The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1980, Volume 26, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

National Parks: The American Experience. By Alfred Runte. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979. Illustrations. Map. Notes. Bibliographical Note. Index. 240 pages. $16.50.

Reviewed by Frederick J. Yonce, Western History Specialist, the Western History Department of the Denver Public Library, author of articles on public lands history and Nothing Is Long Ago: A Documentary History of Colorado 1776/1976.

This excellent book is the first comprehensive history of the origins and evolution of the American invention of the national park idea. Cogent, lucid, and provocative, it is destined to become a standard on the national parks.

Runte finds the roots of the national park idea, not in appreciation of wilderness, which developed later, but rather in young America’s cultural inferiority complex vis-a-vis the Old World. America had nothing to compare to the man-made architectural wonders of Europe. Even scenic natural wonders, with a few exceptions like Niagara Falls, failed to compare with European scenery until the westward movement brought the acquisition of spectacular landscapes at mid-century. Shortly after their discovery, Yosemite’s monumental cliffs and Yellowstone’s thermal wonders and curiosities were set aside as the first national parks, in fact if not in name. These and subsequent parks were America’s claim to antiquity and consolation for her lack of a long historic past.

Even as the nation matured and outgrew its cultural anxiety, monumentalism—the preservation of spectacular or wondrous scenery—persisted as the dominant motif of the national park idea for the public and Congress. Though park advocates graduated from esthetic to environmental conservation, monumentalism slowed or frustrated their efforts to adjust park boundaries to protect integral ecosystems, as in Jackson Hole, or to create nontraditional parks like the Everglades, a wilderness and wildlife preserve.

Another obstacle was Congressional insistence that only “worthless” lands qualified for preservation. Runte implicitly but clearly disapproves of such “utilitarianism,” but as he himself shows, support for the parks also was often economically based. The scenic attractions offered economic potential for tourism, and area residents expected the parks to promote regional economic development. Preservationists themselves, in a “pragmatic alliance” with area railroads, later promoted tourism and stressed its economic value in a bid to increase public and Congressional support for the parks. Moreover, Congress did include exploitable resources in later parks, particularly those donated by private owners, such as Jackson Hole, Great Smokies, and Redwoods.

Correcting traditional interpretations, Runte shows that the national parks were not above political and economic challenge, but he obviously believes they should have been. He puts the park idea on a sacred pedestal, viewing any opposition or restrictions as materalistic or short-sighted. He faults Congress for failing to consider the parks sacrosanct, but despite legal loopholes and threats to the parks, especially from advancing reclamation technology, national park status has in practice protected the reserves from reduction or intrusion. The notable exception was the damming of Hetch Hetchy and the deletions of lands from Yosemite, which was technically “reserved forest lands” though administered as a park.

One factor in the origins and development of the national park idea that Runte slights is the American experience with the public domain. He acknowledges the importance of the availablity of undeveloped public lands in the West for the creation of parks. But also important was the expanding tradition of reservation of federal lands for public purposes, of which the national park idea was only one manifestation. The federal government had previously preserved salt springs, naval stores and timber, building sites, military posts, Indian reservation, and even what some consider the first national park, the Arkansas Hot Springs, in 1832. Moreover, Congress had traditionally granted lands to states for public purposes, and it was a short step from these to the grant of Yosemite Valley for a state park and from that to the reservation of Yellowstone as a national park straddling three federal territories. As the national park system grew, the federal government was also reserving far larger acreages, most at first temporary but later made permanent, of national forests, mineral lands, power and reservoir sites, game reserves, and grazing lands.