National Parks Essay

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National Parks are widely recognized as an American invention and export, created in the 19th century western United States and eventually adopted in nearly every country in the world. Wallace Stegner once remarked that national parks were the best idea America ever had. Perhaps, but by the end of the 20th century, scholars had begun to critically reassess the idea of national parks as an unmitigated good, contributing new insights to our understanding of nature-society relations.

The Yellowstone Model

The world’s first national park was created in the western United States, though it is debatable whether it was Yosemite or Yellowstone. Yosemite was actually the first federally designated protected area, created by a Congressional act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. However, it remained under the jurisdiction of the state of California and did not become part of the federal national park system until 1890. Yellowstone, which the U.S. Congress established in 1872 as a federally controlled park, is thus generally acknowledged as the world’s first.

Since Yellowstone became the prototype on which parks in other countries would be modeled, its enabling legislation is significant. Congress declared the territory in present day Wyoming and Montana to be:

hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate, or settle upon, or occupy the same or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed therefrom.

The legislation further called on the executive branch of the federal government to establish regulations that “provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.” Key elements of the legislation, which have subsequently come to define national parks worldwide, are the placement of ownership and administration with the central government, prohibitions on settlement and occupancy, emphasis on public recreation, mandate to preserve natural conditions, and state’s right of eviction. These provisions, which have proven over time to be frequently contradictory and controversial, collectively provide the legal definition of a national park.

The national park idea was quickly adopted in other European settler colonies, particularly in the British Dominion territories. Between 1879 and 1890, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada all created their first national parks. Countries in other regions were slower to embrace the national park idea. Sweden established Europe’s first in 1910, Belgium’s King Albert, following a visit to Yellowstone, created Africa’s first in 1925 in the Belgian Congo, and in South America, Argentina led the way, designating the first park in 1934.


The forces behind the historical development of a global national parks movement were complex, but have much to do with the rise and fall of European colonial empires. As European empire reached its height at the turn of the 20th century, hunters, scientists, and philanthropists in Europe created a variety of international organizations concerned with nature protection in the colonies. One of the more prominent was the London-based Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire (SPFE), which designed and promoted international agreements among European colonial powers. By the 1930s it had pushed through an international convention for African colonies that emphasized national parks, explicitly modeled after Yellowstone, as the primary instruments of conservation. The onset of World War II, however, delayed any serious progress in the creation of national parks in the colonial world.

The Global Movement

Postwar international politics and the rise of institutions of global governance transformed the global national parks movement. Beginning with the founding of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1947, there was a proliferation of organizations with direct interest in national parks. Chief among these is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, later renamed the World Conservation Union). Established in 1948 under UNESCO auspices, the IUCN was delegated, among other duties, the task of coordinating and monitoring a global network of protected areas. It established the United Nations List of National Parks and Equivalent Reserves, adopted a global biogeographic classification system that is used to assess, map, and plan protected area coverage worldwide, organized a series of decadal world congresses on national parks, and created a global protected area classification system. Under the IUCN’s classification system, a national park is defined as a “natural area of land and/or sea, designated to (a) protect the ecological integrity of one or more ecosystems…(b) exclude exploitation or occupation…and (c) provide a foundation for spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities…” Administration and control is ideally placed in the hands of each country’s central political authority.

The IUCN’s definition substantially reflects the legislation that established Yellowstone National Park. But not all of the world’s national parks conform to this model. One of the reasons that the IUCN sought to standardize the definitions of protected areas is because the meaning of the term national park varied geographically. In some European countries, for example, national park laws allow occupation and exploitation and as a result parks may include towns, villages, agricultural fields, mines, and logging operations. Such international variations in national parks hint at the importance of the specific political, cultural, and historical context in shaping their meaning and purpose.

National Identity

A wide range of cultural and political impulses led to the emparkment of Yosemite and Yellowstone. Most important was a prevailing interest among the American political and cultural elite in constructing a coherent national identity, rooted in the landscapes of nature and distinct from settlers’ origins in Europe. For writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and landscape painters such as Thomas Moran, the source of American’s unique national identity could be found in what were perceived to be North America’s abundant and monumental natural landscapes. The idea that these landscapes could be preserved in national parks as expressions of American national identity has two components. First, that these monumental landscapes are uniquely North American and that settlers’ encounters with them have forged a distinct national identity. Second, that by preserving them, Americans can renew their common sense of national self through periodic visitation. In the 1860s, with the federal government seeking to reunify the United States and forge a common national identity following the Civil War, the national park idea’s time had come. Their landscapes soon “became symbols of American national identity.”

