Hello! Your fave park historian, here.

Today in the New York Times, Timothy Egan published an opinion piece titled “The Beginning of the End of America’s Best Idea.” He writes:

“The national parks, oft-called America’s best idea, were created by people who looked beyond their own lives. Those people made great ancestors — benevolent, farsighted, selfless.” 

 

I call:

Bullshit

A few points:

  • The American and Canadian park systems were created in order to maximize profit on otherwise “useless” land. As I note in my review of Leslie Bella’s Parks for Profit, “rather than ensuring that these areas remain untouched, the formation of parks guaranteed that these areas would become centers of development.”
  • Yellowstone and Banff were projects backed by railroad companies in order to profit on tourism.
  • This tourism was elite because very few people–before the proliferation of automobile travel–could afford to reach western national parks.
  • Indigenous peoples were displaced and alienated by the creation of national parks. Hardly benevolent.
  • Many national parks were created before the field of ecology even existed. Early park managers acted on the landscape without a basic scientific understanding of the environment. For instance, the hunting and killing of predators in national parks was an example of extreme and uneducated shortsightedness.
  • The wealthy and influential white men did not act outside of themselves, but rather for themselves. They wanted to protect these spaces because these spaces made them feel good, bolstered their ‘manhood,’ and because they could profit on them.

Can we please move beyond Ken Burns’ fuzzy and feel-good “best idea” nonsense and recognize that parks are complicated and dynamic institutions? There is no mythical past where people acted outside of self-interest. Whitewashing park history to claim that they were the result of fictional benevolence handicaps our ability to deal with current environmental and social issues affecting national parks and other parks today.


Please read some actual park history. It is worth it.

Everyone is welcome to peruse my national parks and park history posts for reading suggestions.

Also, everyone can peruse my “Park History” shelf on Goodreads.

Feature Photo: Gardner Station, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Library of Congress

 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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