March 04, 2022

A Great Idea Celebrates 150 Years

Posted on March 4, 2022 by Stephen Brown

On March 1, Yellowstone National Park — the world’s first — marked 150 years since Ulysses S. Grant inked it into existence. In an often repeated quote, Wallace Stegner called national parks America’s best idea. As Yellowstone and the national park idea reach their sesquicentennial it’s worth considering why Stegner put national parks on such a lofty pedestal, and the lessons this idea holds for the future.

When considered in the context of history, preserving a rather vast area of what now is parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho was a rather radical idea. The 1870s was smack in the midst of an era of disposing, not preserving federal land. Yet something about this scenic concentration of geysers, canyons and high mountain lakes piqued Congress to realize there are some places so core to the national interest that they should be retained for the benefit of everyone.

Yellowstone was the first, but the idea took off with other icons with names that ring like geographic poetry: Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Glacier,  Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Bryce, Arches. Many others followed, expanding to national historic sites, marine parks, and monuments, and huge expanses of Alaska. Today the Park Service manages more than 400 units nationwide. The idea spread worldwide and national parks now exist on every inhabited continent. They all stand on Yellowstone’s foundation.

What is it about this 150 year history of carving out segments of a country and preserving for a nation that’s such a great idea and what perspective does it offer? When Stegner penned his tribute he called national parks “absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” It’s easy to understand why when one walks places like the Yellowstone boardwalks and listens to the visitor banter. They talk about ecosystems, wildlife, climate, geology and scenic wonder. They talk to each other about what they see and where they’re from and what they’ll remember. They take home a little bit more understanding than when they arrived.   

The national park system certainly faces challenges — 4.8 million people passed through Yellowstone’s gates last year. Calling the system the “best” idea is slightly hyperbolic and trite, but it also is easy to see in a very tangible way how the preservation branch of the environmental movement, with its roots tracing back at least 150 years, offers valuable lessons to an increasingly fractured country. So give a little toast to a splendidly good idea, and consider what lessons of optimism it offers for the future.