In 1872, the U.S. Congress established Yellowstone National Park, and in doing so created the first national park in America — and the world. Protected areas had existed before Yellowstone; in Europe, for example, wealthy landowners developed preservation areas to protect wildlife for hunting and trees for timber. The American model, however, went far beyond this.
Inspired by transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, and naturalists like John Muir, the national parks in the United States weren’t developed for the rich and privileged. Instead, they were created out of democracy, art, and philosophy, to preserve the majesty and beauty of nature for all people.
When Yellowstone was established, it was officially declared a “public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” More national parks were created across the United States in the years after, but it took decades before an agency was created to manage the protected areas. Until, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service. Today the NPS manages 423 sites across the country, covering more than 84 million acres.
National Parks are now found all across the globe, from Banff National Park in Canada to Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), close to 15% of Earth’s land and 10% of its territorial waters are now covered by national parks and other protected areas. These parks have long been a source of inspiration, and many famous figures have commented on both their beauty and their importance.
However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill hushed and awe-stricken before phenomena wholly new to you.
– Naturalist John Muir, writing about Yellowstone National Park in 1889
Within National Parks is room — glorious room — room in which to find ourselves, in which to think and hope, to dream and plan, to rest and resolve.
– Enos Mills (1870-1922), American naturalist, author and primary creator of Rocky Mountain National Park
A sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.
– William Wordsworth, writing of the concept of a national park in the Lake District in “A guide through the district of the lakes in the north of England,” 1835
The tendency nowadays to wander in the wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.
– John Muir, writing in “Our National Parks,” 1901
There is nothing so American as our national parks… The fundamental idea behind the parks… is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.
– President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1934
National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
– Wallace Stegner, American novelist, short story writer and environmentalist, 1983
National parks and reserves are an integral aspect of intelligent use of natural resources. It is the course of wisdom to set aside an ample portion of our natural resources as national parks and reserves, thus ensuring that future generations may know the majesty of the earth as we know it today.
– President John F. Kennedy, World Conference on National Parks, 1962
The national parks belong to everyone. To the people. To all of us. The government keeps saying so and maybe, in this one case at least, the government is telling the truth. Hard to believe, but possible.
– Edward Abbey, American author and essayist, in “Appalachian Wilderness,” 1970
When I was about 15, I went to work at Yosemite National Park. It changed me forever. Nature had carved its own sculpture, and I was part of it, not the other way around.
– Robert Redford
I’ve been through legislation creating a dozen national parks, and there’s always the same pattern. When you first propose a park, and you visit the area and present the case to the local people, they threaten to hang you. You go back in five years and they think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened.
– Congressman Mo Udall in “Too Funny to Be President,” 1988