You are here

Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History

Author : Richard West Sellars
Published : 2009-10-01

A decade after it first appeared on bookshelves, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History is reappearing in an updated version, one that follows the course of the national parks and the National Park Service up through the Bush administration and into the early days of the Obama administration.

Timing, as they say, is everything, and this book resurfaces at a time when national parks are national news courtesy of Ken Burns' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. While the Burns' documentary does provide historical perspective to the park system and the National Park Service, Preserving Nature offers an insider's view, as author Richard West Sellars spent 35 years working for the agency.

When this book first appeared in 1999, its exploration of how science is conducted in the national parks spurred the Natural Resource Challenge, a multi-year budget initiative by Congress to revitalize natural resource management and science in the national parks. The latest edition remains true to that original mission, which was to examine the conflicts between traditional scenery-and-tourism management and emerging ecological concepts in the national parks, spanning the period from the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to the late 20th century.

The latest edition's Epilogue looks at what transpired from 1997-2009 in national park management. Here's an excerpt:

Surely very few human institutions have survived for more than a millennium or two. Taking a long view, the National Park Service was created only in 1916, with its mandate to leave the parks “unimpaired,” which suggests in perpetuity: ageless and everlasting. But over almost a century since the Service was created, its natural resource management seems usually not to have been thought of in truly far-reaching time spans. Rather, resource concerns and initiatives seem to have been broken into various short, overlapping, truncated blocks of time: a presidential administration, a new Congress, the tenure of a director or a secretary of the interior, the tenure of particularly influential regional directors or superintendents who come and go, as well as the lifespan of the Services official management policy documents. All of these are of course driven by different and sometimes conflicting individual or collective perspectives on what is appropriate regarding park preservation and its managerial counterpart, public use. For carefully and knowingly tending invaluable, irreplaceable ecological systems in the national parks, such shortsightedness is not a good thing.

Caught in such a shifting political and bureaucratic situation, and confronted with global climate change that can critically alter park ecology, the National Park Service—with the backing of Congress—has shepherded its Natural Resource Challenge through the end of a distracted Bill Clinton presidency, then eight uncertain and trying years of the George W. Bush administration, and now into the Barack Obama presidency. Although it never achieved the funding and staffing levels needed for ecologically sound management of a national park system totaling more than eighty-four-million acres, the Service has institutionalized a robust natural resource management program. To a greater degree than ever before, the Challenge embodies a farsighted program of proven quality, but one that needs political and bureaucratic stability and steadfast support to survive and remain effective.

Whether current and succeeding congresses and presidential administrations—and the National Park Service itself—will have the vision and determination to perpetuate the Natural Resource Challenge (or some future similarly aggressive science-based endeavor) depends most fundamentally on how much the American public values preserved national parks—landscapes kept intact both scenically and ecologically to the extent possible. Despite persistent, influential, and contrary pressure, the public can speak out and carry the day, especially when alert environmental groups and the media are involved and committed, as happened with the management policies revision. But in the world of national parks eternal vigilance is crucial. Only through sustained oversight and pressure can an enduring, ecologically sound management of national park lands—strengthened as necessary to meet clearly defined park needs—be ensured. This is always the people’s choice to make—or not.

This arrival is a welcome companion to the Burns' documentary, as it digs even deeper into the decision-making and approach the National Park Service has taken to managing its natural resources.

Anyone who hopes to understand the rich history of our national parks— or cares about their future—needs to read this penetrating book," says Dayton Duncan, who collaborated with Mr. Burns on The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide