Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming: the Grand Prismatic Spring  Don Mammoser/Alamy Stock Photo (park); Robert Alexander/Getty Images (sign)

Saving America’s Treasures

Yellowstone was established 150 years ago as the country’s first national park—paving the way for the preservation of our natural wonders for generations to come

With the pandemic forcing Americans across the country into lockdowns and isolation the past two years, many people have found a way to seek adventure while social distancing: by visiting national parks.

Americans flocked to national parks in record numbers in 2021. Yellowstone National Park, for instance, which is located primarily in northwestern Wyoming and extends into Montana and Idaho, saw attendance surpass 4 million.

But Angela Ke, an 18-year-old from Los Altos, California, didn’t just visit Yellowstone this past summer—she also lived and worked in the park. Ke was one of 12 teenagers who made up Yellowstone’s Youth Conservation Corps. The teens installed trailhead signs and bear-proof food storage boxes, collected data on wildlife, and tracked visitor movements. They also went on hiking and rafting expeditions throughout the park.

For the past two years, the pandemic has forced Americans across the country into lockdowns and isolation. Still, many people have found a way to seek adventure while social distancing by visiting national parks.

Americans flocked to national parks in record numbers in 2021. Among them is Yellowstone National Park. Most of the park is in northwestern Wyoming, but its territory extends into Montana and Idaho. Attendance at Yellowstone surpassed 4 million last year.

Angela Ke, an 18-year-old from Los Altos, California, spent time in Yellowstone this past summer. But she did more than visit; she also lived and worked in the park.

Ke was one of 12 teenagers who made up Yellowstone’s Youth Conservation Corps. The teens installed trailhead signs and bear-proof food storage boxes. They collected data on wildlife and tracked visitor movements. They also went on hiking and rafting trips throughout the park.

It’s hard to imagine the U.S. without its 63 national parks.

“It was unreal,” Ke says, “being part of nature for so long, and really feeling like you’re fully immersed in a national park. It’s an indescribable feeling."

Today, it’s hard to imagine the United States without its 63 national parks. They span 30 states and two U.S. territories, and include some of the world’s most magnificent natural wonders, along with an abundance of plants and animals.

Protecting these amazing landscapes might seem like an obvious idea, but that wasn’t always the case. It took a bold act of Congress 150 years ago to declare Yellowstone as the first national park—paving the way for the future protection of more than 50 million acres of land for generations to come.

“It’s amazing, it’s magnificent,” says Clay Jenkinson, an expert on national parks history, “that people had enough foresight, enough enlightenment, and wisdom to realize that some things were too beautiful to damage, and that we had better preserve them.”

“It was unreal,” Ke says, “being part of nature for so long, and really feeling like you’re fully immersed in a national park. It’s an indescribable feeling.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine the United States without its 63 national parks. They span 30 states and two U.S. territories. They include some of the world’s most striking natural wonders. And you’ll find plenty of plants and animals within them.

Protecting these amazing landscapes might seem like an obvious idea, but that wasn’t always the case. It took a bold act of Congress 150 years ago to declare Yellowstone as the first national park. That paved the way for the future protection of more than 50 million acres of land for generations to come.

“It’s amazing, it’s magnificent,” says Clay Jenkinson, an expert on national parks history, “that people had enough foresight, enough enlightenment, and wisdom to realize that some things were too beautiful to damage, and that we had better preserve them.”

Nature and Science/Alamy Stock Photo

Everglades National Park in Florida: A great egret wades in the water.

The Transcendentalist Movement

The many Native nations that lived for centuries on the land around Yellowstone had been careful stewards of its natural resources. But as White settlers expanded west in the mid-1800s, lands were cleared, towns and businesses sprung up, and vistas gave way to expanding populations. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had spawned a boom in factories and new technology, and many Americans viewed nature as something to be conquered in the name of progress.

But a competing viewpoint had also emerged. Writers known as transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, extolled the virtues of the natural world and took pride in America’s natural wonders, which they believed rivaled the great cathedrals of Europe. Some painters at the time, such as George Catlin, also took to depicting sublime natural scenery, opening many people’s eyes to the treasures of America’s landscapes.

Catlin, who traveled extensively throughout the American West, is often credited with coming up with the idea for a national park. In 1832, while on a trip to the Dakotas, he worried about the vast destruction he witnessed. He wrote that the land and people there could be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government,” and he called for “a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

But it would take many more years for Catlin’s vision to be realized, as most Americans had never laid eyes on the splendors of America’s western landscape. And back in the east, the nation’s most famous natural landmark, Niagara Falls in New York, had been overrun by commercial developers, who charged visitors steep prices to view the waterfalls.

However, as more tourists traveled west in the late 19th century, they came across Yellowstone’s landscape, including its many geysers—hot springs that naturally shoot water high into the air. Around the same time, the naturalist John Muir—dubbed “The Father of the National Parks”—wrote popular accounts of the majestic vistas he saw while hiking through California’s Yosemite Valley, which had been declared a state park in 1864.

