In the halcyon days of abundant land and resources, the United States could well afford to set aside national parks.But if should not seem surprising that in those days when expansion and development reigned supreme, most legislative battles to establish national parks were won in Congress by characterizing the proposed parklands as "worthless" -- not necessary for the industrial or agricultural development of the nation.
Now that we face scarcity of land and resources, it will take much more than political maneuvering to protect the present national parks and add the new ones needed to fill out the system, as in Alaska. It will require a broadening of the park ethic among the people if parks are to be established and maintained for their ecological, wildlife, and wilderness values as the true crown jewels of the nation's natural heritage.
Environmental historian Alfred Runte emphasizes some of the lesser-known problems and troubles surrounding the growth of national parks in the US. He debunks the myth that national parks emerged from the altruism of a citizenry clamoring for protection of wildlife, wilderness, and unique ecosystems. And although Runte's approach may dwell too much on the negative aspects to suit some readers, his book does serve a useful purpose.
We need to be reminded that in the past, vital lands needed for establishment of national parks were excluded because of economic pressures. The most recent example was Redwood National Park. Congress created only half a park there in 1968 because of the pressures from timber interests and loggers, and had to come back a decade later, at inflated prices and after much destruction of the land and redwood trees, to fill out the watershed and the ecosystem. And the same pressures persist today.congress still is being lobbied relentlessly by development interests to cut back on the size of proposed new national parks in Alaska and to divide the ecosystems so that potential mineral or timber resources will not be included.
Looking back at some of the painful episodes in the building of the US national park system may also help to broaden our outlook toward nations now developing their own national parks and make us less critical when they fail to meet the standards we take for granted today.
A tremendous amount of research has gone into this work, resulting in more detail than the average reader might want, as the author develops his thesis that public support for establishing national park grew out of people's pride in scenic wonders, not out of concern for preserving the wilderness and ecological values.
He suggests that early national parks were the result of "monumentalism," not conservation or preservation. Americans, lacking the castles and other historical monuments of their European forebearers, and feeling a resulting cultural insecurity, sought to set aside scenic wonders such as the cliffs and giant sequoia trees of Yosemite and the geysers and waterfalls of Yellowstone. It was not until 1934, when Everglades National Park was established, that the concept of preserving a unique large natural habitat prevailed.
This book is rich in the political intrigue surrounding the legislation needed to establish national parks, regulate their development, and set up a national park service. But in his preoccupation with the behind-the-scenes dealing, Runte gives little attention to the development of the national park ethic among the citizenry.
We learn that California Sen. John Conness opened the Yosemite debates of 1864 by assuring his colleagues that the 40 square miles of public land in Yosemite Valley and four square miles of giant sequoias were "for all public purpose worthless. . . . The property is of no value to the government." On this basis, Congress did give to the state of California, for preservation purposes, the land which really started the national park concept in the US, even though a bigger Yosemite National Park did not become a reality until 1890.
And when the first official "national park," Yellowstone, came before Congress in 1872, Sen. George Edmunds of Vermont opened the debate with the assertion that Yellowstone was "so far elevated above the sea" that it could not be used for private occupation and could not possibly harm the "material interests of the people in endeavoring to preserve" the region.
At the same time that some members of Congress were maneuvering to get parks legislation enacted, and equally significant event was taking place on a different level. A national park ethic was being formed and was manifested in people's growing awareness that some of the best of a nation's natural wealth should be kept intact, not just so people could look at majestic or unique scenic "monuments," but so that these natural riches could be preserved for future generations -- that they were important for the kinds of intrinsic values that could not be counted in the green of currency. It is this history, touched on somewhat in the book, that deserves to be recorded in more detail, the story of how the national park ideal grew nationwide and expanded into the worldwide phenomenon of more than 100 nations now giving high priority to establishing and protecting significant examples of their natural heritage.