A hundred years of the US National Park Service


Melbourne is abuzz in the lead-up to Christmas. The crowds are out in shops and eateries. Others have been watching 16 hours of Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle. This production by Neil Armfield accentuates the opera’s warnings about the adverse consequences, on relationships as well as on nature, of greed and material acquisition. Another Ring Cycle earlier this year put the emphasis more pointedly on the environmental degradation caused by excessive consumption and industrialisation.

The first staging in Washington of the  American Ring Cycle took place during the 100th anniversary of a great US institution, the National Park Service. It was a timely coincidence that the opera opened with magnificent video footage of Yosemite National Park. As the action unfurled, the audience saw acres of burnt-out woodland.

America’s forests are under attack, from fire, pestilence and drought. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center show that more than 10 million acres of land burned across the United States in 2015, the biggest area burned since 1960. While fire is an important part of the environmental cycle, the human footprint and a warming climate are having a pronounced effect. Many wildfires are caused not by nature but by lawn mowers or campers and milder winters have seen an explosion in the bark beetle, which is eating its way through vast tracts of evergreen forests.

When Congress established the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, it declared its mission was to maintain the national parks for the ‘enjoyment’ of the people, while leaving the parks ‘unimpaired’ for future generations. The dilemma this mission poses is a leitmotif in the history of the service. Stephen Mather, the first NPS director, promoted tourism to make the national parks self-supporting. He encouraged park hotels built by the railroads, roads for car access, and private concessions like restaurants and tourist cabins. He also supported attractions like the giant sequoia with a car tunnel, bear feeding shows, and Yosemite’s ‘firefall’, where a stream of burning embers was dropped at night from Glacier Point to the valley far below. (Now visitors have to wait until the setting sun creates the illusion of a firefall during the month of February.)

The NPS erred in favour of enjoyment for many years. This started to change in the 1960s. In 1967 the policy of suppressing fires was reversed in recognition of the role fires play to clear space for new growth and to germinate some seeds. And in 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone ‒ to the chagrin of nearby farmers – to restore nature’s way of weeding out weak animals and reducing overpopulated elk herds.

As one of many of the excellent educational resources about the park system explains, the rationale for national parks has expanded. First it was simply about preserving scenery; then it sought also to protect wildlife, objects of historical and scientific value, endangered environments and wilderness areas; now it strives to restore original ecosystems.

Since park managers began counting visitors in 1904, the NPS has recorded more than 13 billion visits to its sites, which today include 59 national parks and 76 national monuments. In 2015, annual visits reached 305 million. With all the centenary celebrations this year, that record is likely to be broken. We must hope that the wonders, natural and man-made, all those visitors encounter convert them to the cause of preserving the past and the future.

by Francesca Beddie

Image by author: Mammoth Falls, Yellowstone National Park ( established in 1872 ‘as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’).