A hundred years ago yesterday, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service.* I’ve spent many happy hours at facilities run by the NPS. I look forward to spending many more. So I’d feel bad about sending the agency the equivalent of a belated birthday card, if it weren’t for the fact that the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 simply gave structure to a movement that was already in progress. The Yosemite Grant Act of 1864 set aside wilderness for public use for the first time. Yellowstone National Park was formed eight years later.
In recognition of the events that led up to the creation of the Park Service, let me share with you a book review I first posted in 2013:
Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea is a beautiful book, with gorgeous pictures and heavy paper that made me hesitate to underline and write in the margins.**
It is also an excellent work of history. Written by award-winning filmmaker and writer Dayton Duncan in conjunction with the Yosemite Conservancy, Seed of the Future tells the story of the National Parks System through the lens of the Yosemite Land Grant, which pre-dated the creation of Yellowstone as the first national park by eight years. (Who knew?)
The Yosemite story as Duncan tells it is one of natural marvels, national pride, successful PR, political infighting, attempted land grabs, and determined individuals. Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir make their expected appearances. Ralph Waldo Emerson and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted play unexpected roles. (Unexpected to me at any rate.) The park’s first guardian, Galen Clark, is heroic in his dedication.
The heart of the story is not the action or the characters–gripping though they are–but the development of a new idea about public space. Today the idea of preserving wild areas for public use is so common that we take it for granted.*** When Congress passed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864, the idea of saving wilderness for public use was unheard of. Distributing public land for private use was more common, at least in the United States. The Homestead Act that allowed the head of a household to claim 160 acres with little more than sweat equity was passed only two years before. The Yosemite Grant Act occurred in a narrow space where ideas about democracy, wilderness, the Sublime, tourism and health came together.
If you’re interested in national parks, American history, or how big ideas are created from many small ones, you’ll enjoy Seed of the Future. Even if all you do is look at the pictures.
*It was also the 55th anniversary of the creation of the Berlin Wall. An anniversary worth remembering for other reasons. Let’s talk.
** How do you have a conversation with a book if you don’t mark it up? And more important from your perspective, how do I remember what I want to say in a blog post?
***Taking preservation for granted is dangerous. Like many of our liberties, the idea of preservation must itself be protected.