Opposition to Early National Parks

“A party of camera ‘fiends’ in Yosemite Valley,” by the American Stereoscopic Company, c1902. (Image via the Library of Congress)

Looking back through time, it seems as though it would be an easy feat establishing our National Parks. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy the amazing scenery that our National Parks provide? Surprisingly, there have been many opponents of establishing and expanding national parks during our nation’s history. Opponents varied and included hunters, farmers, developers, and those who simply felt that the land should be used for economic gain, not for enjoyment. After all, capitalism has always been a part of the American Dream. Once national parks and monuments were formed, they were still met with opposition, showing that the fight for national parks truly never ends.

From the time the idea of national parks and monuments were proposed through the early 20th century, there were two different types of opponents.  “In the early period of park making (1872-1916), opponents – motivated primarily by economic considerations – included the mining, livestock, and lumber interests.”[1] These individuals saw the land set aside for national parks as an economic interest only. When Yellowstone National Park was in the process of being created, “Congress demanded hard evidence that the land could not be used for farming, ranching, or housing.”[2] To obtain national park status, Yellowstone had to be shown that it was basically of no economic value before it could be preserved.  This set a precedent requiring most areas be proven “worthless from an economic standpoint”[3] before anything could be achieved. If there was even the slightest opposition, it took years for an area to be authorized as a national park. The Great Smoky, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave national parks took thirty-two years to be authorized and the Everglades took nineteen years, all due to the push back by miners, lumber companies, and private landowners.  As time when on, these opponents “in the later period (since 1916) have been joined by irrigationists, waterpower advocates, chambers of commerce, realtors, and the petroleum industry.”[4]  These individuals were looking to take the land and utilize not only the lumber, but the natural resources as well – especially water. The need to build dams and irrigate to supply water to the masses became a huge issue in places like Yosemite, with the Hetch Hetchy Project.

In addition to economic utilization, the “elitist argument claimed that the entire park concept ran counter to American democratic traditions since the parks were actually used by a very small segment of the population.”[5] The national parks were mainly located in the Western United States, therefore only the wealthy could really take part in utilizing the parks. When the National Parks Service was formed in 1916, “park proponents attempted to meet the charges of elitism by maintaining that the parks in fact represented the utilitarian doctrine of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number.’”[6] Proving this required the gathering of statistical information regarding  how many visitors there were at the parks, but as travel to the parks became easier for the average citizen, the number of park visitors increased greatly, showing that the parks were popular and of value. 

Once national parks were officially designated, they were still met with opposition.  When Yellowstone obtained official status as a national park in 1872, local sentiment in Montana was so opposed that “Montana’s Congressional representatives…introduced bills into Congress every session for twenty years to undesignate the park.”[7] When the Grand Canyon was introduced as a national monument in 1908, “Arizona’s Congressional delegation successfully prevented any federal funding for the park operations and tried unsuccessfully to legally challenge Roosevelt’s monument designation.”[8] Expanding the parks was another sticking point too. When Secretary of the Interior John Noble attempted to enlarge the Sequoia National Park, it took a decade of his request being brought forth before any action was taken. Even by that point, other opponents had begun to voice their opinions. “Soon 70 percent of local residents – including stockmen, hunters, prospectors, and lumberman – were objecting to bills designed to enlarge the park.”[9] Even the National Forest Service jumped into the debate. The Forest Service did not want land taken out of their jurisdiction and were often an opponent of any national park expansion. Sequoia was eventually expanded, but not without many compromises to the bill, which was common for most bills introduced regarding national parks. 

Formation of our national parks was rarely met without opposition once the realization of economic gain was brought forth. Luckily, we are fortunate enough to have the national parks areas set aside. As our country continues to become more populated and “the vast majority of the United States is already committed to industrial uses,” the amount of unadulterated land is becoming so scarce that “we are now fighting over the last little scraps of wildlands.”[10] It is easy to anticipate that the opposition towards our national parks may only get stronger as time goes on, but we must do our best to protect these areas. After all, “future generations will not complain that we protected too much land; rather they will wonder why we protected so little.” [11]

[1] H. Duane Hampton, “Opposition to National Parks,” Journal of Forest History, Vol. 25, No. 1 (January 1981):37, accessed January 30, 2017, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.ewu.edu/stable/4004651.

[2] Brian Palmer, “The People Who Opposed America’s Best Idea,” Natural Resources Defense Council, October 30, 2015, accessed January 30, 2017, https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/people-who-opposed-americas-best-idea.

[3] Hampton, 38.

[4] Hampton, 37.

[5] Hampton, 40.

[6] Hampton, 40.

[7] George Wuerthner, “Local Interests and Conservation History,” The Conservation Land Trust, accessed January 30, 2017, http://www.theconservationlandtrust.org/eng/conflicts_03.htm.

[8] George Wuerthner, “Local Interests and Conservation History,” The Conservation Land Trust, accessed January 30, 2017, http://www.theconservationlandtrust.org/eng/conflicts_03.htm.

[9] Hampton, 39.

[10] George Wuerthner, “Local Interests and Conservation History,” The Conservation Land Trust, accessed January 30, 2017, http://www.theconservationlandtrust.org/eng/conflicts_03.htm.

[11] George Wuerthner, “Local Interests and Conservation History,” The Conservation Land Trust, accessed January 30, 2017, http://www.theconservationlandtrust.org/eng/conflicts_03.htm.