Merced River, Yosemite Valley
Albert Bierstadt, 1866

Yosemite Valley, 1864

The first Western space preservationists nominated for protected status was the sublime Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of San Francisco. Early profiteers had already made claims on the valley, eagerly anticipating the benefits of tourism and lumbering. A group of concerned Californians lobbied Senator John Conness to introduce a bill to protect the valley and the nearby Sierra redwoods from rampant exploitation and abuse so that they might "be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind" (USDI 1991: 10). With the shame of Niagara haunting the thoughts of what could become of Yosemite, the idea received much popular support, but dissenters were quick to express their objections to the removal of the forty-square-mile valley and the nearby Mariposa grove of redwoods from public domain. Farmers wanted to maintain grazing rights on the lush foothills of the peaks and timber interests sought access to the innumerable varieties of desirable lumber contained within the groves. Although the redwoods were far too brittle to be of any use, the lesser trees scattered among them could be quite valuable on the timber market. Preservationists countered that the lumber practice, for the sake of convenience, cleared the majestic redwoods anyway because it was easier to clearcut rather than to work around the large trees.

Both sides presented valid defenses, but preservationists gained the upper hand thanks to the support of a man named Israel Ward Raymond, a representative for the Central American Steam Transit Company. Runte points out that Raymond urged for preservation in Yosemite, promoting the benefits of public use, recreation, and resort possibilities. (28) In a letter written to Senator Conness, Runte's research reveals a curious phrasing which later emerged in Conness's proposal to Congress. Raymond wrote "let the wonders of Yosemite be inalienable forever," a word choice which evokes the patriotism of our "inalienable rights" from the Declaration of Independence and suggests the insistence on constructing a cultural heritage through landscape. Conness adopted Raymond's terminology, and the act, signed on June 30, 1864, by President Lincoln declares that Yosemite Valley would "be held for public use, resort, and recreation...inalienable for all time" (USDI 1991: 10).

Although celebrated as a victory for preservationists, the protection of Yosemite is more a victory for capitalism. Before Raymond entered the fray, the timber and agriculture interests were at odds with the preservationists over the scope of the Yosemite proposal. The final bill granted concessions to the industries in the area by excluding the foothills from preservation and leaving most of the contested redwood groves in the public domain. The preserved space included only the monumental scenery of the rugged and inaccessible valley surrounding El Capitan, all very beautiful but economically undevelopable land. Similarly, the Mariposa reserve consists almost exclusively of the unmarketable ancient Sierra redwoods, themselves valueless monuments to an idea of an American past fashioned out of the wilderness.

This photo shows the enormous size of the trees. It appeared in the 1917 National Parks Portfolio with the caption "Many of these trees were growing thriftily when Christ was born," indicating the desire to locate antiquity in the American landscape.

These two small portions of the valley received the pardon from exploitation from Raymond, a man whose transportation industry stood to profit from the inevitable crush of tourists to come. The heavy promotion of Yosemite's wonders during its exploration and later during the lobbying for the park bill enthralled the Eastern population, which was unable to comprehend landscapes such as this. The paintings of Albert Bierstadt and the journal writings of John Muir heightened interest in travel to Yosemite immeasurably. Muir, the best-known champion of Yosemite, who was praised for his forward-thinking sense of environmentalism, was ironically used to promote the park for the tourism industry. Although reluctant to assist the cause, Muir was aware of the futility of preservation based solely on ecological responsibility. Muir's rapturous style provided the best advertising for the valley, like this passage which described Yosemite's grandeur:

innumberable lakes and waterfalls and smooth silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canyons...mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet...separated by tremendous canyons and ampitheaters; gardens on their sunny brows, avalanches thundering down their long white slpes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges, and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completeing their sculptures; newborn lakes at their feet, blue and green...with drifting icebergs like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars. (Yard 3Y)

With Muir's mellifluous descriptive prose and Bierstadt's impressive landscape scenes, such as Passing Storm Over the Sierras(detail, at left), Yosemite would become the most sought-after destination in America. Although Yosemite's heyday as a tourist resort would not be realized for nearly 20 years, its establishment set a precedent for future parks, both in terms of Congressional endorsement as a protected area and in the complex weighing of economic pros and cons which permitted the question of protection in the first place. Yosemite was a predecessor to the National Park--a federally protected but locally managed monument to American nationalism which battled for primacy over the exploitation of free enterprise but relied on profit potential for its chief defense. This debate would intensify considerably and grow more complex when the Yellowstone Valley was introduced to America in 1871, setting new standards for federal preservation and employing new strategies for the protection of free enterprise.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Thomas Moran, 1872

Yellowstone Valley, 1871

When the survey reports from the Washburn and Hayden expeditions were published back East in 1870 and 1871, the sensational accounts of the bizarre geology of the region stupefied incredulous eastern audiences. Almost immediately, journal entries, travel writings, and later, Thomas Moran's sketches and paintings and William Jackson's photographs detailed in text and image the remarkable finds discovered in the Montana territory. Publicity for the area was plentiful; newspapers, magazines, and lectures both instructed and intrigued eastern residents with the tales of shooting geysers, boiling streams, and bubbling sulfuric pits which resided with majestic waterfalls, stunning canyons, and rugged mountain peaks in excess of 10,000 feet. With topography like this, interest in Yellowstone was easy to encourage.

