scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Seven Books About...

The history of America’s national parks

The world-famous granite monoliths El Capitan (left) and Half Dome at Yosemite National Park.Darrin Zammit Lupi/REUTERS/File

The word “naïve” is French, but it’s a useful concept in any culture. Naïve is the feminine of naïf, Old French for inborn or natural, which comes from the Latin nativus, or native — and each link in this etymological chain uncannily locks onto my subject today. I was naïve, it turns out, to think that national parks, those glorious emblems of America, sprang only from the better angels of our nature. Naïve, too, not to realize Native Americans were harmed in the process. But now I’ve done some reading. And books like “Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks” (Oxford University, 1999) reveal the original sin in the origins.

Mark David Spence, a Knox College history professor, here focuses on the ejection of Indians from the lands that now make up Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier national parks to make way for non-native visitors. For the public, each place was spun as an “uninhabited wilderness.” As Spence writes, “[T]hese romantic visions of primordial North America have contributed to a sort of widespread cultural myopia that allows late-twentieth-century Americans to ignore the fact that national parks enshrine recently dispossessed landscapes.”


Indeed, the Yosemite Indians dwelled in Yosemite, and the Blackfeet considered Glacier “the Backbone of the World.” Among settlers, there was a myth that native peoples shunned Yellowstone because they deemed geysers taboo. But archeological digs have shown extensive thermal site use by the Crow, Shoshone, and Bannock tribes.

The spark for the parks, and thus the trouble for the Indians, has several sources. Nineteenth-century art and literature conflate transcendental landscape with empty landscape, and native peoples didn’t fit that picture. Federal powers rose dramatically during Reconstruction (it was President Lincoln, in 1864, who first set aside a bit of Yosemite), putting the government in a position to claim land. And the war-torn South and North sought healing in the allegedly untainted west. Before the Civil War, intriguingly, the first idea for a national park actually included Native Americans. In 1832, frontier painter George Catlin (a master of Indian portraits) envisioned “a nation’s Park containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.”


The full story crystallizes in “To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea” (Island, 2013). It’s by Robert B. Keiter, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law at the University of Utah. He writes: “Forged at a time when the nation’s principal goal was to subdue nature and populate the continent, the national park idea ran counter to these goals.” Indeed, a British diplomat called the parks “the best idea America ever had” and in 1916, the so-called Organic Act set up the basic laws that remain today. The gist? To keep the parks “in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations.” Unimpaired is a tall order, though, and Keiter says it presents the National Park Service “with a nearly impossible mission.” To safeguard nature yet keep it humanly accessible — let the cross- purposes begin.

He then spells out how the old scenery-and-tourism tradition has begun to accede to ecological stewardship. Not surprisingly, the transition has been controversial, from removing dams near Olympic National Park to restore the salmon run, to prescribing a controlled burn in Bandelier, to reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone. All these choices would’ve been anathema in the parks’ early history; just look at the 1929 photo of a Yellowstone coyote caught by a steel trap in “Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History” (Yale, 2009, first out 1997). This is an essential title by Richard West Sellars, a historian with the Park Service for 35 years — and it nicked even deeper at my naïvete.


Take the hoary creation myth of Eastern financiers, in 1870, sitting by a campfire in Yellowstone who “in a moment of high altruism” opt not to wrest profits from the landscape but, instead, secure it as a park for all. Sheer fiction, says Sellars. From the first, “the national parks served corporate profit motives.” Witness Northern Pacific Railroad, which hired painter Thomas Moran to produce inspiring images of the parklands, to entice tourists. Likewise, Northern Pacific only ceded Mount Rainier to the government as a swap for timber rights elsewhere. Not only business interests vied for the parks’ future, though. Sellars shows how various parties — landscape architects, foresters, wildlife biologists, park personnel — have fought it out. The result? “In both philosophy and management, the National Park Service remains a house divided.”

Divisions also cut through the unsettling, gritty memoir “Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the Sierra” (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Author Jordan Fisher Smith follows the tradition of park-rangers-turned-writers, including Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, who rhapsodized about “the marshmallow clouds” from his fire lookout in the North Cascades. Likewise, Smith writes beautifully of the “saffron light” along California’s American River. But he’s ultimately just a cop with a view. “[H]abitual criminals are seldom rehabilitated by pretty scenery,” he admits. We watch him bust drug users and illicit miners (there’s still gold in them there hills). Discouragement swells. Yet he salutes his fellow park rangers, “who continue to stand in defense of the sweetest and most hopeful places I know.”


You want hopeful, crack open “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America” (HarperCollins, 2009), by the enthusiastic Douglas Brinkley. Then thank fate that Teddy had boyhood asthma — for bad health required a nature cure, and his passion for the outdoors led to the protection of 234 million acres, including Oregon’s Crater Lake, and the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon in Arizona. I smiled a lot reading this book. It starts with TR rushing into a 1903 Cabinet meeting, thundering “Gentlemen, do you know what has happened this morning?” The men brace for dire news. TR continues: “Just now I saw a chestnut-sided warbler — and this is only February!” Brinkley goes on to chronicle the president’s vital relationships with naturalists John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, and traces how Teddy’s stay in Tampa Bay, en route to the Spanish-American War, led to his ardor for Floridian birds; thus Pelican Bay, America’s first wildlife refuge.

Speaking of Florida, I was most taken with the material on the Everglades in “Repairing Paradise: The Restoration of Nature in America’s National Parks” (Brookings Institution, 2009). Author William Lowry is a political scientist, and wonkiness abounds, but he’s trenchant in detailing the impact of water policy on this remarkable river of grass — half of it gone, the victim of development and the sugar companies. Likewise, he explores the tension between the hydropower industry and Colorado River environmentalists at the Grand Canyon, and harrowingly spells out the damage from 4 million people a year driving through Yosemite.


My last book is kind of a cross between “Wild” and “Silent Spring.” “Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks” (University of California, 2010) is by William C. Tweed, former chief park naturalist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Like Cheryl Strayed, Tweed takes a hike (in his case, on the Sierra Nevada’s John Muir Trail) to grapple with what was and what’s next. And like Rachel Carson, he sounds an alarm. The upshot: As the centennial of the park system nears in 2016, “the national park idea . . . is collapsing,” because climate change is rewriting the rules “and preserving everything no longer seems possible.” Things are really bad (for example, Glacier National Park may become a misnomer) and the Park Service is way behind: “Senescence is not too strong a word to apply to the agency and its core mission.”

It’s an elegant and provocative book. Indeed, as Tweed heads into the parkland known as the Ansel Adams Wilderness, he spies countless glossy black flakes of obsidian, long ago cut by Native Americans to make tools and arrowheads. The Wilderness Act of 1964 claimed such regions were “untrammeled by man.” We now know this was wrong. Tweed exposes the painful irony here; the area is named for a white man, he notes, whose beautiful photographs “usually omitted humanity and all its signs.”

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore