Forget Purple Mountains’ Majesty
With corporate interests and climate change threatening America’s national parks, international cooperation and entrepreneurial competition might be the only things that keep them safe.
By Tim Murphy
Illustration by Kevin Tong
In January 1886, a Canadian bureaucrat named John R. Hall was dispatched on an urgent mission to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Dominion government had recently protected 10 square miles outside Banff in Alberta, Canada, having learned of the “remarkable curative properties” of the area’s steamy, sulfur-rich waters. Given the close proximity to a railroad depot there, the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. had prodded the government to act in the hope that the new preserve would boost tourism on its recently completed transcontinental line.
But the cart had gotten ahead of the iron horse. Visitors who hoped the waters would restore their health began descending on the springs before the government could figure out how to manage its new possession. To further complicate things, squatters (some of whom had helped construct the railroad) had made their own claims to the land and built shacks near the springs. So, the Canadians turned their gaze south to Arkansas where the U.S. government had been running a similar operation for some 50 years; its popularity was widely known. Hall’s instructions were to study the workings of America’s first protected public land and report back on how the Yanks had done it.
Hall’s train was held up by a snowstorm in Missouri, but he eventually made it to the then-912-acre preserve in the Ouachita Mountains and promptly panned it in a note to his superiors. He declared that the springs lacked “intelligent supervision, modern appliances, cleanliness and civility.”
President Andrew Jackson had originally signed a bill setting aside the land that would become Hot Springs National Park as a federal reservation in 1832. But after enacting protections for the site, Old Hickory and Congress seem to have left the area mostly unregulated. Conditions had reached rock bottom in the years before Hall’s mission, and it was still largely a free-for-all at the time of his visit. The government had let private owners set up bathhouses on the grounds, which might not have been so bad except those owners were rarely around. In their absence, bathers were at the mercy of one another. Someone with rheumatism “may enter a tub immediately after it has been vacated by some one afflicted with a contagious disease,” Hall noted in his report. The federal government had disbursed little money for staff or improvements. “I have mentioned the apparent laxity of management,” Hall wrote. “[I]t would be more strictly accurate to say that there is no management at all.”
Despite Hall’s disparaging assessment, the Canadians decided the problem lay in the execution, not the idea. When park supporters in the Canadian Parliament finally made the country’s parks official in 1887, beginning with Banff, lawmakers plagiarized their enacting language from the U.S. legislation that had authorized the “public park” at Yellowstone.
Whether Canada or the United States gave it much thought at the time, the deliberation over Banff marked one of the first acts of national-park diplomacy. The two nations had broken ground on a new way of thinking — not just about the ways governments interact with their land, but also how they interact with each other. Though the Canadian and American systems would stumble through missteps over the next half-century (Banff would even host a World War I internment camp), Hall’s early visit shed light on a fundamental and valuable lesson. Commerce could be an essential lubricant for getting new parks off the ground, but government was essential to keep them running.
The story of public lands in the United States hinges on the tension between the country’s most entrepreneurial impulses and its most utopian ones, and the parks could not exist without either. That tension has not diminished. If anything it may be more heightened than ever, and it’ll take a new, more muscular brand of conservation and diplomacy to keep two centuries of slow, complicated progress from crashing down.
The United States may have been the first country to christen a national park with the founding of Yellowstone in 1872, but it did so not out of intrinsic brilliance or wisdom passed on from the Founders. Rather, America’s parks got their start through a series of fortuitous — and often shameful — events. Certainly, by modern standards, many users of the early parks were decadent and depraved, hunting wolves and chipping off pieces of geological features to bring home. U.S. lawmakers were not environmentalists then.Federal protection began in earnest only after the Civil War, when the U.S. Army pivoted to fighting American Indians. The campaign of ethnic cleansing and relocation that followed opened up expanses of the West to exploration for the first time. Reports from the region confirmed its natural grandeur, and the government started carving out land for posterity. By the time Theodore Roosevelt left the White House in 1909 there were eight national parks, nine national monuments, and an expanding network of national forests.
Word of these parks and their stunning attractions quickly spread, hurried along by private sector advertising. Beginning in the late 19th century, visitors came to the American West from around the world and returned home as converts, determined to start their own parks. A former New Zealand premier was moved to preserve his country’s geothermal hotspots after an 1873 painting expedition to California’s Yosemite Valley and Hot Springs. The long road to a national park system in the United Kingdom began with a visit in the 1920s to three American parks — and two Canadian ones — by a British lord. When Poland opened its first park, the government proudly cited the motto above the north gate of Yellowstone: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” Because Europe was already densely populated, its parks first took hold in colonial enclaves that, like the United States, had dispossessed native populations of vast swathes of land and then deemed it wilderness. Australia’s first park, which was creatively called The National Park, came a few years after Yellowstone’s founding. The Dutch created a preserve in Java in 1921, and King Albert set aside more than 59,000 acres of the Belgian Congo in 1925.