With very little debate, many of the surveyors and explorers proposed that this territory be set aside for public use and recreation because it was simply too marvelous to trust to private control. Hayden, one of the most respected and knowledgeable geologists of the time, gave his assurance that the land in the Yellowstone area was worthless for anything but recreation. The land was devoid of valuable minerals, its stands of timber were erratic and not of particularly valuable quality, and the terrain was far too steep and sparsely vegetated for grazing land. Essentially, the only value Yellowstone possessed was in entertainment. Its showcase of natural wonders was priceless, and therefore should receive federal protection.

The act might have passed without debate had it not been for the immense area Hayden proposed for preservation: 3300 square miles. A number so large raised more than a few eyebrows in Congress, but the most outspoken opponent was Senator Cornelius Cole of California. Cole questioned the need to preserve nearly 2.2 million acres of the public domain when, as he stated, "the geysers will remain, no matter where the ownership of the land may be" (USDI 1991: 11) If the land was as inhospitable to human habitation and resistant to economic development as Hayden's reports suggested, Cole reasoned, then there was no need to remove it from public custody for protection. The senator doubted that the land was as worthless as Hayden believed, asserting that some of the timber was marketable and some of the valleys suitable for grazing. Although he lobbied aggressively against it, Congress was persuaded otherwise and The Yellowstone National Park bill was passed on March 1, 1872.

As with Yosemite's protection, many other interests and influences were instrumental in the protection of Yellowstone. Northern Pacific Railroad was perhaps most influential, since the company owned the land immediately north of Yellowstone where a planned track was already under construction. Jay Cooke, president of Northern Pacific, had solicited the writing of Nathaniel Langford, an early visitor to Yellowstone, and the paintings of Thomas Moran, an artist with a deep affection for the region who was able to provide visual expression to the beauty and curiosity of the Yellowstone Valley. (See also Thomas Moran and the American Landscape) Cooke's rail line enjoyed exclusive access to Yellowstone, and he and other Northern Pacific executives rallied to persuade the public that Yellowstone must be preserved for their benefit. Cooke himself lobbied his local representatives in Philadelphia, who were eager to win the the approval of one of their most powerful constituents. Hayden, Moran, and residents of the Montana and Wyoming territories all had interests in the preservation of Yellowstone as well, and worked from their own perspectives to preserve the region.

Everyone's efforts succeeded with the passage of the bill, but as with Yosemite, it was not an unqualified victory for preservationists. Management of the park was uncertain. Most of the land was technically in Wyoming, but the most convenient access was through Montana, although neither was admitted as a state. Although one of the preservationists' goals was to secure federal management for the park, the only reason federal custody was granted to Yellowstone was that there was no state government capable of managing it. The Yellowstone bill was also not irrevocable; there was no mention of "inalienable" protection here. Cole successfully raised enough doubt about the propriety of reserving such a large tract of land, and as a result, Yellowstone was only temporarily protected. Senator William Trumbull said of the bill's provisions that "at some future time, if we desire to do so, we can repeal this law if it is in anybody's way," leaving the opportunity to repeal the park act if it were determined that Yellowstone could be developed or possessed a hidden cache of valuable resources. The only condition on development, as a concession to public fears about recreating the mistakes of Niagara Falls, was that any industry must make a substantial contribution to the economy. Runte notes that this distinction between valid and illegitimate development marked the double standard of the National Parks: "the sin of exploitation was not the pursuit of personal gain, but personal gain that could not be defended as being in the national interest" (Runte 53, emphasis mine). Tourism, of course, could be defended as being in the national interest because the railroads were providing the means for all Americans to commune with nature and to witness and absorb the roots of their cultural history, thus uniting profit with patriotism.

Yosemite and Yellowstone pioneered the modern park system and set precedents for future preservation, but tourism in the parks would not achieve widespread popularity until closer to the turn of the century. Both parks were poorly managed during their early years. Yosemite was given to California, but the state ignored responsibility for it until 1868. Yellowstone received no federal funding until 1877, when a miniscule budget was doled out to park management. No parks were designated again until a renewed interest in the landscape as a cultural treasure arose in the 1890's. The standards for development established by these two areas of public land would endure as the rail industries turned scenery into a valuable and profitable commodity which they marketed brilliantly to create a demand for scenery and therefore, for rail travel. Although the initial impulse to create National Parks emerged from the desire to construct a meaningful national heritage for America which could be valued above profit, their existences depended first on the absence of profitable natural resources and last on the potential for tourist traffic their locations and magnificence could guarantee.

Back | Cultural Landmarks Revisited: 1890-1906 | Map with Park Links

Joshua S. Johns
May 15, 1996