A Brief History of the National Park Service: A Century of Conservation

How a nation raised on conquering wilderness came to embrace conservation.

— -- For much of American History, wilderness was viewed as an evil wasteland that had to be conquered. Land left untouched by man was described as “deserted,” “savage,” and “barren” -- in short, a waste of divine gifts.

But by the end of the 19th century, backlash against a rapidly industrializing society ushered in a new fascination with the natural world.

Writers like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, as well as painters such as George Catlin and Thomas Cole were busy redefining wilderness as “the preservation of the world” where “nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

A few decades later, in 1872, Catlin’s dream came true when a natural wonderland spanning Wyoming, Montana and Idaho became the world’s first official national park. They called it Yellowstone.

That same year, Muir tried to save the Hetch Hetchy valley from a proposed dam that would flood the valley to provide water and power to the city of San Francisco. The resulting controversy pitted two schools of American environmentalism against each other: preservationists v. conservationists.

Preservationists, led by Muir, believed in maintaining the present condition of natural areas, while conservationists, led by forester George Pinchot, believed in the sustainable management of natural resources.

Muir and the preservationists were against the flooding of Hetch Hetchy while Pinchot and the conservationists were for it.

When congress decided to go ahead with the proposed dam, flooding the valley Muir called “the holiest temple ever consecrated by the hearts of man,” preservationists were dealt a death blow and conservationism emerged as the country’s prevailing environmental movement.

By 1906, Congress helped expand the parks system by passing the Antiquities Act, which granted the president the authority to set aside historic landmarks that already existed on public lands.

Roosevelt took swift action, proclaiming Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower as the first national monument that year and establishing a tradition that would continue to today.

Since then, the National Park Service has grown tremendously, boasting over 400 areas, covering 84 million acres across all 50 states.

Despite the widespread popularity of the national parks system, some critics argue that establishing national parks falsely divides the world of man from the world nature.