Today, there are more than 209,000 designated protected areas across virtually every country on Earth. By almost any metric — square miles covered (more than 12 million) annual visitors (a record 330 million in U.S. national parks last year alone and some 8 billion to natural areas internationally each year), wildlife selfies (data unavailable) — they are bigger, and more crucial, than ever.
It’s worth remembering that in typical American fashion a lot of what made the country’s parks great was borrowed from somewhere else. They would never have succeeded or been mythologized as “America’s Best Idea” if the parks hadn’t been shaped by foreign influences.
That slogan, which captured the idealism about U.S. parks, has often been attributed to the prolific American novelist Wallace Stegner, whose writings on the West helped promote conservation. Documentarian Ken Burns credited the novelist with the phrase and used it as the name of his 2009 series about the parks. Actually, Stegner ascribed the original description to someone else — a British ambassador, Lord James Bryce, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and an amateur explorer who claimed to have discovered a plank from the remains of Noah’s Ark. If Bryce did say it, he tempered his admiration with constructive criticism. During a 1912 speech in Baltimore, he praised the American system of parks, but warned of the perils ahead if the nation didn’t take a stand against new threats being pushed by some of the parks’ boosters in the tourism industry.
Railroads had lobbied for Yellowstone, Glacier, and other parks in the late 19th century, recognizing them as a major source of revenue for their lines. The automotive industry and attendant motels and drive-throughs soon followed, and would turn the great Western road trip into a national rite of passage.
But Bryce presciently wondered where such developments might end. He proposed the radical idea of banning automobiles and paved roads in parks like Yosemite, anticipating, in some form, the wilderness areas that would sweep public lands decades later. And at a time when parks were overseen haphazardly by a patchwork of government bureaus, he encouraged Washington to devote full-time attention to its crown jewels. Here was a Brit suggesting that the United States adopt an idea that Canada had embraced the previous year, 1911 — the Dominion Parks Branch. The roles were now reversed. The Americans followed Canada’s example, and the U.S. National Park Service was authorized four years after Bryce’s address.
Complementing this regulatory trend, a capitalist strain, more concerned with commerce than ecology, was glamorizing the parks. In 1906, a group of railroad executives, entrepreneurs, and representatives from the U.S. government, Mexico, and Canada had met in Salt Lake City to hash out a plan to compete with the booming European tourism market. Their solution was called “See America First,” a simple slogan that for its isolationist echo was in key ways international. It wrapped the country’s northern and southern partners in its embrace, inviting tourists from across the Atlantic to visit all three countries in a North American version of the grand tour. The founding document emphasized the plan’s economic benefits and “vast amount of good” to Mexico and Canada in addition to the United States.
The result was that at a critical moment in history, with the park service soon to be established and the West still empty enough to save, the United States went big — and inclusive. What followed was the flowering of an intracontinental conservation movement, focused on drawing tourists to North American wonders as opposed to European ones. (The slogan was ubiquitous enough to inspire a 1916 Broadway romantic comedy by the same name, with music by Cole Porter.) Under the auspices of “See America First,” the United States quintupled its number of parks (with 34 by 1968) and coaxed its neighbors to do the same. After the establishment of Glacier National Park in Montana in 1910, by which time Canada had already designated its own park, Waterton Lakes, across the 49th parallel, the two countries agreed to a “peace park” spanning both sides of the border. At the same time, the United States sought a similar arrangement with Mexico, and the U.S. government set aside public lands in the hope of forming a southern peace park. The dream was never quite realized — at least not in so explicit a form. However, borderland preserves, such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and Big Bend National Park in Texas, are enduring descendants of this aspirational moment.
Parks and land preserves had become a global currency by which countries compete, negotiate, and curry favor. In more recent decades, for good or ill, natural preserves have remained political theaters — the terrain on which nations further dialogue, coerce, or extend influence. In 2009, when the United States wanted to demonstrate progress in post-Taliban Afghanistan, it pointed to the establishment of that nation’s first national park, Band-e-Amir. Bill Clinton grew U.S. influence in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain by sending park rangers to the Carpathian Mountains to rebuild the outdoors economy. Ecuador and Peru averted conflict in the late 1990s by setting aside their disputed border region, the Cordillera del Cóndor, as a peace park. In 2013, Israel hastily designated a new national park near Jerusalem to serve as a buffer against Palestinians moving into a tense, disputed neighborhood. (One Israeli press headline referred to the project as the “Strategic National Park.”)
There may be no more powerful symbol of cultural diplomacy in a national park than Washington D.C.’s Tidal Basin. Every spring tourists encounter spectacular evidence of the internationalism that shaped America’s parks: the very cherry trees lining the National Park Service’s walkways that were a gift to the United States from Japan in 1912. The park area was championed by first lady Helen Taft, who was inspired by a similar arbor she had visited — not in the United States, but on a visit to Japan. This year, though, the canopy of pink blossoms appeared weeks ahead of schedule because of the changing climate. What started as a symbol of peace has become evidence of something more ominous.
Today, with the U.S. National Park Service still on a victory lap for last year’s centennial celebration, America’s parks may be on their shakiest footing since their inception.
