more than 183,000 square mi (473,000 square km) of land worldwide, and had cooperated with the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of Defense, corporations, state governments, foreign governments, and other parties in the preservation of landscapes.

For example, the conservancy cut a $50 million deal with cash-strapped paper companies in Maine in 2002 that resulted in the protection of 377 square mi (975 square km) of forest. The deal guaranteed public access, traditional recreational uses, and sustainable forestry practices. Similar deals followed. By 2008, the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy had protected over 1 million acres, about 4.6% of the state. In 2004, after more than a decade of negotiations, the Nature Conservancy purchased 130 square mi (340 square km) of land in Colorado and transferred it to the federal government. The land was declared the Great Sand Dunes National Park by an act of Congress six months later. The primary goal of the Conservancy is the preservation of biodiversity, with recreational access a secondary priority. Also prominent in international private preservation is the World Land Trust, a group founded in the United Kingdom in 1989. The trust focuses on the direct preservation of rain forests, the world’s most biodiverse and rapidly disappearing type of terrestrial ecosystem.

Scores of smaller, locally oriented land trusts and conservancy organizations in the United States and elsewhere are also protecting significant areas of land. One of the primary tools used by such groups is the conservation easement. A conservation easement is a contract between a landowner and a government or conservation group that limits what the owner can do with his/her land. For example, an easement might specify that the owner can log the land, but cannot erect buildings or roads on it. An easement might specify that the public be allowed access to the protected area, or might allow the landowner to exclude the public. An easement may be donated by a landowner or sold and goes with the land, that is, continues to govern what can be done with the land even if it is passed to a new owner. The benefit of selling a conservation easement is that the owner retains certain rights to the land while gaining cash income. The disadvantage of an easement, from the owner’s point of view, is that it may reduce the market value of the land or forbid profitable development, such as subdivision and the erection of houses. By 2003, conservation easements had been used by the Nature Conservancy and local land trusts to protect 8,000 square mi (20,600 square km) of land in the United States.

Impacts and Issues

The area devoted to parks and other protected areas around the world has grown steadily since the 1960s. In 1982, there were 3.4 million square mi (8.8 million square km) of protected areas; in 1992, 4.8 million square mi (12.3 million square km), a 42% increase from 1982; and in 2003, 7.3 million square mi (18.8 million square km), a 53% increase from 1992. However, development, rain-forest destruction, and other forms of habitat destruction have also been accelerating, leading to a global wave of species extinctions. As of 2003, about 12% of the world’s biome area was protected, with coverage varying greatly depending on the type of biome. Protection ranged from 1.54% of lake systems to 23.32% of tropical humid forests.


Tourism can both benefit and damage protected areas. It can be of benefit when the income from the tourist industry motivates governments to set aside and protect lands that preserve biodiversity; it can cause damage when too many tourists enter a sensitive area, trampling or polluting it or disturbing the life cycles of native plants and animals, or when sensitive areas are developed for hotels and other tourist facilities. Coral reefs, for example, may be easily damaged by poorly planned tourism, with sewage from hotels causing algae to smother living corals, careless tourists standing on or kicking corals or damaging them with boats, skis, anchors, or souvenir-collecting.

The Galapagos islands of Ecuador, a biodiversity hotspot and protected area, are suffering from excessive tourism. In 2007, after 53 sea lions were slaughtered with clubs in the Galapagos, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador declared that the island group was at risk from tourism and immigration. A spokesperson for Acción Ecológica, a group of Ecuadorian ecologists, said in a 2008 National Geographic News interview that “The biggest problem we have in the Galapagos is excessivetourism…. The most fundamental change we need is tolimit the number of tourist visitors to the area. We are putting too much pressure on the zone, and there should be stricter regulations”

Antarctica, too, is threatened by the friendly attentions of thousands of tourists. In 1990–1991, only about 4,700 tourists visited Antarctica; in 2003–2004, over 24,000 visited, and the number continued to grow rapidly. Although most tour operations in Antarctica are governed by the rules of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, both membership in the group and obedience to its rules are voluntary. Large cruise ships may spew sewage or chemicals, dump garbage, and disturb wildlife by landing large parties of tourists. Incidents have been reported where tourists, who are supposed to stay at least 15 ft (5 m) away from all sea-birds, have chased penguins with video cameras in hand. Tour helicopters have also flown near colonies, possibly disrupting nesting and mating behaviors.

