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NPS Family Tree





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Family Tree of the National Park System
Part I
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part I



Yellowstone National Park, established March 1, 1872, marks the beginning of the National Park line and the center of gravity of the chart. A historian of National Park policies, John Ise, calls the Yellowstone Act "so dramatic a departure from the general public land policy of Congress, it seems almost a miracle." Although Yosemite State Park, created by Federal cession in 1864 to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, was an important conservation milestone, Yellowstone was the first full and unfettered embodiment of the National Park idea—the world's first example of large-scale wilderness preservation for all the people. The United States has since exported the idea around the globe.

The remarkable Yellowstone Act withdrew some two million acres of public land in Wyoming and Montana Territories from settlement, occupancy, or sale and dedicated it "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Furthermore, the law provided for preservation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, and wonders within the park "in their natural condition." The twin purposes of preservation and use, so important and so susceptible to conflict, yet so eloquently reaffirmed by Congress when the National Park Service was established in 1916, were there from the beginning.

Once invented—and Yellowstone National Park was an important social invention—the National Park idea was attacked by special interests, stoutly defended by friends in Congress, and refined and confirmed between 1872 and 1916. During this period fourteen more National Parks were created, most of them closely following the Yellowstone prototype. Their establishment extended the National Park concept throughout the West. Here are the successive areas:

Yellowstone, Mont.-Wyo.-Idaho
Mackinac Island, Mich. (ceded to Michigan, 1895)

Sequoia, Calif.
Yosemite, Calif.
General Grant, Calif.
Mount Rainier, Wash.
Crater Lake, Ore.
Wind Cave, S. Dak.
Sullys Hill, N. Dak. (converted to Game Preserve, 1931)
Platt, Okla.
Mesa Verde, Colo.
Glacier, Mont.
Rocky Mountain, Colo.
Hawaii, Hawaii
Lassen Volcanic, Calif.
Enabling Act to create a National Park Service

Each of these National Parks has its own unique history. Collectively, this history is dotted with names important in conservation including, among many others, Frederick Law Olmsted; Cornelius Hedges and Nathaniel P. Langford; Professor F. V. Hayden; John Muir; William Gladstone Steel; George Bird Grinnell; J. Horace McFarland; successive Secretaries of the Interior from Carl Schurz to Franklin K. Lane; many members of Congress including Rep. John Fletcher Lacey of Iowa and Senator George G. Vest of Missouri; and successive Presidents including Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt.

One milestone in this history is notable—the emergence of a distinction between National Parks and National Forests. Eighteen years elapsed after the Yellowstone Act before another scenic park was authorized, and then three — Sequoia, Yosemite, and General Grant — were created in the single year of 1890. Yosemite and General Grant were set aside as "reserved forest lands," but like Sequoia they were modeled after Yellowstone and named National Parks administratively by the Secretary of the Interior. The very next year, in the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, Congress separated the idea of forest conservation from the National Park idea. That act granted the President authority to create, by executive proclamation, permanent forest reserves on the public domain. Here is the fork in the road beyond which National Parks and National Forests proceeded by separate paths. Within sixteen years, Presidents Cleveland, McKinley, and particularly Theodore Roosevelt established 159 National Forests containing more than 150 million acres. By 1916 Presidents Taft and Wilson had added another 26 million acres. During this same period each new National Park had to be created by individual Act of Congress, usually after many years of work. Nevertheless, by 1916 eleven National Parks including such superlative areas as Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Mesa Verde, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Hawaii, had been added to the original four and Mackinac abolished, bringing the total number to fourteen and the acreage to approximately 4,750,000.

Establishment of these first National Parks reflected in part changing American attitudes toward nature. The old colonial and pioneering emphasis on rapid exploitation of seemingly inexhaustible resources was at last giving way, among some influential Americans, to an awakened awareness of the beauty and wonder of nature. In his book Nature and the American, published by the University of California Press in 1957, Dr. Hans Huth presents a fascinating account of the changing viewpoints toward nature in the United States which preceded and accompanied the rise of the conservation movement. America's leadership in National Parks is further explained by Dr. Roderick Nash in a stimulating article entitled "The American Invention of National Parks" published in the Fall 1970 issue of American Quarterly. In his view it resulted from four main factors—our unique experience with nature on the American continent, our democratic ideals, our vast public domain, and our affluent society.

The movement that resulted in making Yellowstone the world's first National Park had its specific origins, however, in the discoveries of the Folsom-Cook Expedition of 1869, the Washburn-Doane Expedition of 1870, and the Hayden Expedition of 1871. The spirit of the discoverers, embodied into law through the efforts of Delegate William H. Clagett of Montana, Rep. Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas, and others, is symbolized by discussions the Washburn-Doane party held around their campfire at Madison Junction on September 19, 1870, as their trip neared its end. Nathaniel P. Langford related the story in his diary published many years later, a story so often retold in later years it has become the single best known Service tradition:

Last night, and also this morning in camp, the entire party had a rather unusual discussion. The proposition was made by some member that we utilize the result of our exploration by taking up quarter sections of land at the most prominent points of interest, and a general discussion followed. One member of our party suggested that if there could be secured by pre-emption a good title to two or three quarter sections of land opposite the lower fall of the Yellowstone and extending down the river along the canyon, they would eventually become a source of great profit to the owners. Another member of the party thought that it would be more desirable to take up a quarter section of land at the Upper Geyser Basin, for the reason that that locality could be more easily reached by tourists and pleasure seekers. A third suggestion was that each member of the party pre-empt a claim, and in order that no one should have an advantage over the others, the whole should be thrown into a common pool for the benefit of the entire party.

Mr. Hedges then said that he did not approve of any of these plans—that there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great National Park, and that each one of us ought to make an effort to have this accomplished.

The appeal of this story lies in the judgment by these Montana pioneers a century ago that, in projecting the future of Yellowstone's superlative natural wonders, the public good should be placed above exploitation for private gain. Concern that private land claimants would soon seek to exploit these wonders was shared by many supporters of the Yellowstone Act including Prof. Hayden, Delegate Clagett, and Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. The issue of public good versus private gain, seldom as clearly drawn as at Yellowstone, is a recurring theme throughout the history of the National Park System. The whole modern movement for environmental conservation echoes with the same conflict. Yellowstone National Park stands as an enduring symbol of enlightened response to this issue, the kind of response even more urgently needed today if we are to succeed in preserving our environmental heritage.

When establishment of the National Park Service finally came under consideration in Congress in 1916, J. Horace McFarland, President of the American Civic Association and an outstanding conservationist, expressed the views of many others in the following words, taken from his testimony before the House Committee on the Public Lands:

The parks are the Nation's pleasure grounds and the Nation's restoring places, recreation grounds. . . . The national parks, Mr. Chairman, are an American idea; it is one thing we have that has not been imported. . . . Each one of these national parks in America is the result of some great man's thought of service to his fellow citizens. These parks did not just happen; they came about because earnest men and women became violently excited at the possibility of these great assets passing from public control. . . . These great parks are, in the highest degree, as they stand today, a sheer expression of democracy, the separation of these lands from the public domain, to be held for the public, instead of being opened to private settlement.

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