Today marks the anniversary of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, which sparked the worldwide national park movement. This significant day in history allows the opportunity to review the role of the national park system within the American narrative and to discuss how that role is changing with the Trump presidency.
For the government, the establishment of a federal park at Yellowstone was not undertaken with preservation in mind. The land was largely inaccessible to white intruders, as the Northern Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad were not yet running through the area, and governmental opposition to the establishment of the park did not anticipate any immediate use of the land. The Act of Dedication prohibited the settlement, occupancy, or sale of the tract of land in the territories of Montana and Wyoming and dedicated it to the enjoyment of the people.
Officials faced considerable local opposition to Yellowstone National Park. Regional representatives feared that the economy would be negatively affected due to their inability to mine, hunt, and log within park boundaries. Ultimately, advocates for the creation of a national park won out by drawing on fears that Yellowstone could one day become Niagara Falls, which at the time was exploited heavily through private enterprise. This is one of the first instances of a campaign to preserve wilderness from commercial exploitation.
During that era, white invaders struggled to reconcile medical and technological limitations with their environment. The “pioneer bias” saw wilderness as a threat to survival and humanity itself. Puritans sought to control wilderness and purge it of the devil. Their utilitarian perspective of wilderness meant that it was in and of itself a barrier to “civilization” as they perceived it.
Over time, the growth of romanticism and transcendentalism (thanks to advancements in technology and medicine) redeemed the features of wilderness and generated a resistance to cultivated landscapes. Wilderness became a symbol of strength, ferocity, and hardship. Human well-being was thought to decrease in direct proportion to the degree of “civilization,” and wilderness became a cure and sublime source of awe, rather than fear.
However, national parks were places defined not by their wilderness, but by the white and wealthy. The designation of early national parks pushed out indigenous peoples to make space for white aristocrats seeking to “get away” from what they viewed as the complexities of civilization. Nature as a place of “benefit and enjoyment” wholly ignored the experiences of marginalized groups. And in many instances Native Americans were erased from the narrative entirely, as parks were advertised as places “untouched by man.”
Today, many of the tenets of romanticism and transcendentalism are intact within American society. Nature is often referred to as a sanctuary or house of worship. Colin Fletcher, a long-distance hiker and writer wrote in the 1970s that after being in contact with wilderness “you know deep down in your fabric… that you are part of the web of life, and the web of life is part of the rock and air and water of pre-life. You know the wholeness of the universe, the great unity… And you abandon the crass assumption that the world was made for man.” Science has even found that immersion in nature can make you a better person and make you happier.
But national parks, thought to be protected indefinitely, still must compete with the interests of corporations and privatization. The Center for American Progress (CAP) recently released a review that examines the impact of misdirecting taxpayer funds in national parks, stating, “The U.S. government routinely bills taxpayers for the maintenance of the hotels, restaurants, and other infrastructure from which these businesses profit. A review of the NPS’ list of deferred maintenance projects reveals that the NPS requests hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to finance corporate infrastructure in the parks.” Ultimately, CAP fears that misdirected taxpayer funds could reduce the number of resources available to the National Park Service to maintain historic sites and conservation projects.
Additionally, leaders are calling for President Trump to rescind many of the national monuments established under the Obama administration. National monuments differ from national parks in that they must only meet the criteria of having historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest and can be designated by the sole authority of the president through the Antiquities Act of 1906. Although the Antiquities Act delegates powers to the president to create national monuments, it does not give authorization to rescind those proclamations.
As president, Obama declared 87,500 acres of donated land in Maine a national monument. In a recent letter to President Trump, Maine Governor Paul LePage urged him to undo the designation—an act without precedent. LePage wrote, “I strongly urge you to undo the designation and return the land to private ownership before economic damage occurs and traditional recreational pursuits are diminished.”
National monuments have altered the landscapes of the communities surrounding them, and locals fear their economy will be severely impacted by the preservation of natural spaces. However, that’s not always the case. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, for example, faced intense opposition initially. But today the monument attracts over 600,000 tourists annually, pumping $26 million into the local economy, and supporting 430 full-time jobs.
In Barack Obama’s final weeks as president, he unilaterally established over 1.3 million acres of land in Utah as a national monument. This land, called the Bears Ears National Monument, is co-managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni.
“We as Navajo people are always looking in the best interest of mother Earth,” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Nathaniel Brown said in a press release. “And after careful research and conversations with our medicine people, I understand how important it is for us to preserve the Bears Ears landscape. This is about taking care of the land, the plants, the water, and most importantly it’s about preserving the sacred sites and medicine that our people have used since time immemorial.”
National parks and monuments have always been a crucial part of the American narrative, but their future under the Trump administration is still unknown. Given his track record, it’s likely he could rescind monuments established under the Obama Administration to make way for corporate interest. CAP warns that Trump could allow public funding of the National Park Service to be redirected to private businesses. The National Park Service isn’t passively waiting to find out what will happen.
Over 1.4 million people are following the Alt National Park Service on Facebook. The group, formed by a coalition of 204 National Park Service employees, fifty-two state park employees, nineteen National Forest Service employees, twenty-two EPA employees, four USDA employees, and 128 environmental scientists, is more than just memes. It serves “as the official resistance team for the US National Parks Service,” with a mission to “stand up for the National Park Service to enjoy and preserve the environment for present and future generations.” With posts about climate change, border walls, public lands, and scientific integrity, the Alt National Park Service provides an alternative narrative to an outdated system.