Conflict with Neighbors

Some farmers, herders, and ranchers who live on lands bounding parks view the animals that survive in the parks as threats to their livelihood. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, ranchers in the American West strongly opposed the re-introduction of wolves into various federal lands. Bison that wander out of Yellowstone National Park in the winter in search of food are routinely shot to accommodate the cattle industry, which fears that the bison will spread a disease (brucellosis) to domestic cattle and seeks to prevent the bison from competing with cattle for grass. Since 1990, thousands of the bison have been killed by hunters or sent by the federal government to slaughterhouses. In 2007 and 2008, in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, native herders used a widely available pesticide (carbofuran) to poison lions and hyenas, which occasionally preyed on their flocks. Animal poaching for bushmeat also continues to be a problem in national parks within developing countries.

Governments can sometimes ease such conflicts by offering compensation and incentives to herders and others in conflict with wildlife. For example, in Montana and Idaho, the U.S. government has granted special permits to ranchers allowing them to kill wolves that attacked livestock, and it has operated compensation programs to pay cash to ranchers whose livestock are killed by wolves.

Primary Source Connection

Our National Parks is a collection of essays by American conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir (1838–1914), originally written for the Atlantic Monthly. Muir wrote about the beauty and grandeur of the nation’s forests and mountain ranges, hoping to encourage people to visit these areas and to realize the importance of maintaining a portion of the country in its original, natural state.

Muir’s encouragement and vivid descriptions kept the park in the public eye, increasing the number of visitors, and also drew the attention of the government, eventually leading to the enactment of the National Park Service in 1916, which protected not only Yellowstone, but the other parks that had been designated, unifying them as a single entity designed to benefit the citizens of the United States. It also created the post of a director to oversee the properties and their management, thereby ensuring that large tracts of land would remain untouched by industrial progress, as well as unspoiled in the years to come.


Of the four national parks of the West, the Yellowstone is far the largest. It is a big, wholesome wilderness on the broad summit of the Rocky Mountains, favored with abundance of rain and snow,— a place of fountains where the greatest of the American rivers take their rise. The central portion is a densely forested and comparatively level volcanic plateau with an average elevation of about eight thousand feet above the sea, surrounded by an imposing host of mountains belonging to the subordinate Gallatin, Wind River, Teton, Absaroka, and snowy ranges. Unnumbered lakes shine in it, united by a famous band of streams that rush up out of hot lava beds, or fall from the frosty peaks in channels rocky and bare, mossy and bosky, to the main rivers, singing cheerily on through every difficulty, cunningly dividing and finding their way east and went to the two far-off seas.

Glacier meadows and beaver meadows are outspread with charming effect along the banks of the streams, parklike expanses in the woods, and innumerable small gardens in rocky recesses of the mountains, some of them containing more petals than leaves, while the whole wilderness is enlivened with happy animals.

Beside the treasures common to most mountain regions that are wild and blessed with a kind climate, the park is full of exciting wonders. The wildest geysers in the world, in bright, triumphant bands, are dancing and singing in it amid thousands of boiling springs, beautiful and awful, their basins arrayed in gorgeous colors like gigantic flowers; and hot paint-pots, mud springs, mud volcanoes, mush and broth caldrons whose contents are of every color and consistency, plash and heave and roar in bewildering abundance. In the adjacent mountains, beneath the living trees the edges of petrified forests are exposed to view, like specimens on the shelves of a museum, standing on ledges tier above tier where they grew, solemnly silent in rigid crystalline beauty after swaying in the winds thousands of centuries ago, opening marvelous views back into the years and climates and life of the past. Here, too, are hills of sparkling crystals, hills of sulphur, hills of glass, hills of cinders and ashes, mountains of every style of architecture, icy or forested, mountains covered with honey-bloom sweet as Hymettus, mountains boiled soft like potatoes and colored like a sunset sky. A’ that and a’ that, and twice as muckle’s a’ that, Nature has on show in the Yellowstone Park. Therefore it is called Wonderland, and thousands of tourists and travelers stream into it every summer, and wander about in it enchanted.

