Why the national parks work in America, part 1

Parks shutdown

(Photo credit: AP photo, Carolyn Kaster)

With the current federal government shutdown the National Park Service is suddenly all over the news. As was the case during the last shutdown in 1995, the shuttering of America’s national parks has become a particularly painful public symbol of federal dysfunction. The mainstream media, both national and local, have paid close attention to the park service’s predicament and the impact on the broader public. The news outlets seem to be broadly sympathetic to furloughed federal workers in general, and park service staff in particular. In their standoff with President Obama and the Senate Democrats over funding of the Affordable Care Act, House Republicans yesterday tried to regain the initiative by offering bills to start piecemeal refunding of certain popular federal government programs, including the museum system and the national parks. They seem to fear being blamed for the shutdown’s impact on popular elements of federal government spending, so they’d prefer to take it off the table to minimize the pain. (Democrats have been resisting this approach outright at the time of writing.) In any case, the public backlash in favor of the parks certainly speaks to the deep popularity of these programs.

This has got me thinking. It’s interesting, and if you think about it quite surprising, that the very idea of a government-run national parks system, something that’s been copied around the world, was first formulated in the United States. And that idea took root in the mid-19th century, at a time when laissez faire capitalism of a particularly virulent form was spreading across America. Isn’t this a bit of a paradox? Yes it is. But there is an explanation, and that explanation lies in some exceptional features of America’s development over the past 200 years.

So what are these exceptional features? Well, for a start there’s the incredible power and majesty of so many parts of the American landscape, and its ability to inspire both artists and—important, this—people with lots of money. Great Americans of all kinds, from James Fennimore Cooper to Jefferson to Thoreau to the painters of the Hudson River School to Teddy Roosevelt to Ansel Adams, have all promoted the American landscape as a point of great national pride and a vehicle for emphasizing America’s distinctiveness from, and superiority to, old Europe. This works nicely with the core (small “r”) republican ideal of American exceptionalism.

It quickly became apparent to early Americans that this landscape, for all its scale and grandeur, was not immune to ruination on a vast scale. The incredible speed and dynamism with which that landscape was conquered and developed—and despoiled—by European American settlers in the 19th century set up an early backlash in favor of what we would today we would call environmentalism. This seems to have been a distinctively American response, not mirrored on anything like the same scale in contemporary European societies. Unlike much of Europe, where human development appeared to maintain some sort of balance with nature, in America the breakneck speed of development of the continent led to a widespread feeling that humans were destroying the best that that the continent had to offer. Perhaps the clearest example of this process was what happened to Niagara Falls, which in the late 19th century became a byword for rapacious capitalism defacing a scene of stunning natural beauty. Starting with Yosemite and Yellowstone in the 1860s and 1870s, many a public campaign for the creation of new Western parks started with the refrain, “Not another Niagara here.” In other words, Americans were coming to see the need for direct intervention—even if that had to come from the government—to fix this problem, because they realized there simply was no other alternative.

So if America was to preserve its magnificent heritage, it would have to proactively protect it, wall it off—at least figuratively—from the creative destruction that threatened it from all sides. Thus was set a clear-cut contrast in America between unprotected land, ripe for development, and protected land, that could and should be protected from development, even if that meant a continued role for the federal government to play in that protection, and even if that meant an active role for the military.

I’ll continue with this train of thought next chance I get.

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One response to “Why the national parks work in America, part 1

  1. Pingback: Why the national parks work in America, part 2 | The Memory Hollow·

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