Our National Parks: Paradoxes


Watching the Ken Burns series on the national parks this week, I’ve been struck again by a number of the paradoxes associated with the national park movement, points I hope haven’t been lost amidst the spectacular photography and string of John Muir quotes.

For instance, when Yellowstone was officially designated America’s first national park, Congress said it should be set aside to protect its “remarkable curiosities” and “rare wonders” so that it might become “a great national pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” As much as the democratic implications of that second mission might be laudable, the paradox of the pair of goals was inescapable:   how to preserve nature while also making it available for public use (and, one might add, sometimes, overuse and abuse)? When the National Park System was created in 1916, it received this same two-fold mandate, and balancing the two became its greatest challenge over the nearly a century since.

From the time the very first European Americans “discovered” the Yosemite valley they recognized its scenery as truly “awe-some” (as opposed to the casual way we tend to throw that term around in today’s language) and deserving of designation as a “park.” The word “park” actually means “an enclosure,” and Yosemite fit the bill so well that no other designation applied:   the meadows, woodlands, and streams of the valley floor perfectly surrounded by dramatic granite monoliths and picturesque waterfalls.   (When Muir, by the way, found himself at the top of Yosemite Falls for the first time, his head told him not to go too far, but his emotion overpowered all else and led him to creep along a narrow ledge to peer over the brink to look down the 2400-foot cascade to experience nature directly–“enjoyment enough to kill if that were possible,” he wrote!)  While the obvious justification for designating Yosemite a park—in effect becoming our first national park, even though deeded to the state, since there was no national park concept yet—was its spectacular scenery, the bill that authorized this special status went to some pains to specify that for other purposes—read agriculture, mining, timbering, etc.—it was “worthless.”

The first official designation of a “national park” turned out to be Yellowstone—its bubbling, sulphur-smelling pools , humorous mud pots, and showy geysers a kind of nature so very different from Yosemite, though clearly distinctive and worthy of protection in their own way.   The case for Yellowstone moved to Congress rapidly, but once more the formula was the same—first the declaration that the land was “worthless” for other purposes, and only then the assertion that its special natural features deserved park designation.

While nature preservations generally embraced the protection goal and worried about the impact of too much public access for the harm it might mean to the natural environment of the parks, in the early history of the park movement no battle more illustrated the paradox than the fight to save Hetch Hetchy, the valley which paralleled Yosemite, from flooding to create a reservoir for water-starved and fast-growing San Francisco.  While the public had been saturated with news and views of Yosemite, little had been done to promote awareness of the somewhat comparable wonders of Hetch Hetchy.  And when preservations squared off against the forces of development they lost—for Muir, a tragic loss near the end of his life.

One lesson nature preservationists took from this was that the public couldn’t expect to value what they had not seen—whether personally or in other ways.  That precedent would come up time again, as in the continual battles over protection of the Grand Canyon against plans to tap the water of the Colorado through dams.

Years later, in the 1960s, when Dinosaur National Monument was threatened by a proposed reservoir, David Brower and the Sierra Club would run full-age ads in national newspapers taking issue with the assertion that a reservoir would only “alter” Dinosaur, making analogies to parklands the public DID know in the ironic question, would “a dam from  
El Capitan to Bridalveil Fall . . . not destroy Yosemite, but only alter it”?

As much as preservationists wanted wilderness to remain pristine and pure, they had learned the hard way that without public awareness of the importance of special landscapes through engagement with them, the battle for preserving them might be lost.


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