Parks and Wilderness Areas

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The national park is an American invention that has served as a model for the preservation of natural sites throughout the world. Its origin lies in the European garden park, but the American national park is an attempt to preserve wildness, not to manicure nature. Similarly the origin of the wilderness area lies in the European forest reserve, but the latter was reserved for the private use of nobility, whereas the American wilderness area is part of the public domain.


Proposals for public parks first emerged during the 1830s both in Europe and in the United States. These parks were to serve the common welfare, and, in America, were also to serve as nature museums. By the 1840s and 1850s, literary men such as Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) were encouraging Americans to set aside plots of city land for preservation. William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), writing as editor of the New York Evening Post, called in 1844 for the creation of a park in New York City. He wanted to preserve part of the rocky shore of Manhattan before it was all converted into "muddy docks" ("A New Public Park"). Horace Greeley (1811–1872), the editor of the New York Tribune, concurred, and the poet James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) added his voice to the call. Largely due to Bryant's efforts, work on Central Park began in 1857, although the project was moved to the swampy, polluted interior of the island instead of being placed on the shore. Landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824–1895) designed the 843-acre park, incorporating natural features into its design and setting standards for future park planners. Indeed the design for Central Park made Olmsted famous; after the project was finished, he was commissioned to design similar parks in other cities, including Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, South Park in Chicago, and Mount Royal Park in Montreal. Thus began a wave of park construction in the United States that set aside parcels of land for preservation in the urban environment.


Conceptually the movement to preserve wilderness in the United States began in the 1820s, when American statesman DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828) proposed that large expanses of wilderness be maintained in a wild state. Washington Irving (1783–1859) made a similar suggestion in the 1830s while editing the exploration journals of Captain Benjamin Bonneville for publication, remarking that the uninhabited, undeveloped land comprising the Rocky Mountains should remain "irreclaimable wilderness" (p. 372). At about the same time, the idea of the national park came to George Catlin (1796–1872), the well-known painter of Native American subjects. During a trip to the South Dakota territory in May of 1832, he realized that the bison and the American Indian were in danger of extinction. While he contemplated the loss, it suddenly occurred to him that the inhabitants of this wilderness, both human and animal, could be preserved in "a magnificent park," "a nation's Park" (p. 263). As Catlin explains in Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841), he envisioned this park as a place to display the primitive to the rest of the world for all time. It was to be an American contribution to humanity, and it would be managed by the federal government for the benefit of all citizens.

Catlin's idea had little chance of being taken seriously until Americans developed an appreciation for what was being lost as the wilderness dwindled. This process began with eastern literary figures and artists lamenting the disappearance of primeval forests. For instance the painter and naturalist John James Audubon (1785–1851) complained in Ornithological Biography; or, An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America (1831–1839) that settlers were rapidly destroying forests in the Ohio Valley. A similar complaint shows up in The Pioneers (1823), a novel by James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) in which Natty Bumppo expresses a desire to leave the clearings and reenter the woods that have not yet been decimated by settlers. Similarly, after the poet William Cullen Bryant toured the Great Lakes region in 1846, he mentioned in personal letters looking ahead sadly to a future in which the woods would be filled with settlements. Adopting a much more dire tone, the landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848) declared in his 1836 "Essay on American Scenery" that the wilderness was already showing the "ravages of the axe" (p. 17), and in 1841 he wrote a poem called "The Lament of the Forest" in which the forest grieves for its losses at the hands of man, the destroyer. Henry David Thoreau comments wryly on man's destructive powers in his journal from 1852, writing that "this winter they are cutting down our woods more seriously than ever" (p. 273), and observing that "it is a thorough process—this war with the wilderness" (p. 320). Just who would win this war seemed all too clear to these defenders of the forest, whose writings helped Americans to see something other than utilitarian value in the disappearing trees of the wilderness.

Other streams of thought and feeling contributed to the new attitude toward wilderness that was emerging by the time of the Civil War. One such trend involved a Romantic enthusiasm for wild nature. Another involved a new landscape aesthetic, one that focused on the sublime and picturesque. Yet another involved deism and transcendentalism investing the natural world with spirit, thereby counteracting the traditional Judeo-Christian antipathy toward wilderness. Moreover many Americans came to understand that the wilderness was an essential part of the American scene, and the realization that it was vanishing led naturally to the idea of preservation.