More and more people became interested in protecting America’s wilderness. So too did entrepreneurs—especially railroad owners—who saw the potential to make money by attracting tourists to the West. Together, preservationists and business groups lobbied Congress to act.

On March 1, 1872, with the stroke of a pen, history was made. After passing through the House Representatives and Senate, the Yellowstone Act of 1872 was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. It created the first national park—an area of land to be “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Many Native nations lived for centuries on the land around Yellowstone. They had carefully looked after its natural resources. But things changed as White settlers expanded west in the mid-1800s. Lands were cleared, and towns and businesses sprung up. Soon, the stunning views gave way to growing populations. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had spawned a boom in factories and new technology. And, at the time, many Americans viewed nature as something to be conquered in the name of progress.

But a competing viewpoint had also emerged, thanks to writers known as transcendentalists. These writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, saw value in the natural world. They also took pride in America’s natural wonders. In fact, they believed the sites in the U.S. were as great as the cathedrals of Europe. Some painters at the time, such as George Catlin, showcased the stunning natural scenery. Their work opened many people’s eyes to the treasures of America’s landscapes.

Catlin traveled far throughout the American West. He is often credited with coming up with the idea for a national park. In 1832, while on a trip to the Dakotas, he worried about the widespread destruction. He wrote that the land and people there could be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government.” He also called for “a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

But it would take many more years for Catlin’s vision to become reality. Most Americans had never laid eyes on the richness of America’s western landscape. And back in the east, the nation’s most famous natural landmark, Niagara Falls in New York, had been overrun by commercial developers. They charged visitors steep prices to view the waterfalls.

But more tourists traveled west in the late 19th century. During their travels, they came across Yellowstone. They took in its landscape, including its many geysers—hot springs that naturally shoot water high into the air. Around the same time, the naturalist John Muir shared his love of nature through writing. His popular accounts spoke of the time he spent hiking through California’s Yosemite Valley, which had been declared a state park in 1864. He wrote about the majestic views he saw. Muir eventually became known as “The Father of the National Parks.

More and more people became interested in protecting America’s wilderness. So too did entrepreneurs, especially railroad owners. They saw the potential to make money by attracting tourists to the West. Together, preservationists and business groups lobbied Congress to act.

On March 1, 1872, with the stroke of a pen, history was made. After passing through the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Yellowstone Act of 1872 was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. It created the first national park—an area of land to be “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

The Granger Collection

Yosemite Valley, 1903: Theodore Roosevelt (left) and John Muir

‘Leave It as It Is’

Although Yellowstone was created for the benefit of the people, not everyone in fact benefited from it. To make way for White tourists, Native Americans were evicted from the area and barred from hunting on the land and using its resources, as they had done for centuries. As more national parks were formed in the coming years, this process of displacing Native people from their lands was repeated.

The national parks have been called “America’s best idea.” Unfortunately, this idea, says historian Mark David Spence, author of a book on Native people and the parks, was “predicated on dispossession.”

Yellowstone was created for the benefit of the people. Still, not everyone in fact benefited from it. To make way for White tourists, Native Americans were evicted from the area. They were barred from hunting on the land and using its resources, as they had done for centuries. More national parks formed in the coming years. Time after time, the process of displacing Native people from their lands continued.

The national parks have been called “America’s best idea.” Unfortunately, this idea, says historian Mark David Spence, author of a book on Native people and the parks, was “predicated on dispossession.”

For many Americans, these new parks provided a respite from urban life.

But for many Americans, these new parks provided a respite from urban life. In 1901, an avid outdoorsman, Theodore Roosevelt, became the nation’s 26th president. He viewed the protection of nature as “a democratic movement”—one that would benefit the rich and the poor alike. During his time in office, Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks, from five to ten, and set aside a total of 200 million acres of protected land (see timeline, below).

In a speech at the Grand Canyon in 1903, Roosevelt defined the mission for a then-growing conservation movement.

“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it,” he declared. “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you.”

But for many Americans, these new parks provided a retreat from urban life. In 1901, an avid outdoorsman, Theodore Roosevelt, became the nation’s 26th president. He viewed the protection of nature as “a democratic movement.” In his mind, doing so would benefit the rich and the poor alike. During his time in office, Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks, from 5 to 10. He also set aside a total of 200 million acres of protected land (see timeline, below).

In a speech at the Grand Canyon in 1903, Roosevelt defined the mission for a then-growing conservation movement.

“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it,” he declared. “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you.”

Yellowstone National Park Public Affairs Office

Angela Ke and fellow Youth Conservation Corps members, summer 2021

Battlefields and Monuments

As more national parks sprang up, debates raged over their purpose. Muir and other preservationists thought the parks should be left untouched. But conservationists, led by the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, argued in favor of using the parks' resources in a sustainable way to benefit as many people as possible.

These debates culminated in 1913 with the authorization of the building of a dam in Yosemite: the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The dam diverted water to serve San Francisco’s growing population, over the fierce objection of Muir, who called it a desecration of the nation’s “holiest temple.”