Fortunately, almost as soon as it was discovered it was dedicated and set apart for the benefit of the people, a piece of legislation that shines benignly amid the common dust-and-ashes history of the public domain, for which the world must thank Professor Hayden above all others; for he led the first scientific exploring party into it, described it, and with admirable enthusiasm urged Congress to preserve it. As delineated in the year 1872, the park, contained about 3344 square miles. On March 30, 1891 it was to all intents and purposes enlarged by the Yellowstone National Park Timber Reserve, and in December, 1897, by the Teton Forest Reserve; thus nearly doubling its original area, and extending the southern boundary far enough to take in the sublime Teton range and the famous pasture-lands of the big Rocky Mountain game animals. The withdrawal of this large tract from the public domain did not harm to any one; for its height, 6000 to over 13,000 feet above the sea, and its thick mantle of volcanic rocks, prevent its ever being available for agriculture or mining, while on the other hand its geographical position, reviving climate, and wonderful scenery combine to make it a grand health, pleasure, and study resort,—a gathering-place for travelers from all the world.

The national parks are not only withdrawn from sale and entry like the forest reservations, but are efficiently managed and guarded by small troops of United States cavalry, directed by the Secretary of the Interior. Under this care the forests are flourishing, protected from both axe and fire; and so, of course, are the shaggy beds of underbrush and the herbaceous vegetation. The so-called curiosities, also, are preserved, and the furred and feathered tribes, many of which, in danger of extinction a short time ago, are now increasing in numbers,—aa refreshing thing to see amid the blind, ruthless destruction that is going on in the adjacent regions. In pleasing contrast to the noisy, ever changing management, or mismanagement, of blundering, plundering, moneymaking vote-sellers who receive their places from boss politicians as purchased goods, the soldiers do their duty so quietly that the traveler is scarce aware of their presence.

This is the coolest and highest of the parks. Frosts occur every month of the year. Nevertheless, the tenderest tourist finds it warm enough in summer. The air is electric and full of ozone, healing, reviving, exhilarating, kept pure by frost and fire, while the scenery is wild enough to awaken the dead. It is a glorious place to grow in and rest in; camping on the shores of the lakes, in the warm openings of the woods golden with sunflowers, on the banks of the streams, by the snowy waterfalls, beside the exciting wonders or away from them in the scallops of the mountain walls sheltered from every wind, on smooth silky lawns enameled with gentians, up in the fountain hollows of the ancient glaciers between the peaks, where cool pools and brooks and gardens of precious plants charmingly embowered are never wanting, and good rough rocks with every variety of cliff and scaur are invitingly near for outlooks and exercise.

From these lovely dens you may make excursions whenever you like into the middle of the park, where the geysers and hot springs are reeking and spouting in their beautiful basins, displaying an exuberance of color and strange motion and energy admirably calculated to surprise and frighten, charm and shake up the least sensitive out of apathy into newness of life.

