The idea of a "nation's park" was first conceived in 1832, by the Pennsylvania-born artist and ethnographer George Catlin. On a journey up the Missouri River, he encountered a large party of Sioux at Fort Pierre, intoxicated on the whiskey they'd received in trade for the tongues of some 1,400 bison. The animal carcasses lay strewn outside the stockade, emitting a god-awful stench.
Appalled by this "debauchery of man and nature," Catlin climbed a nearby bluff and pondered "the deadly axe and desolating hand of cultivating man." Then he hit on his great idea. If only, he thought, "by some great protecting policy of the government," there could be created "a magnificent park...a nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wildness and freshness of their nature's beauty." That is the first recorded expression of what might be called the "national park idea."
Catlin's role in the history of the parks has remained obscure not least because his concept of a "nation's park" was so extravagantly different from the park system that eventually emerged. He envisioned a gigantic preserve 100 miles wide running eastward from the Rocky Mountain crest and sprawling all the way from Mexico north to Canada. And he saw it as a place that would be valued not only for its flora and fauna and scenery, but also for its human inhabitants and varied ways of life.
What we got instead, some 40 years later, was Yellowstone Park. Wondrous as it is, our first national park is a much-diminished version of Catlin's original vision. What's more, as evidenced by the unpeopled photographs of Ansel Adams, the parks have been conceived and managed as places devoid of any permanent human presence.
Catlin was a child of the Romantic Era, at odds with modernity and especially opposed to what he saw as the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. But he realized that his attitude toward nature—like our own—was historically conditioned. Unlike his pre-industrial forebears, Catlin felt that "the further we become separated from that pristine wildness and beauty, the more pleasure does the mind of enlightened man feel in recurring to those scenes." More than a century later, environmental historian Roderick Nash wryly observed that, "Cities, not log cabins, produce Sierra Clubbers."
That yearning for unspoiled nature as a refuge from the pace of modern life still moves us today, but it is based on some wildly mistaken assumptions about nature. The idea that humankind and nature exist in opposition is worthless when it comes to living in nature, something we are all obliged to do. Like it or not, we function as part of nature. We are not merely tourists on this planet, here to gaze upon selected exotic landscapes in admiration.
The history of the national parks has another lesson to teach, one not steeped in 19th-century sentimentalism but born of 20th-century realities. The 1916 statute that created the National Park Service defined its mission as "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
That language created a dilemma. For nearly a century, critics have argued that the objectives of "conservation" and "enjoyment," or "preservation" and "use," are not merely incompatible, but downright contradictory. The long-standing controversies of park management hinge on those spare sentences, ranging from the flooding of Glen Canyon to the endless wrangling over snowmobiles in Yellowstone. But out of those struggles some principles have emerged and may now constitute the parks' most important legacy for the new century.
Preservation and use should be understood as complementary and not contradictory—as mutually necessary and not mutually exclusive. Those concepts need to be exported from the places where they have historically been contested—the national parks—and made to inform holistic policy in the wider world as well. We must move beyond the Romantic Era's conception of the parks—and of nature—as exclusive enclaves where humans dare to tread only as reverential sojourners.
This means, among other things, that we need to "de-exoticize" our notion of what is a park. We could begin to do that by seeing the world in its entirety as a national park, directing toward the everyday places where we live and labor the same values of respect and stewardship that we have historically reserved for our "best places."
David M. Kennedy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University in California.