Meanwhile, the parks faced threats, especially from poachers who continued to hunt bison and other wildlife on the protected land. The U.S. military policed many of these areas. But many people saw a need for a unified group to manage them and advocate on their behalf in Washington.

As more national parks sprang up, debates raged over their purpose. Muir and other preservationists thought the parks should be left untouched. But conservationists wanted to use the parks’ resources in a sustainable way. Led by the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, they argued that the parks should benefit as many people as possible.

These debates reached a climax in 1913 with the approval of the building of a dam in Yosemite: the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The dam diverted water to serve San Francisco’s growing population. Muir objected, calling it a violation of the nation’s “holiest temple.”

Meanwhile, the parks faced threats, especially from poachers. The poachers continued to hunt bison and other wildlife on the protected land. The U.S. military policed many of these areas. But many people saw a need for a unified group to manage them and advocate on their behalf in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine the U.S. without its 63 national parks.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service (N.P.S.), and putting it in charge of all national parks.

Since then, the number of sites managed by the N.P.S. has risen to more than 400. They include not only national parks but also protected areas of natural and historical importance, including Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields, Native American sites, and the monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The number of protected sites keeps growing. The most recent national park to be added was West Virginia's New River Gorge in 2020. Today, many parks are also working with Native American groups to educate visitors about the history of Indigenous people on those lands. But the national parks face new challenges, ranging from climate change to overcrowding brought on by the surge of tourists during the pandemic (see "New Challenges," below).

Today—a century and a half after the formation of Yellowstone—Ke, the teenager who worked there, is part of a new generation of young people at the forefront of a growing movement. She says we must continue to protect our national parks.

“We want to preserve the world for when we get older,” she says, “and for future generations to come.”

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service (N.P.S.). The law also put the new agency in charge of all national parks.

Since then, the number of sites managed by the N.P.S. has risen to more than 400. The list consists of more than just national parks. It also includes protected areas of natural and historical importance, including Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields, Native American sites, and the monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The number of protected sites keeps growing. The most recent national park to be added was West Virginia’s New River Gorge in 2020. Today, many parks are also working with Native American groups. Together, they’re educating visitors about the history of Indigenous people on those lands. But the national parks face new challenges. These issues range from climate change to overcrowding dueto the surge of tourists during the pandemic(see “New Challenges,” below).

It’s been a century and a half since the formation of Yellowstone. Today, a new generation is at the forefront of a growing movement. Ke, the teenager who worked at Yellowstone, is part of it. She says we must continue to protect our national parks.

“We want to preserve the world for when we get older,” she says, “and for future generations to come.”

Beth Coller/The New York Times

Joshua Tree National Park: Visitors brave long lines and crowds, in July 2021.

New Challenges

Some of the threats national parks face today

Overcrowding
Americans flocked to national parks in record numbers last summer. Increased foot traffic is eroding park trails and creating new visitor-made ones that harm the wildlife and ecosystems, National Parks Service officials say.

Overcrowding
Americans flocked to national parks in record numbers last summer. Increased foot traffic is eroding park trails and creating new visitor-made ones that harm the wildlife and ecosystems, National Parks Service officials say.

cynoclub/Shutterstock.com

Invasive Species
Nonnative plants and animals infest 1.4 million acres of N.P.S. land and water, from cheatgrass in Zion National Park to the lionfish in the Everglades. (And they are often introduced to the parks by humans.) Invasive species pose a “deep and immediate threat” to the N.P.S. mission, according to a study published in the journal Biological Invasions.

Air Pollution
Eighty-five percent of U.S. national parks have hazardous air pollution levels, says a report from the National Parks Conservation Association. This hurts tree growth, damages leaves, and alters water and soil chemistry in parks.

Climate Change
Scientists say national parks are experiencing extreme effects of climate change: disappearing sea ice, drought, wildfires, rising sea levels, severe storms, and more.   

         —Rebecca Katzman

Invasive Species
Nonnative plants and animals infest 1.4 million acres of N.P.S. land and water, from cheatgrass in Zion National Park to the lionfish in the Everglades. (And they are often introduced to the parks by humans.) Invasive species pose a “deep and immediate threat” to the N.P.S. mission, according to a study published in the journal Biological Invasions.

Air Pollution
Eighty-five percent of U.S. national parks have hazardous air pollution levels, says a report from the National Parks Conservation Association. This hurts tree growth, damages leaves, and alters water and soil chemistry in parks.

Climate Change
Scientists say national parks are experiencing extreme effects of climate change: disappearing sea ice, drought, wildfires, rising sea levels, severe storms, and more.   

         —Rebecca Katzman

TIMELINE National Parks

1864

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

President Abraham Lincoln signs a law setting aside the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in California as protected land.

President Abraham Lincoln signs a law setting aside the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in California as protected land.

1872

The World’s first national park is established when the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act is enacted.

The World’s first national park is established when the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act is enacted.

1906

The Antiquities Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, gives presidents the ability to declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific significance” as “national monuments.”

The Antiquities Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, gives presidents the ability to declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific significance” as “national monuments.”

1916