National parks were also important to the formation of national identity grounded in nature and natural landscapes in the European settler colonies of Africa. Kruger, established in 1926 as the continent’s second national park, played an important role in the formation of a collective national identity among white settlers in the early years of the South African Republic. In Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the location of Cecil Rhodes’ grave in Matopos National Park helped mark the rugged landscape as a symbol of (white) nationhood and “the ceremonial heart of the Rhodesian nation.”


The early national parks movement also found support among business interests, particularly in the railroad and banking industries. Business interests hoped to profit from increased railroad passenger traffic and helped lobby for national park establishment. Tourist traffic increased quickly in Yosemite Valley in the years immediately following its designation as a park, and grew exponentially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Critics soon began complaining about crowds and the damage they caused to the park’s environment. Thus one of the central contradictions in the national park idea was evident from the beginning. Which is, the more parks are treated as a “pleasuring ground” or managed for “recreational and visitor opportunities,” the more likely that pursuit of tourism profits will conflict with the goals of nature preservation.

Outside North America and the British Dominion territories, the movement to create national parks came later and under very different circumstances. During the height of European colonialism, efforts to create national parks began to develop after 1930, mostly promoted by such groups as the SPFE and their equivalents in other European metropoles. Questions of nationalism and national identity played less of a role in park creation in those colonized territories without significant settler populations. Following World War II, the number of national parks created in the colonial territories of Africa and Asia increased, though slowly. Wildlife conservation was an important motivation, but new political and economic interests were emerging.

As the colonial world headed toward political independence from Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, international conservationists grew uneasy, wondering if the new governments would be sympathetic to the national parks idea. International conservationists sought to convince the emerging independent governments that establishing national parks would be a sign of their political maturity, marking their entry into the global community of “civilized” countries. Perhaps a more convincing argument to cash-strapped Third World leaders was that a lucrative international tourism industry could be built on a foundation of national parks. To rally political support among their national citizenries-which, by and large, were from rural, agrarian backgrounds and held interests often at odds with the national park model-the newly independent governments used advertising and school curricula to convince the masses that their parks and wildlife should be a source of national pride.

Recent Critiques

In the years following decolonization a veritable global conservation boom occurred, marked by an enormous increase in the number of national parks in the world. More than half of the world’s national parks, which numbered 3,881 by 2003, have been created since the 1970s and most of these were established in tropical Third World countries emerging from colonial rule. While the number and areal coverage of national parks have expanded and their ecological importance grown, scholars from a variety of disciplinary perspectives have begun to critically examine the history, cultural transferability, social distribution of costs and benefits, and ecological efficacy of the Yellowstone model.

Influenced by a broad range of theoretical positions, including postcolonialism, post-structuralism, and nonequilibrium ecology, scholars have begun to challenge the moral certitude of mainstream histories of the national park movement. Earlier “definitive” histories treated the preservation of national parks as a story of moral and political triumph. While supporting the goal of environmental conservation and biodiversity protection, recent studies have taken a more critical approach, suggesting that the Yellowstone model for national parks raises serious questions of social justice and ecological efficacy.

Fortress Conservation

One of the principal themes in recent critiques is that many, if not most, national parks have been created through a process of displacement of local populations, the enclosure of local commons by the state, and the dispossession of the territorial claims of sovereign nations. Scholars refer to the Yellowstone model as “fortress conservation,” whereby nature is locked away inside the boundaries of the national park and society is locked out. The implementation of this approach in most cases required the curtailment of local resource use and access and in many cases the eviction of entire communities, thus constituting a form of enclosure.

Historically conservation enclosures have been conducted with minimum involvement of resident populations and the state has often resorted to force in enforcing evictions and curtailing access. In east Africa, for example, pastoralists have lost over 20,000 square kilometers of grazing commons to national parks and game reserves in Kenya and 3,234 square kilometers in Tanzania’s Mkomazi Game Reserve alone. Historians recently have linked the establishment of U.S. national parks to the concept of “manifest destiny” and the dispossession and removal of Native American peoples to a system of reservations.

Effects of Population Displacement

The issue of displacement suggests a second theme in recent critiques, which is that advocates of fortress style parks have tended to disregard historic human occupation and its effects on the ecology and landscape of territories targeted for preservation. In contrast, critical studies of U.S. parks detail how various Native American tribes had occupied, used, and significantly shaped the ecology of such iconic parks as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier. In south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as well, research has identified areas of critical wildlife habitat in national parks that are the product of past occupation and use. Where east African pastoralist land use practices have helped to create favorable wildlife habitat conditions, their exclusion could actually be detrimental to biodiversity. Often park managers must implement practices such as controlled burning, wildlife culling, and brush clearance in an attempt to slow undesirable ecological change, in effect mimicking the influence of evicted populations.

