Our Oldest National Parks represent triumphs of conservationist thinking during the 19th century. It was a time of westward movement when most people thought wilderness should be tamed and its resources used for human expansion. Thanks to forward looking artists, writers, photographers, naturalists and politicians, large tracts of land were preserved for future generations.
George Catlin (1796-1892), the noted painter of Native American people, is regarded as one of the first people to express the idea of national parks. According to the National Park Services (NPS), on his trip to the Dakotas in 1831 Catlin grew concerned about the destructive effects of westward expansion on the wilderness, wildlife and Indian civilizations.
“ He wrote of his dream that there might be “by some great protecting policy of the government preserved…in a magnificent park…a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all wildness and freshness of their nature’s beauty!” (NPS)
In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act. It established the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to the state of California to be “held for public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable for time.”
Preserving such a huge tract of land was a departure from the established policy of transferring public lands to private ownership.
Following Are Highlights From A Few Of Our Favorite National Parks
The Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings Stopped Public Auction Of The World’s First National Park
The Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 was a game changer for Yellowstone. Prior to that, some Americans considered it ripe for exploitation. Others feared it as a hellish place with boiling geysers. Most had never seen its beauty. Thankfully, Ferdinand V. Hayden invited photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran on this expedition. The resulting Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings created great P.R. for the region. They helped to halt Yellowstone’s public auction and inspired the formation of one of the world’s first national parks.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act of Dedication law that created Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872. It was the first of its kind in the world and our oldest national park.
Wealthy tourists were eager to see the places depicted in the Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings. This was exactly the result that Jay Cooke, president of Northern Pacific Railroad hoped for when he funded Thomas Moran’s passage on the Hayden expedition.
With the expansion of the railroads, luxury hotels and resorts were planned at each destination along the route. Tourists could be delivered right to the doors of these civilized establishments that were perched on the edge of America’s oldest national parks. Grand hotels were built near Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Old Faithful.
Niagara Falls Attracted Victorian Crowds
In the late 1860s a small group of early environmentalists founded the Free Niagara Movement. They contended that the land surrounding the falls should be protected from commercial exploitation and remain free to the public. Frederick Law Olmsted who designed New York City’s Central Park led the movement.
Their efforts were rewarded on April 30, 1885. Although it is not one of our oldest national parks, Governor David B. Hill signed legislation creating the Niagara Reservation as New York’s first state park.
Also in the 1880s people flocked to the frozen Niagara ice bridge.
“…it became a popular pastime to gather on the ice for entertainment and to enjoy refreshments served out of outdoor huts set up on the frozen surface. This continued until 1912, when an unfortunate mishap during a particularly mild spell led three people to their deaths, ending the era of public access onto the ice bridge.” (Niagara Parks)
Yosemite’s Firefall Dazzled Early Tourists, 1872
This was not the natural illusion when Horsetail Falls appears to be molten lava for a few weeks in February. Although in the same location, the Yosemite Firefall was a nightly show during which a stream of campfire embers tossed over the waterfall at Glacier Point looks like fire.
This is a story that reveals the intrepid and sometimes quirky characters who were among the early settlers of our Oldest National Parks in general, and Yosemite in particular.
Glacier Point Dancers Fancied Daring Photo Ops
Glacier Point dancers in Yosemite found the irresistible vantage point for the 1890s equivalent of daring photo ops. America’s oldest national parks were a relatively new concept. People were exploring vast new landscapes made accessible by improved transportation. The idea of the American Wild West entered the zeitgeist as the subjects of these photos posed above the great unknown.
Hawaiian Eruptions Inspired Awe
Another of our oldest national parks, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, was established in 1916
The Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii erupted throughout the 1880s and 1890s. People had “witnessed” the massive eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and its affects worldwide thanks to improved transatlantic communications. Hawaiian eruptions triggered a wealth of writings through the 1800s. News articles, scientific journals and diaries express anxiety, fear, awe and exhilaration.
Writers including Isabella Bird, Mark Twain, and Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming sparked the public’s fascination with Hawaii’s volcanic eruptions. Photography was not yet practical, and color photography was years away. It was the Volcano School Painters who offered the world a front-row view of nature in her wildest moments.
Are America’s Parks And Monuments Safe?
Our newest and oldest national parks of today are public resources for recreation, education, scholarship, and the preservation of endangered landscapes, natural communities, and species. They exist in twenty-five states as well as the Virgin Islands. Like all rights, freedoms and privileges, we can’t take national parks for granted.
In 2016, the Hopi celebrated when the Obama administration protected Bears Ears by declaring it a national monument, sheltering it from development and extraction.
Shortly after Donald Trump took office, he drastically reduced the size of Bears Ears monument by 85%.
According to a September 2019 Press Release from the U.S. Department of the Interior:
“ In a testament to the Trump Administration’s America First Energy Plan, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) third-quarter oil and gas lease sale in New Mexico broke all previous records by grossing nearly $1 billion in bonus bids for 142 parcels. The two-day sale brought in more revenue than all BLM oil and gas sales in 2017 combined, and surpassed BLM’s previous best sales year. Revenue from the sale totaled $972,483,619.50 and illustrates the Trump Administration’s commitment to sustainably developing America’s energy and natural resources to achieve American energy dominance.”
The Wilderness Society Argues:
“The Trump administration unlawfully reduced the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent in 2017. This outrageous attack opened millions of acres of Utah’s red-rock country to mining, drilling, reckless off-road vehicle use and looting. It also threatened thousands of Native American archaeological and cultural sites.”
The Wilderness Society took Trump to court for violating the Antiquities Act and are now locked in a battle to prevent irreparable damage to Bears Ears.
In January of 2021, President Biden issued an executive order to restore the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in southern Utah and added protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts national monuments.
Will President Trump’s executive order to review national monuments designated since 1996 continue to threaten these areas?
Can future presidents and commercial interests erode our oldest national parks?
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