On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The world’s first national park was born.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary this year, a series of DVDs by Ken Burns on the national parks reveals the human struggle for our greatest places to survive and the lessons learned as our knowledge evolved.
The national park idea is one of our nation’s great contributions to progress in the world, but it wasn’t a smooth path to where we are now. America was totally new, and some thought we don’t have the culture that the Europeans have. So they asked, what made America special? We had this amazing rugged beauty that no other country had.
Conservation in those days wasn’t about protecting nature for nature’s sake, but for protecting beauty that made us look good in other nations’ eyes.
Because America was also trying to build an economy, the first parks were only put in places that you couldn’t make a living from — they were “worthless lands.” If it turned out that there was some economic value to the park, we could always change our minds.
So decisions were balancing the various needs of the nation.
We can’t have everything, so we have to make trade-offs. Originally, the U.S. Army was the agency that protected the parks. At the same time, it was also fighting battles and destroying Native Americans and their property so that white people could acquire the places.
Again, we create laws with what people at the time believe is appropriate. We had slavery until 1863 because a large part of the U.S. believed it was appropriate — we wish it weren’t true, but unfortunately, you don’t always know.
So now we look back and we say, “How could we have believed it was okay to buy and sell people?” How — in retrospect, we ask — could women not have been given the right to vote? Women’s suffrage, indeed! In Indian tribes, if women did have a voice, it varied from tribe to tribe, but women were listened to in those settings.
We’ve learned from our failures with places in the past, but time always moves forward in one direction.
We Americans still have a chance: You can either have hope or you can have despair. But it turns out that hope leads to more solutions, at the personal level. Despair simply leads to hiding — it’s not a healthy emotion.
One fine body…