However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill hushed and awe-stricken before phenomena wholly new to you. Boiling springs and huge deep pools of purest green and azure water, thousands of them, are plashing and heaving in these high, cool mountains as if a fierce furnace fire were burning beneath each one of them; and a hundred geysers, white torrents of boiling water and steam, like inverted waterfalls, are ever and anon rushing up out of the hot, black underworld. Some of these ponderous geyser columns are as large as sequoias,—five to sixty feel in diameter, one hundred and fifty to three hundred feet high,—and are sustained at this great height with tremendous energy for a few minutes, or perhaps nearly an hour, standing rigid and erect, hissing, throbbing, booming, as if thunderstorms were raging beneath their roots, their sides roughened or fluted like the furrowed boles of trees, their tops dissolving in feathery branches, while the irised spray, like misty bloom is at times blown aside, revealing the massive shafts shining against a background of pine-covered hills. Some of them lean more or less, as if storm-bent, and instead of being round are flat or fan-shaped, issuing from irregular slits in silex pavements with radiate structure, the sunbeams sifting through them in ravishing splendor. Some are broad and round-headed like oaks; others are low and bunchy, branching near the ground like bushes; and a few are hollow in the centre like big daisies or water-lilies. No frost cools them, snow never covers them nor lodges in their branches; winter and summer they welcome alike; all of them, of whatever form or size, faithfully rising and sinking in fairy rhythmic dance night and day, in all sorts of weather, at varying periods of minutes, hours, or weeks, growing up rapidly, uncontrollable as fate, tossing their pearly branches in the wind, bursting into bloom and vanishing like the frailest flowers,—plants of which Nature raises hundreds or thousands of crops a year with no apparent exhaustion of the fiery soil.

The so-called geyser basins, in which this rare sort of vegetation is growing, are mostly open valleys on the central plateau that were eroded by glaciers after the greater volcanic fires had ceased to burn. Looking down over the forests as you approach them from the surrounding heights, you see a multitude of white columns, broad, reeking masses, and irregular jets and puffs of misty vapor ascending from the bottom of the valley, or entangled like smoke among the neighboring trees, suggesting the factories of some busy town or the camp-fires of an army. These mark the position of each mush-pot, paint-pot, hot spring, and geyser, or gusher, as the Icelandic words mean. And when you saunter into the midst of them over the bright sinter pavements, and see how pure and white and pearly gray they are in the shade of the mountains, and how radiant in the sunshine, you are fairly enchanted. So numerous they are and varied, Nature seems to have gathered them from all the world as specimens of her rarest fountains, to show in one place what she can do. Over four thousand hot springs have been counted in the park, and a hundred geysers; how many more there are nobody knows.

These valleys at the heads of the great rivers may be regarded as laboratories and kitchens, in which, amid a thousand retorts and pots, we may see Nature at work as chemist or cook, cunningly compounding an infinite variety of mineral messes; cooking whole mountains; boiling and steaming flinty rocks to smooth paste and mush,—yellow, brown, red, pink, lavender, gray, and creamy white,— making the most beautiful mud in the world; and distilling the most ethereal essences. Many of these pots and caldrons have been boiling thousands of years. Pots of sulphurous mush, stringy and lumpy, and pots of broth as black as ink, are tossed and stirred with constant care, and thin transparent essences, too pure and fine to be called water, are kept simmering gently in beautiful sinter cups and bowls that grow ever more beautiful the longer they are used. In some of the spring basins, the waters, though still warm, are perfectly calm, and shine blandly in a sod of overleaning grass and flowers, as if they were thoroughly cooked at last, and set aside to settle and cool. Others are wildly boiling over as if running to waste, thousands of tons of the precious liquids being thrown into the air to fall in scalding floods on the clean coral floor of the establishment, keeping onlookers at a distance. Instead of holding limpid pale green or azure water, other pots and craters are filled with scalding mud, which is tossed up from three or four feet to thirty feet, in sticky, rank-smelling masses, with gasping, belching, thudding sounds, plastering the branches of neighboring trees; every flask, retort, hot spring, and geyser has something special in it, no two being the same in temperature, color, or composition.