A parallel movement to conserve wilderness was stimulated by the work of George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882), whose career as a conservationist began in the 1840s when as a congressman from Vermont he lobbied for a national museum to preserve artifacts of natural history. In 1847 Marsh made a speech calling for a limitation on the clearing of forests for agricultural purposes. Then, in 1864, he published Man and Nature, a seminal study of humankind's relationship with the natural world. Marsh begins his investigation with an indictment of human wastefulness and destructiveness and moves into a discussion of the wanton unbalancing of ecological systems. Using the effects of uncontrolled logging as his main illustration, Marsh argues that clear-cutting forests results in drought, floods, and erosion, and that the spongelike qualities of the primeval forest make it the best possible regulator of water flow. He also asserts that "the earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant" (p. 43) and calls for the preservation of remaining forests as well as the careful use of resources in the future. Because Marsh's arguments supported the preservation of wilderness on economic grounds, his views had a major influence on preservationist rhetoric. A year after Man and Nature first appeared, William Cullen Bryant wrote an essay called "The Utility of Trees" in which he echoes Marsh's views: "Thus it is that forests protect a country against drought, and keep its streams constantly flowing and its wells constantly full" (p. 404). In fact, Man and Nature became an incredibly influential and popular book; its first edition sold out in a few months, and subsequent editions had a large impact on the thinking of men such as Frederick Law Olmsted and John Muir (1838–1914), who converted Marsh's thoughts into legislative action. Lewis Mumford, writing in The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865–1895 (1931), justifiably refers to Marsh's book as "the fountainhead of the conservation movement" (p. 78).


Despite the calls to preserve and conserve wilderness, early proposals to protect undeveloped land focused more on natural wonders or curiosities than on virgin forests. Among the sites mentioned for preservation were the redwood groves of California, the Shoshone Falls on the Snake River in Idaho, and the geothermal phenomena at Yellowstone. A pivotal figure in the movement to protect spectacular sites was Olmsted, who believed that the government had a responsibility to protect features such as Niagara Falls from exploitation or development. After moving to California in 1863, he joined the fight to preserve Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove. Congress had granted these lands to the state of California, which created the Yosemite Commission and made Olmsted chairman. In his 1865 "Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite Valley and Big Tree Grove," he asserted that the government was obligated to protect the citizen's right to enjoy scenic areas that were part of the public domain. He also supported the national park concept by arguing that the government had a "duty of preservation" (p. 508) to protect such places as Yosemite Valley from private exploitation. Olmsted's argument was anticipated by the thought of earlier Americans such as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who in 1815 had refused to sell land surrounding the Natural Bridge in Virginia because he viewed the bridge as a public trust and wanted it to be open to public view as long as it was protected from defacement. Olmsted recommended that Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove be protected as scenic parks, but, unfortunately, his report was suppressed by other members of the commission who feared that funding for Yosemite would divert funds away from the Geological Survey, and another twenty-five years would pass before John Muir convinced Congress to adopt Olmsted's recommendations.

The tendency nowadays to wander in wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. . . . This is fine and natural and full of promise. So also is the growing interest in the care and preservation of forests and wild places in general, and in the half-wild parks and gardens of town.

Muir, "The Wild Parks and Forest Reservations of the West," in Nature Writings, p. 721.

In the meantime, the geothermal wonderland of Yellowstone became more widely known after several groups explored the region in 1869 and 1870. In 1871 the scientist Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829–1887) led an expedition that included the photographer William Henry Jackson (1843–1942) and the landscape painter Thomas Moran (1837–1926). Both artists created compelling graphic images of the area's magnificent features, and soon every member of Congress knew of Yellowstone. After a brief lobbying campaign, the Yellowstone Park Act became law on 1 March 1872, creating the world's first national park. In part the law states that the region was "reserved and withdrawn from settlement, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" (Tolson, pp. 26–27). This statement echoes some of the language Olmsted used in his 1865 report concerning the use of the public domain. To understand just how radical this point of view was at the time, one needs to keep in mind that the Yellowstone Park Act took effect when the federal government was enthusiastically parceling out the public domain through railroad land grants as well as homestead, mining, and timber acts. As a park, Yellowstone encompasses over 3,000 square miles of wilderness, but this land was set aside mainly because it might contain undiscovered geothermal features. It was not until the 1880s or 1890s, after several surveys, that Americans took note of the rivers, meadows, forest land, and wildlife that had been preserved in Yellowstone Park in addition to the geysers, waterfalls, and hot springs.