Class and Race

A third theme in the critical literature concerns the role of national parks as symbolic landscapes in the construction of national identities, which tended to be restricted and exclusionary. Early ideas regarding U.S. national parks appealed to white, bourgeoisie identity, suggesting that only the cultivated classes of certain “races” could fully appreciate the wild grandeur of nature. Native Americans resident in the national park territories were seen at best as too culturally backward and uncultivated and at worst too degenerate and savage to appreciate the natural landscapes. Black Africans did not belong inside colonial-era African national parks, which had little or nothing to do with reaffirming black African identity. During the Apartheid era in South Africa, black residents were legally restricted from entering such powerful symbols of white South African identity as Kruger National Park.


Finally, critics of the fortress conservation model argue that it is based on the notion of steady state or stable equilibrium ecology that has been challenged by new ideas of nonequililbrium ecology. Attempts to bound and “preserve” nature through management interventions to halt ecological change have been ineffective where “biodiversity depends directly upon natural patterns of disturbance.” The fortress model is based on the idea that biodiversity conservation can best be achieved by creating protected areas where ecosystems can be maintained in perpetuity, undisturbed by human activities. However, nonequilibrium ecology suggests that flux, dynamism, and nonlinear and unpredictable change, not some idealized “natural” stasis, are the ecological norm.

In sum, critical assessments of fortress approach to national parks suggest that it is deeply flawed for reasons of ecology, politics, and social justice. In ecological terms, global biodiversity losses have accelerated during the same period in which the number of parks and equivalent reserves increased exponentially. The emphasis on the Yellowstone model has meant that communities are displaced and local commons enclosed on principle, raising questions of social justice. Efforts to address these problems are evident in some of the current trends in national parks.

Current Trends

Three somewhat interrelated current trends in thinking on national parks are worth noting. The first has to do with biodiversity conservation. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity now provides the framework and rationale for international efforts to stem biodiversity loss, focusing on in situ conservation in national parks and protected areas. So-called biodiversity hotspots-geographic concentrations of high biodiversity-are being mapped worldwide and targeted for national park or similar protected status. Because national parks are viewed as the primary containers of the world’s biodiversity, their number and importance will continue to grow.

A second trend involves new initiatives to resolve or mitigate the historic displacements of communities from national parks. For example, more than 125 years after its creation, Yellowstone National Park hired its first staff anthropologist to begin working with the Native American tribes to identify, protect, and provide access to sacred and ceremonial sites within the park’s boundaries. In Australia, the government in 1985 officially recognized Aboriginal ownership of four national parks that had been under state ownership and control.

The final trend is the spread of transboundary parks, sometimes called peace parks, now evident in nearly every world region. These parks are formed when two or more neighboring countries agree to jointly manage national parks that are contiguous, but lie on opposite sides of an international border. In some regions they are part of a larger effort of sociopolitical integration and the suppression of national and ethnic conflicts. In effect, transboundary parks reverse the 19th-century emphasis on linking natural landscapes to distinct national identities, stressing instead commonalities and cooperation among peoples. Europe now has the largest number of transboundary parks. Their worldwide numbers doubled in the 1990s and will likely continue to increase significantly.


  1. W. Adams, and Mulligan, eds., Decolonizing Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial Era (Earthscan, 2003);
  2. Brockington, Fortress Conservation: The Preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve Tanzania (James Currey, 2002);
  3. D. Brockington and Homewood, “Degradation Debates and Data Deficiencies: The Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania,” Africa (v.71/3, 2001);
  4. Brown, “The Political Ecology of Biodiversity, Conservation and Development in Nepal’s Terai: Confused Meanings, Means and Ends,” Ecological Economics (v.24, 1998);
  5. P. Burnham, Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks (Island Press, 2000);
  6. Carruthers, The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History (University of Natal Press, 1995);
  7. Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First Park (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987);
  8. Colchester, “Salvaging Nature: Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation,” UNRISD Discussion Paper (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1994);
  9. Germic, American Green: Class, Crisis, and the Deployment of Nature in Central Park, Yosemite, and Yellowstone (Lexington Books, 2001);
  10. Keller and M. Turek, American Indians and National Parks (University of Arizona Press, 1997);
  11. Kenneth Olwig, Landscape, Nature and the Body Politic: From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002);
  12. Mark Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (Oxford University Press, 1999);
  13. Warren, The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (Yale University Press, 1997);
  14. Zimmerer, “The Reworking of Conservation Geographies: Nonequilibrium Landscapes and Naturesociety Hybrids,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (v.90/2, 2000).

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