In these natural laboratories one needs stout faith to feel at ease. The ground sounds hollow underfoot, and the awful subterranean thunder shakes one’s mind as the ground is shaken, especially at night in the pale moonlight, or when the sky is overcast with storm-clouds. In the solemn gloom, the geysers, dimly visible, look like monstrous dancing ghosts, and their wild songs and the earthquake thunder replying to the storms overhead seem doubly terrible, as if divine government were at an end. But the frembling hills keep their places. The sky clears, the rosy dawn is reassuring, and up comes the sun like a god, pouring his faithful beams across the mountains and forest, lighting each peak and tree and ghastly geyser alike, and shining into the eyes of the reeking springs, clothing them with rainbow light, and dissolving the seeming chaos of darkness into varied forms of harmony. The ordinary work of the world goes on. Gladly we see the flies dancing in the sun-beams, birds feeding their young, squirrels gathering nuts, and hear the blessed ouzel singing confidingly in the shallows of the river, —most faithful evangel, calming every fear, reducing everything to love.

John Muir


Primary Source Connection

The Congressional Act of 1872, making Yellowstone a National Park under the control of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, is divided into two sections. The first, relying on the work of the expeditionary parties, defines the boundaries of the park and declares it federal property. The second section outlines what it means for a tract of land to be so designated and lays down a set of environmental guidelines. It put the newly created park under the “exclusive control” of the Secretary of the Interior and specified his responsibilities, first and foremost the creation of a body of rules, inside the congressional guidelines, to govern the use and determine the development of the park.

By creating Yellowstone National Park, the U.S. Congress recognized the wonders contained in that tract of land. It also recognized and accepted two responsibilities. The first was to preserve the land in its natural condition and protect its resources from alteration or despoliation. The second was to develop it in accord within the limits of the act. These two responsibilities were not always compatible.


SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone River, and described as follows, to wit, commencing at the junction of Gardiner’s river with the Yellowstone river, and running east to the meridian passing ten miles to the eastward of the most eastern point of Yellowstone lake; thence south along said meridian to the parallel of latitude passing ten miles south of the most southern point of Yellowstone lake; thence west along said parallel to the meridian passing fifteen miles west of the most western point of Madison lake; thence north along said meridian to the latitude of the junction of the Yellowstone and Gardiner’s rivers; thence east to the place of beginning, is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate or settle upon or occupy the same, or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed therefrom.

SECTION 2. That said public park shall be under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior, whose duty it shall be, as soon as practicable, to make and publish such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or proper for the care and management of the same. Such regulations shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural conditions. The secretary may in his discretion, grant leases for building purposes for terms not exceeding ten years, of small parcels or ground; at such places in said park as shall require the erection of buildings for the accommodation of visitors; all of the proceeds of said leases, and all other revenues that may be derived from any source connected with said park, to be expended under his direction in the management of the same, and the construction of roads and bridle-paths therein. He shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit. He shall also cause all persons trespassing upon the same after the passage of this act to be removed therefrom, and generally shall be authorized to take all such measures as shall be necessary or proper to fully carry out the objects and purposes of this act.

U.S. Congress


See Also Antarctic Treaty; Bureau of Land Management; Extinction and Extirpation; National Park Service Organic Act; Recreational Use and Environmental Destruction; Wilderness Act of 1964



Conard, Rebecca, and Wayne Franklin. Places of Quiet Beauty: Parks, Preserves, and Environmentalism. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

Lockwood, Michael, et al., eds. Managing Protected Areas: A Global Guide. Sterling, VA: Earthscan Publications, 2006.

Mitchell, Nora, et al, eds. The Protected Landscape Approach: Linking Nature, Culture and Community. Gland, Switzerland: World Conservation Union, 2004.

Web Sites

National Geographic News. “Dozens of Sea Lions Found Massacred in Galapagos.” February 4, 2008. (accessed May 4, 2008).

National Park Service. (accessed May 3, 2008).

United Nations Environment Programme. “Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism’s Global Footprint.” (accessed May 3, 2008).

United Nations Environment Programme. “United Nations List of Protected Areas” (accessed May 3, 2008).

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Natural Reserves and Parks

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