The next phase of park creation revolved around John Muir, the wanderer, writer, and wilderness sage. Four years after Olmsted issued his report on Yosemite, Muir began exploring the region while working as a sheepherder. Before long he was taking such notable persons as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) on guided tours of the area. Muir also became entangled in a scientific dispute over the geological history of Yosemite when his theory that glaciers shaped the valley was attacked by the geologist Josiah D. Whitney (1819–1896). After writing letters on the subject and finding a living glacier in the mountains, Muir published his first essay, "Yosemite Glaciers," in the New York Tribune in 1871. He then became a regular contributor to the Overland Monthly, publishing numerous articles on places of interest in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In 1876 Muir published an article in the Sacramento Record-Union, "God's First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests?" in which he argues that the government should take responsibility for protecting forests.

Continuing his travels throughout the American West and Alaska, Muir left the Yosemite area for several years. When he returned in 1889, he met Robert Underwood Johnson (1853–1937), an editor of Century Magazine, and showed Johnson around the valley. The two were appalled to see the damage done in the area by timber cutting, visitors, and grazing sheep, and Johnson suggested that a national park be created to protect the valley and its environs. The editor then lobbied for the park in Washington, D.C., while Muir wrote two articles for Century Magazine entitled "The Treasures of Yosemite" and "Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park," which appeared in 1890. The purpose of these articles was to describe Yosemite as a "delightful summer pleasure park" (p. 687) that could be reserved "for the use and recreation of the people" (p. 699), and a close look at the text of "Features" reveals that Muir knew how to reach his audience. He writes the article in the style of a travelogue, describing the landmarks, scenery, plant life, and seasonal weather in language that appeals to the senses. He also focuses on the experiences to be had by the reader in Yosemite, stating that "perhaps none of [these experiences] will be remembered with keener delight than the days spent in sauntering in the broad velvet lawns by the river, sharing the pure air and light with the trees and mountains" (p. 689). To make the descriptions more immediate, Muir shifts to the second person early in the article and addresses the reader directly, as when he states, "Now your attention is turned to the moraines, sweeping in beautiful curves from the hollows and cañons of the mountains, regular in form as railroad embankments" (p. 690). After enticing the reader with word-pictures of the "marvelous grandeur" (p. 693) of the scenery and the sensory experiences to be had in Yosemite, Muir ends the article with a warning: "Unless reserved or protected the whole region will soon or late be devastated by lumbermen and sheepmen, and so of course be made unfit for use as a pleasure ground" (pp. 699–700). The message here is plain enough, and the effectiveness of Muir's rhetoric may be gauged in part by the fact that Yosemite became a national park on 1 October 1890.

Muir continued to play a major role in the creation of new parks. Within a week after Yosemite became a national park, General Grant National Park and Sequoia National Park were established to protect groves of giant redwood trees. Muir's efforts were also responsible to a large degree for the establishment of Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon national parks. In 1903 he took President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) on a three-night camping trip in Yosemite; the experience made such an impression on the president that he came away convinced of the need for quick federal action to preserve the great scenic places of America. During Roosevelt's time in office, the boundaries of Yosemite were expanded, and Crater Lake, Mesa Verde, and Wind Cave became national parks. Roosevelt also created the United States Forest Service in 1905 and preserved other tracts of land, including the Grand Canyon, Lassen Peak, and Petrified Forest, which later became national parks. Because of his influence on policy and public figures such as Roosevelt, Muir has often been called the father of our national park system.

