Why the national parks work in America, part 2

petrified forest historical

(Photo credit: Petrified Forest National Park new entry sign, 1962, courtesy Petrified Forest Ranger, Flickr Creative Commons)

Yesterday I started writing about how the United States essentially pioneered the whole idea of the national parks, and how paradoxical it seems that this very communitarian idea has worked so well in this typically laissez-faire country. I thought I’d continue in that vein today.

One big reason why this approach has had such staying power in America is that America did it first. Quite simply, the idea of national parks was invented here, as an American solution to an American problem. It took hold in the minds of both native-born Americans such as George Catlin and Frederick Law Olmsted, and immigrants such as John Muir. In fact, the parks idea is actually quite old in terms of American history, and, thank goodness, it predates the partisan ideological battles of the 20th and 21st centuries. The first national park to be officially designated was Yellowstone in 1872, though the idea of national parks goes as far back as 1832, when Hot Springs in Arkansas was created as a national reserve. That’s quite a long pedigree. But the main point in terms of broad public acceptance is that “we were first” with this idea. Others copied from us. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but it’s a facet that draws nicely on Americans’ sense of their country’s innate exceptionalism.

Another big plus about the national parks idea is that in the beginning its cost to the taxpayer was zero—well, almost zero. A growing level of state and national intervention cost the American people next to nothing for most of the parks’ early history. Remember, one thing the federal government has always had lots of is land. Throughout most of the the 19th century the government was basically giving it away to anyone brave enough to go west and settle and develop it. Most of the land initially designated for national parks was in the West and was already in the possession of the federal government, so it didn’t cost anything to acquire. And where land did have to be obtained, it was usually purchased by public fund-raising or donations from wealthy benefactors (see below). For much of the parks’ early history, there was little or no government funding for development of park resources for tourism or anything else, and such funding as there was mostly came from private interests.

In this way the parks became defined early on not with “wasteful government spending” but with tremendous acts of philanthropy allied with the public good. And these philanthropic acts were associated with some of the brightest and most powerful men in American society—often men who had made their fortunes in the cut-throat world of late 19th century laissez-faire capitalism. Now these men wished to give something back to the nation, in the form of huge parcels of land that they would fight for and sometimes pay for out of their own pockets, to be kept in trust for the American people. They included many of the great industrial families of the age, including the Mellons and especially the Rockefellers. Stephen Mather, the park service’s first director, was not quite in the Rockefeller league, but he was loaded. (As an industrialist, Mather had acquired a personal fortune but had a passion for the parks idea and went to work for the federal government as head of the park service essentially for free.) Add in the fact that the initial impetus for opening up the parks to public visitation was provided not by the government but by the big railroads looking entice fee-paying customers to travel out west in their trains and stay in their luxury hotels.

Thus the foundation stones for the parks and the park service were laid not with faceless Washington bureaucrats but with rich, powerful and influential private figures. So by the time the park service did finally start to receive significant infusions of taxpayer money in the 1950s and 1960s (especially with its Mission 66 project) it was building on almost a century’s worth of positive associations plus private philanthropy dedicated toward the public good—a period of time that allowed its continuing operations to feel like they had become an intricate part of the fabric of American society. This process was only aided when the park service took over the nation’s national battlefields, honoring and preserving the dead from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (more on this later).

Of course, the park service did eventually start sucking from the public teat. Even before Mission 66 the park service benefitted from FDR’s New Deal, especially with the creation of new parks and with its use of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). And Mission 66 dovetailed nicely with LBJ’s Great Society programs, which provided more funding. And the park service did develop a bureaucracy that could be just as intricate and confusing and downright infuriating as that of any other government department. But the absolute sums in terms of taxpayer money were always miniscule compared with other federal programs, and the benefits of this spending were immediately clear to anyone who visited and enjoyed a NPS site. And in contrast to many other areas of expansion of the federal government in the mid-20th century, the parks and the park service had already had many many decades to “bed down” and seep into the consciousness of the American people. When average Americans thought about the park service they typically didn’t think about faceless, lazy bureaucrats in their offices; they thought about the landscape and the wonders of the American landscape—and more and more, in the 20th century, they thought about that iconic representative of the park service: the park ranger. I’ll come back to that in another post.


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