WE often criticise the US for the way it has allowed and encouraged corporations to exploit its national riches and resources, reckless of the consequences for the environment or indigenous peoples.
We look at the ruthless water extraction programmes that, combined with low rainfall and little or no snow, are turning parts of central southern California into desert. We rage at the rape of the Arctic for fossil fuels. We despair at the misery and poverty of native Americans consigned in the 19th century to reservations, on marginal land, and now among the poorest people in this immensely wealthy global superpower.
So it is easy to forget that the international conservation movement was really born in the USA, with what is often claimed as the world’s oldest national park (Yellowstone, officially designated in 1872). This year, 2016, that heritage will be celebrated as the country’s National Park Service marks its centenary.
America was a long way ahead of us in the UK, where, despite the writings of the Romantic Poets and others, it took the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932 to kickstart the movement. The first national park – appropriately the Peak District – was designated in 1951.
We now have 10 national parks in England (the most recent are the New Forest and the South Downs in Sussex), three in Wales (covering nearly 20 per cent of the country, with the oldest being Snowdonia), and two in Scotland (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and the Cairngorms which is by far the UK’s largest national park).
In Europe, the oldest national parks are in Sweden where, in 1909, the Riksdag passed a law on national parks and nine were opened that year.
Yellowstone is America’s oldest national park, but the honour of being the world’s oldest falls to a place you have probably never heard of (I hadn’t until I started researching this article). The Bogdkhan Uul, just south of Ulanbator, the capital of Mongolia, predates Yellowstone by more than 100 years. Established by the Mongolian government in 1778, it was originally chartered by Ming Dynasty officials in the 1500s as a beautiful and sacred area to be protected from exploitation.
Predictably, the far-seeing wisdom of the Ming officials and the 18th century Mongolian government has been undermined and weakened almost to destruction by the combined 20th century scourges of Stalinism, incompetence, weak and corrupt government and the endless greed of powerful corporations.
Yellowstone was designated as the US’s first national park by President Ulysses S. Grant, but the man most associated with America’s National Parks is one of his successors, Theodore Roosevelt, a man who embodies the dichotomy of conservation and hunting. Paradoxically, it is often hunters who best understand wilderness. In the South Dakota Badlands which Roosevelt loved, or Denali, in Alaska, where one-time big game hunter Charles Sheldon spearheaded the campaign to preserve this vast wilderness and its wildlife.
In the 19th century there were (and, heaven help us, in the 21st century there still are) many people who believed that the world’s natural resources were inexhaustible – and that it was man’s right to exploit them.
Roosevelt saw otherwise, writing with chillingly prophetic accuracy: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
Roosevelt became president in 1901, and during his years in the White House he used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service, and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments. In all he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.
The most-visited national park is Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, with more than ten million visitors in 2014, followed by Arizona’s Grand Canyon, with 4.7 million, Yosemite in California (3.9m) and Yellowstone (3.5m). By contrast, only 12,669 people visited the remote Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. The most visited places managed by the National Park Service are the Golden Gate National Recreational Area in California (15 million), and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachians (nearly 14 million).
Alaska has the four largest National Parks, headed by Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve with 13.2 million acres. The smallest site is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (0.02 acres) – the Pennsylvania home of the Polish-born freedom fighter, a brilliant military engineer who designed successful fortifications during the American Revolution.
If you are going to the USA during 2016, do take time to discover whether you will be near any of the national parks, and go along, not only to admire the landscape and marvel at the wildlife, but to celebrate and support the work of the National Parks Service, which struggles with budget cuts but continues to maintain and preserve wild spaces and historic monuments, and to provide first class visitor centres and enthusiastic and expert rangers. It is one of America’s treasures.
Where better to conclude than with these words of President Barack Obama in 2009: “Our long term prosperity depends on the faithful stewardship of the air that we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that we sow. That’s a sacred trust.”
See this week’s Nine Things and Quotations for more on America’s National Parks.