However, other men of letters and artists contributed to the expansion of the park system as well. It was Thomas Moran who illustrated Muir's articles on Yosemite for Century Magazine, and one of his paintings of Yellowstone hung in the lobby of the U.S. Senate for decades. Another of his paintings, one depicting the Grand Canyon, hung in the office of George Horace Lorimer (1867–1937), an editor of the Saturday Evening Post who fought to preserve the canyon. In Colorado, writer Enos Mills (1890–1922) championed the Rocky Mountains. William Gladstone Steel (1854–1934) of Oregon was the advocate of Crater Lake. George Bird Grinnell (1849–1938), an editor of Forest and Stream who had helped to survey Yellowstone Park in 1875, argued that national parks should serve as wildlife sanctuaries. After much effort by Grinnell, an area in northern Montana populated by grizzly bears and mountain goats became Glacier National Park in 1910. Grinnell also had an influence on the national park system by intellectually preparing Theodore Roosevelt for Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946), the president's environmental administrator.

A parallel system of forest reserves was established in 1891 at the urging of Carl Schurz (1829–1906), who was the secretary of the interior from 1877 to 1881. The Forest Service administered the reserves, which in 1907 were renamed national forests. In 1916 the National Park Service was created to administer the park system. At about the same time, the Forest Service began creating public recreation programs, and the two agencies became bureaucratic rivals. In 1924 the Forest Service encroached on responsibilities claimed by the Park Service by designating part of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico as the first wilderness area. Stephen T. Mather (1867–1930), the first director of the Park Service, wrote a paper in 1925 in which he disputed claims made by advocates of the Forest Service that it could manage the park system "at little extra cost beyond that of managing the forests" (Sellars, p. 58), and he argued that placing the parks under the Forest Service would result in the "commercial exploitation of natural resources" (Sellars, p. 58), thereby destroying the parks. Mather also believed that the parks were "more truly national playgrounds than are the forests" (Sellars, p. 58), and so he argued that the parks should be developed for recreational tourism. Since then, the two agencies have sorted out their respective areas of responsibility; in the early twenty-first century, the Forest Service manages more than 192 million acres of land according to the principle of multiple use, meaning that the resources of the land can be exploited for commercial purposes, while the Park Service manages about 80 million acres of national parks, preserves, monuments, recreation areas, seashores, lake shores, historic parks, scenic trails, parkways, and battlefields, for recreational and educational purposes.

see alsoMy First Summer in the Sierra; Nature Writing; Resource Management


Primary Works

Bryant, William Cullen. "A New Public Park." New York Evening Post, 3 July 1844.

Bryant, William Cullen. "The Utility of Trees." 1865. In The Prose Writings of William Cullen Bryant, vol. 2, edited by Parke Godwin, pp. 402–405. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.

Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. 1841. Republished as North American Indians, edited by Peter Matthiessen. New York: Viking, 1989.

Cole, Thomas. "Essay on American Scenery." 1836. In Thomas Cole: The Collected Essays and Prose Sketches, edited by Marshall Tymm, pp. 3–19. St. Paul, Minn.: John Colet Press, 1980.

Grinnell, George Bird. The Passing of the Great West: Selected Papers of George Bird Grinnell. Edited, with introduction and commentary, by John F. Reiger. New York: Winchester Press, 1972.

Irving, Washington. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. 1837. Edited by Edgeley W. Todd. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

Marsh, George Perkins. Man and Nature. 1864. Edited by David Lowenthal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Muir, John. Nature Writings. 1871–1920. Edited by William Cronon. New York: Library of America, 1997.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. "Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite Valley and Big Tree Grove." 1865. In The California Frontier, 1863–1865, edited by Victoria Post Ranney et al., pp. 488–516. Vol. 5 of The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Chesuncook." In his The Maine Woods. 1864. Edited by Robert F. Sayre, pp. 656–712. New York: Library of America, 1985.

Thoreau, Henry David. Journal. 1851–1852. Vol. 4 of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, edited by Robert Sattelmeyer, Leonard N. Neufeldt, and Nancy Craig Simmons. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Secondary Works

Lyon, Thomas J. John Muir. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1972.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Witnesses to a Vanishing America: The Nineteenth-Century Response. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Mumford, Lewis. The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865–1895. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931.

Nash, Roderick. "The American Invention of National Parks." American Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1970): 727–735.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Todd, John Emerson. Frederick Law Olmsted. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Tolson, Hillory Alfred. Laws Relating to the National Park Service, the National Parks and Monuments. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1933.

Wernert, Susan J., ed. Our National Parks: America's Spectacular Wilderness Heritage. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest Association, 1985.

Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New York: Knopf, 1945.

Seth Bovey

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