In the introduction to The National Parks Portfolio of 1917, the first anniversary of the National Park Service, director Stephen Tyng Mather wrote that "this nation is richer in naural scenery of the first order than anyother nation...and is serenely ignorant of the fact. In its national parks it has neglected, because it has quite overlooked, an economic asset of incalculable value" (Yard 5). Mather expressed an opinion that was long in the making. By 1917, speaking of the economic potential of scenery was a reasonable assertion, but prior to this time the popular view, as Alfred Runte succintly states it, held that "wealth of resources, not of scenery, had become the nationís ultimate measure of achievement" (Runte 53-54). This viewpoint, however popular, was already changing as early as the middle of the Nineteenth Century as some citizens began to interpret the wilderness of the American continent in more aesthetic terms which embraced the "wildness" of nature as a potent source of national pride and identity. (See Nature and the American Identity for further information)

Despite the shifting perceptions of the American landscape, the bountiful yield of natural resources that could be extracted from the earth for industry countered with a powerful argument against scenic preservation. Economic success would not be stifled by the protests of a few environmentally and aesthetically minded preservationists. Motivated by a pervasive sense of cultural anxiety about America's inability to compete with the enduring cultural traditions and civil history of Europe's ancient civilzation, early preservationists championed North America's vast acreages of wilderness as our own unique cultural heritage. As interest in the American wilderness grew, places like the Hudson Valley of New York and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia became popular resort destinations for urbanites searching for the restorative power bestowed by a retreat to the "primeval" wilderness from which the United States emerged.

The influx of travellers who journeyed to the countryside in search of a wilderness experience created a demand for certain amenities and conveniences. Profiteers followed the crowds, and the popularity of nature retreats meant that the wilderness could not stay quite so wild. The early aspirations of preservation seemed dashed in what became known as "The Shame of Niagara." Although Niagara Falls was recognized throughout the world as one of the most magnificent natural wonders, profiteers and industrial opportunists were free to take advantage of its popularity since no regulation or management existed. As a result, the brink of Niagara was clogged with the architectural pollution of hotels, shops, tourist traps, and industries--all tapping the economic resources created by the popularity of the falls. Americans swelled with pride at the mention of Niagara, and the pilgrimages made by scores of European tourists confirmed that the United States had at last arrived on the cultural scene.

Understandably, then, when several prominent Europeans criticized the falls, Americans were troubled. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville urged an immediate visit to Niagara because "if you delay, your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest round about is being cleared...I don't give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract" (Runte 6). Other disgusted European visitors echoed the opinions of deTocqueville, but renowned English traveller Sir Richard Bonnycastle wrote perhaps the most scathing criticism of what he called "the Utilitarian mania" in 1849 when he said that

they [Americans] are about to consummate the barbarism by throwing a wire bridge over the river just below the American Fall...what they will not do next in their freaks it is difficult to surmise, but it requires very little to show that patriotism, taste, and self-esteem, are not the leading features in the character of the inhabitants of this part of the world (Runte 7).

Bonnycastle's criticism, along with that of other Europeans, delivered a disheartening blow to the fledgling sense of cultural pride in the American conscience. As reports of the inconceivably magnificent landscapes of the trans-Mississippi west returned to the east during the 1860's, preservationists and their supporters sensed a possibility for redemption from the catastrophe at Niagara. If the landscapes were as majestic as the tales suggested, they offered what was perceived as a last chance to preserve monuments to the American identity and tributes to the unique cultural history of the United States. The landscapes of the West could provide the perfect opportunity to prove to critics like Bonnycastle that Americans could indeed value their heritage, or an idea of it, more than the pursuit of material success.

Despite the best intentions of the preservationists, their cause succumbed to the unassailable American will-to-profit. The last chance to preserve a semblance of an enduring cultural tradition in America needed more than patriotic defense to survive. Contrary to popular memory, the parks were not the result of preservationists' aims to protect the environment or preserve monuments to the American heritage; rather, the development of a system of National Parks relied almost exclusively on the profit potential of the landscape. The earliest park sites were chosen in part because the sublimity of their rugged beauty expressed a monumental tribute to the American identity, but more significantly because the protected land removed from the public domain was economically worthless. As the early history of the park system demonstrates, sites like Yosemite and Yellowstone were carefully chosen iterations of America. In both places, the high rugged terrain offered the monumentalism appropriate to a symbolic expression of the American character, but conveniently enough, it also prevented profitable activity such as mining, timbering, or farming and were therefore much more justifiably preserved. But both parks, although worthless for traditional industries, became even more valuable when the country discovered that where industry was unable to access the resources, tourism could. The millions of dollars generated by tourist revenues--not a spiritual desire to preserve the landscape--proved in the end to be the winning defense for the park system.

Yosemite and Yellowstone, 1864-1877 | Map and Park Links

Joshua S. Johns
May 15, 1996