Histories of American National Parks

Amy Kohout is Assistant Professor of History at Colorado College and a founding editor of Backlist.

In the title of his documentary miniseries, filmmaker Ken Burns calls our national parks “America’s Best Idea.” Burns traces the growth of interest in preserving the natural wonders of places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and tells the stories of individuals whose efforts resulted in the protection of public lands. But sometimes the stories we tell about national parks celebrate these victories of preservation without also examining their costs. In recent decades, environmental historians have worked to place the creation of the American national park system in a broader context, asking questions about how we came to value certain landscapes as “wilderness”; how the railroad, the automobile, and accompanying changes in recreation and vacation behavior shaped national park tourism; and how the development of these preserves affected the lives and livelihoods of both indigenous and local communities.

National parks have traditionally been central to American environmental history—but, at least for me, it is what national parks can reveal about the world beyond park boundaries that make them so important. Much of the historical scholarship on American national parks isn’t pretty. In particular, the dispossession of Native people and the ways that preservation and conservation policies were sometimes used to advance the interests of a few at the expense of many remind us that national park history is more complicated than the triumphant stories we know. This scholarship challenges us to engage with the actions and ideas—the human histories—that allow us to peer into the Grand Canyon, hike Yosemite’s El Cap, or wait patiently for Old Faithful’s stream to shoot into the sky.

Places to Start

If you’re looking for a broad cultural history of how Americans imagined their relationship with nature, this book by Roderick Nash is a wonderful place to start. Wilderness and the American Mind is still in print (five editions later), and for good reason. Nash traces the idea of wilderness from the Old World to the New, from Romanticism to debates over the formation and later protection of the national parks and on through to contemporary environmentalism.

This is an equally good place to begin. Though not structured as a chronological investigation of the idea of wilderness, Solnit’s Savage Dreams engages with the major themes of national park history and historiography, as well as environmental history more broadly. How she does it—through a beautifully written meditation on the interconnected histories of the Nevada Test Site and Yosemite National Park—makes this one of the books I most regularly recommend to my friends (and assign to my students).

This edited collection is foundational for environmental history. William Cronon’s “The Trouble With Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” highlights the dualism of American environmental thinking. It demands that we consider the impact of privileging the protection of faraway places—where we aren’t—over the complex communities where we live. Each of the essays in this volume—which includes Carolyn Merchant on Biblical fall and recovery narratives, Richard White on the relationship between nature and labor, and Jennifer Price on class, consumption, and The Nature Company (a store I loved as a kid!)—approaches the human relationship with nature from a different angle, and the reader is left with a diversity of arguments about how we might make sense of the environments where we live and work.

Digging In

This book explores the implementation of late-nineteenth century conservation policy and its effect on American Indians, with a focus on Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier National Parks. Building on Nash’s history of the idea of wilderness, Spence traces the ways in which national park lands were remade into uninhabited, pristine spaces for wilderness experiences—a process that systematically erased Native people and their rights.

In The Hunter’s Game, Warren focuses on the idea of public land as a kind of national commons. He looks at a series of cases to explore the ways conservation management shaped (and often limited) access to natural resources for local users. In his first example, Warren draws on the story of a Pennsylvania game warden’s murder to make visible how conservation policy (something we tend to accept as “good”) was wielded to do some particularly ugly things. Warren’s engaging cases push us to think about which uses—and which users—win and lose under a range of conservation frameworks.

Sutter begins this book by tracing the rise of the automobile in twentieth-century America, and uses this history to argue that modern wilderness preservation grew out of a critique of consumption. He takes a biographical approach, and uses the stories of Aldo Leopold, Robert Sterling Yard, Benton MacKaye, and Bob Marshall to explore how conservation practitioners in the interwar era became wilderness advocates.

New Moves

The history of American wilderness is mostly white. Why is that? In this book, geographer Carolyn Finney explores the range of ways that African American communities connect to the environment and to environmentalism. Finney looks at individual experience, institutional practice, and cultural representation to consider the intersection of race and nature.

While Maher’s book isn’t explicitly national park history, I’m including it here because of the way it links labor, the state, and American public lands. Maher focuses on the CCC, and I particularly love the way he explores the relationship between healthy bodies and healthy forests. This book highlights how the history of American natural resources can open up possibilities for understanding the broader history of the nation—and vice versa. So many of us are able to access public lands because of work done by the CCC. Why not learn a bit more about these workers and their labor?

This book isn’t about national parks at all; rather, it begins in Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. I include it here as an example of a different kind of park history—not national parks, but public spaces like cemeteries and city parks. National park history is part of a broader conversation about public space and shared resources. While national parks are, for many, vacation destinations and places apart from daily life, Sachs suggests that other kinds of green spaces matter for understanding American environmental thinking, both past and present.

Voices and Lives

Now of course I could point you to the words of John Muir, who wrote in 1901 that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home…” Or I could direct you to Ed Abbey’s gorgeous (if sometimes ornery and misanthropic) Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, first published in 1968. But instead, I’m choosing to recommend a contemporary perspective on the nation’s public lands. In her new book (and I recommend them all), Williams asks, “What is the relevance of our national parks in the twenty-first century—and how might these public commons bring us back home to a united state of humility?” (11) She suggests that our national parks are “holograms of an America born of shadow and light,” and in twelve essays grounded in visits to and interactions with people in twelve different parts of the parks system, Williams considers the complex past and possible futures of American public lands. In this year of the centennial of the National Parks System, Williams and the other authors listed here offer readers a chance to wander in wilderness—and park history more broadly—for at least a whole summer, to paraphrase Muir.