OMNIA Q&A: A Separate Place?

Etienne Benson, assistant professor of history and sociology of science, on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

By Susan Ahlborn

Welcome to OMNIA Q&A, where we speak with leading experts about the latest issues and research.

The National Park Service (NPS) will mark its centennial on August 25, 2016, and has been celebrating with special events in its 407 parks across the United States and territories. We asked Etienne Benson, an assistant professor of history and sociology of science whose research focuses on the history of relationships between humans and animals and of environmentalism and the environmental sciences, about the creation, purpose, and future of the NPS.

What led to the founding of the National Park Service? What was its goal?

The founding of the National Park Service in 1916 actually came nearly a half-century after the United States’ first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872. At first there were few visitors, and the administration of the parks was mostly carried out by private developers and the U.S. Army. But as tourism increased, along with the possibility of other uses of the land such as mining and grazing, it became obvious that the parks could not be maintained without a greater investment and more central coordination from the federal government. The National Park Service was thus established as a bureau within the Department of Interior. The 100th anniversary of the NPS is a good opportunity to recall that the invention of the idea of the national park was crucial, but only the first step. Once they had been invented, the parks had to be maintained, and in many ways that was the much harder job.

Was the creation of the NPS controversial?

Moves to expand the reach and responsibilities of the U.S. government are usually controversial, and the creation of the NPS was no exception. Some leading conservationists, such as the forester Gifford Pinchot, thought that it was a mistake to separate the administration of the parks from the management of other natural resources like forests. Others resented the very existence of the parks, which they saw as locking up valuable land for the appreciation of tourists rather than for the use of local people and businesses.

But in the early 20th century tourism to the parks was increasing, the need for better administration and expanded services was obvious, and the Progressive movement to centralize the administration of public goods in the hands of expert civil servants was still going strong. After a few years of campaigning by its supporters, notably the industrialist and Sierra Club member Stephen Mather, the National Park Service Organic Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916.

What were the benefits of the national parks?

I think the main positive consequence of the creation of national parks is that they symbolized an idea of the public good that incorporated both humans and nonhuman nature and that expressed a commitment to aesthetic, moral, and spiritual, as well as utilitarian, values. I think this is the message that I took away from childhood visits to national parks such as Yosemite: that I belonged to a society that valued the beauty and diversity of the natural world. A few years on, I have some doubts about the depths of that commitment. Nonetheless, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans volunteer with the National Park Service every year and that tens of thousands seek out employment with the NPS without the promise of great financial reward or high social status, is a sign—albeit a paradoxical one—that these values continue to bring Americans together in common purpose. I think that is worth celebrating.

Was there any negative impact?

The earliest national parks were founded on the myth that the land they encompassed was empty and unused and could therefore be devoted to the enjoyment of tourists. This led to the displacement and active oppression of people who had been living in and using those sites, particularly indigenous people. The NPS has done much to make up for this historical effacement in recent years, but it remains a fundamental tension. This is a history that cannot and should not be quickly forgotten.

Has the role and purpose of the NPS changed?

In some ways the NPS continues to serve its original function in relation to the national parks: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” But its responsibilities have been expanded, such that the NPS is now responsible for numerous historic sites, including the Independence Hall National Historic Park in Philadelphia. In comparison to 1916, the understanding of what it means to preserve the parks “unimpaired” has also been broadened significantly. In particular, the NPS of today takes its environmental and ecological responsibilities much more seriously than it did at its founding, when the focus was on promoting and managing tourism.

Does the NPS have an effect on U.S. policies relating to environmental issues?

The NPS does not play a major role in setting U.S. policy toward global climate change, but it is on the front lines of educating the public about its causes and adapting to its consequences. Climate change is challenging the idea that an area of land can be designated as worthy of preservation and kept in its original state for a practically unlimited period of time. As the climate changes due to human activity, not only the distribution of animals and plants but also processes of land formation, such as erosion, are changing too. So the NPS of today is confronting new challenges that arise from the possibility that the very animals and geological features that its parks were founded to protect might be destroyed by forces beyond the borders of the park. This is a major challenge that will preoccupy the NPS for decades to come.

Do you think anything should be changed as the NPS heads into its second century?

The NPS has a great record of success over the past century but also continues to grapple with the legacies of historical injustices and to face new challenges ranging from climate change to budget shortfalls to difficulties engaging the interest of major segments of the United States’ increasingly diverse population. The NPS is full of people who are trying to meet these challenges with energy and creativity, and I hesitate to offer them any advice. But it is clear that the idea that the parks can be protected in splendid isolation from the rest of the world is less tenable today than it ever was. The national parks of the future will not be preserved by building higher walls or imposing tighter restrictions but rather by experimenting with new forms of connection and engagement that encourage coming generations to make the parks their own.