President Donald Trump, elected on a promise to put “America First,” is working to roll back air and water regulations and open public lands for drilling and mining. Republican members of Congress recently pushed for legislation that would allow for a fire sale of public lands to state governments. The new administration is also moving to change the protected status of some two dozen national monuments, including a 1 million-acre swathe bordering the Grand Canyon, that were established by Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. There are plans to build a 20-foot wall through one of the most ecologically diverse regions in North America. Meanwhile, the parks are facing a new threat. Climate change will cause Joshua Tree to lose its Joshua trees and Glacier to lose its glaciers.
When unwelcome or unlawful developers began to encroach and sully America’s picture-perfect landscapes in the 19th century, the solution seemed simple enough: Draw red lines on a map and cordon off selected areas from intruders. The crisis of the 21st century is omnipresent and existential. You can keep condos out of Yellowstone; you can’t easily keep summers from getting warmer. The balance between development and conservation has been thrown way off kilter. If the perils facing parks are no longer local or even national, then the way we address them can’t be either. Protecting the parks in a moment of global environmental upheaval means thinking of them as the global institutions they are.
It remains to be seen whether Trump, who seems determined to alienate many of the nation’s oldest allies, can be persuaded to temper his most destructive impulses. Who knows? Maybe a businessman as obsessive about branding and building big things could understand the value of “See America First” to include the country — an entrepreneurial experiment on the grandest scale. Since he became president, though, his actions have been cause for alarm. At an impromptu ceremony for the White House press corps in April, Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced that Trump would donate his first paycheck — $78,333 — to the park service for the purpose of maintaining national battlefields. But that was a pittance compared with the $1.5 billion he proposed to cut from the Department of Interior’s budget in March. That budget, incidentally dubbed “America First,” also forecasted a smaller role for the park service, deemphasizing land acquisition and advocating for increased revenue from “environmentally responsible” energy development. Before his donation, the administration’s first interaction with the park service was to chide the agency for posting a photo of the thinned-out inauguration crowd on Twitter.
Trump’s experience with conservation has mainly been limited to an overgrown state park outside New York City that he donated to the state of New York in exchange for a massive tax break after acquiring the land for about $3 million. His green spaces are golf courses, not forests, and the cultural heritage he chooses to celebrate is often one of his own creation. When Trump unveiled a newly renovated golf course on the Potomac River outside Washington, he added a historical marker — not to any of the dozen or so park service-protected forts or battlefields nearby, but to a fictitious Civil War battle that had been conceived for the purposes of selling the course. Conservation for conservation’s sake has never appealed to him; the land is only as valuable as what he can sell it for.
Obama, by contrast, viewed himself as a steward of the land, and actively concerned himself with the climate science relevant to its protection. While visiting Yosemite last year, he expressed alarm that “Bird ranges are shifting farther northward, alpine mammals like pikas are being forced farther upslope to escape higher temperatures,” and “Yosemite’s largest glacier — once a mile wide — is now almost gone.”
The Trump administration has been foggy about the future of the Paris Agreement on climate change, perhaps Obama’s most important contribution to the parks. Trump hasn’t abandoned the landmark accord, but has taken steps that would prevent the United States from meeting the carbon-reduction requirements mandated by the treaty. Energy Department staffers have been instructed not to use the term “climate change” in their work.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has begun preliminary planning for a wall along the southern border, through some of the lands proposed for a peace park in the early 20th century. One early proposal obtained by Reuters calls for the wall to (somehow) pass through the canyons and mountains of Big Bend National Park, although the actual route is uncertain. From a conservation standpoint the idea seems almost cruel, because there may be no better example than the Big Bend of what a collaborative, international approach to the parks can accomplish.
In the 1990s, the Mexican government finally established two small preserves along the Rio Grande, across from Big Bend — and added a third in 2009. Just as importantly, the cement giant CEMEX, which owned an entire mountain range on the Mexican side of the border across from the park, announced that it, too, would be setting aside its property for conservation. The result was the creation of what conservationists call a “transboundary mega-corridor,” an interlocking series of public and private protected borderlands. In 2011, invoking President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dream of a peace park, American and Mexican officials announced a compact to commit to its long-term protection. In lieu of a toast, they released 267,000 Rio Grande silvery minnows into the river to celebrate. Before they left in the 1940s, ranchers in the Big Bend had culled much of its wildlife — bears, wolves, and bighorn sheep. But more than four decades after the last one lived in the park, a mother bear that had wandered across the river was spotted with two cubs that had evidently been born in the Big Bend. In the 1990s and 2000s, that transient population grew into a stable community. As of the most recent count, there were some 30 bears in the park, an unassisted species recovery that is almost unprecedented along the southern border. Bighorn sheep have been reintroduced to the area; wolves might be a bit further off.
Megafauna do not recognize political boundaries. The parks are international in their origin and in their function — monuments to cooperation, commerce, and soft power. America’s early conservationists recognized that borders could be protected not as heavily policed barriers but as shared, global public trusts that man and beast could roam across freely, and that responsible stewardship of the land makes nations more — not less — prosperous. That’s a pretty radical idea — maybe even one of America’s best.
Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. (@timothypmurphy)