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A View From The Overlook: The First National Park (We Think)


After doing a bit of volunteer time last summer at Yellowstone National Park, I decided to do a column on dear old Yellowstone, established way back in 1872, “The World’s First National Park."

Or so I thought.

In the hope of garnering some esoteric facts on the establishment of Yellowstone National Park not listed in the park brochure, I Googled up “World’s First National Park” in the World Wide Web (That handy gizmo that Al Gore is said to have invented).

Imagine my surprise when the World Wide Web suggested that there was some controversy concerning the NPS gospel that Yellowstone really was the world’s first national park.

I was shocked, shocked!

However, if in doubt, ask a ranger.

So I asked Al Nash, public affairs officer for Yellowstone, if there was some question concerning Yellowstone being first.

Now Al is a conscientious ranger; if he doesn’t know, he will not try to snow you, he will try to find out. He wasn’t absolutely sure, so he asked the Washington Office of the National Park Service. WASO preferred not to comment. (In retrospect, this might be a bit like asking the Vatican if Jesus really IS the Messiah; you are not likely to get a response to a self-evident question). However, the lack of response WAS a bit mysterious.

On the other hand, WASO may simply have wanted to avoid endless, useless arguments (such as to who really discovered America or invented the electric light bulb).

Now it is true that the idea of a “National Park” or “Nation’s Park” did not originate with Yellowstone. There were a number of thoughtful men and women down through the ages who thought that certain large tracts of land of great beauty should be preserved, not just as a Gentleman’s estate, but open to the public, both high and low.

According to the BBC History Magazine: “National parks have been described, with some justification, as 'The best idea that America ever had,'" but actually, the person who first came up with that farsighted and world-shaping idea was an Englishman.

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It was the celebrated Lake District romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) who was the first to put the national park idea into words. In the concluding paragraph of his Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England, first published in 1810, he expressed the hope that landowners would join him in his wish to “(P)reserve the native beauty of this delightful district.” And then he came up with the suggestion that his beloved Lake District might some day be “(A) sort of national property in which every man has a right and an interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.”

With the imminent arrival of the railroad, he was later to qualify that far-sighted and all-inclusive vision with the fear that the landscape would be destroyed if “(A)rtisans, laborers, and the humbler class of shopkeepers” were to invade his precious fells (mountains).

(Note: This is exactly the same fear expressed by the Sierra Club, Edward Abbey, Barbara Moritsch, and others that Yosemite and other “preserved” areas would be overrun by industrial mass tourism. Naturally, park concessions would beg to differ.)

Now did Parliament and/or the local landowners leap at Wordsworth’s suggestion? Well, no. At least not until the passage by Parliament of the landmark National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949. The Lake District would become England’s second national park in 1951, around 141 years after Wordsworth made his polite suggestion.

Along Came Catlin

The next idea for some kind of national park came from an American, the painter George Catlin (1798-1872).

Mr. Catlin fell in love with the High Plains of the American West and the wild, free life of the native peoples therein. He foresaw that that way of life was doomed unless we Americans took the highly unlikely step of turning away from “Manifest Destiny” and made a conscious effort at protecting not only an entire ecosystem (that concept was yet to be invented), but also the unchanged cultures of Plains Indians.

In his 1841 book Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, Catlin noted that the High Plains” from Lake Winnipeg to Mexico is “almost one plain of grass which is, and ever must be useless to cultivating man.”

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An 1849 painting of Catlin by William Fiske.

Catlin’s use for this ecological White Elephant was most elegant: “What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world in future ages, a Nation’s Park, containing man and beast in all the wild and freshness of the natural beauty…. A magnificent park where the world could see for ages to come, the Native in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow and shield and lance, among the fleeing herds of elk and bison.”

Now there would be a National Park! A sea of grass and limitless big sky stretching from the Canadian to the Mexican border! Millions of acres of untrammeled freedom and true wilderness! No postage stamp samples of NPS-sanitized wildness, but rather the real thing!

Was such a park possible? Don’t see why not, neighbors. In the 1980s, a couple of Ivy League professors, Frank and Deborah Popper, agreed with Catlin and John Wesley Powell that the High Plains were essentially useless for agriculture and proposed something called “the Buffalo Commons," very much like Catlin’s suggestion. The reason the Poppers proposed “the Buffalo Commons” is that people literally heading for greener pastures are depopulating much of the High Plains.

Catlin’s proposed park generously included the Native Americans in all their untamed glory. This might pose a problem as there was no such thing as a pacifist Plains Indian tribe and some of them were quite dangerous (though mainly to other Indians). Still, there would be Senator Ted Cruz constantly complaining to the Secretary of the Interior about Comanche’s absentmindedly scalping Ted’s Texas constituents.

Now, the fascinating thing about both the Wordsworth and the Catlin proposals is that they would have allowed the original two-legged inhabitants to remain on board the “National Park”; English farmers in Wordworth’s case and Native Americans in Catlin’s version. In the “America’s Best Idea” version of the National Park Idea, the human occupants were “removed” by genteel genocide, in the case of the Indians at Great Smoky, or condemnation of homesteaders, as in the creation of Shenandoah, before the parks were established.

Interestingly enough, in modern, non-US parks, the Wordsworth/Catlin park concept of including the original inhabitants seems to be prevailing, as evidenced by Australia’s Kakadu National Park and a number of South American parks.

Ah! But we’re begging the question here! Wordworth’s and Catlin’s suggestions were only ideas in books, no matter how lofty the thought. What, if not Yellowstone, was the World’s First National Park to be actually established?

According to some, that first park actually would be the 10,000-acre Main Ridge Forest Reserve established in 1776 by Act of Parliament on the British Caribbean Island of Tobago and still going strong today.

The UNESCO justification of Outstanding Universal Value states that:

“The Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve is on record as the oldest legally protected forest reserve geared specifically toward a conservation purpose. It was established April 13, 1776 by an ordinance that the Reserve is for the 'purpose of attracting frequent showers of rain upon which the fertility of lands in these climates doth entirely depend.'”

This was not an eccentric whim on the part of the British Parliament, but the end result of pioneering environmental research on the part of Stephen Hales who established a correlation between tree cover and rainfall. Hales was able to attract the attention of Soame Jenyns, a member of Parliament responsible for overseas plantations who waged an 11-year successful battle to preserve the rain forest.

According to Scientific American, “The preservation of Tobago’s forest was the first act in the history and preservation of the environment.”

Yes, but was the Main Ridge Forest Reserve the world’s first national park?

Close, but no cigar: The Reserve was strictly utilitarian, designed to capture water for the sugar plantations on the plain below the mountain. The slaves who manned these plantations were hardly asked, “(T)o climb the mountains and get their good tidings” on their day off.

So is Yellowstone home free as the first park?

Not quite.

The Nature Conservancy, that powerful and influential environmental NGO, has a word on the subject. According to an article, The World’s Oldest National Park: Ghosts of Monks and Red Deer, in the Conservancy’s blog CONSERVANCY TALK; SHARING NATURE’S VOICES, November 10, 2009, the oldest park is actually something called Bogd Khan Mountain and is located in, of all places, Mongolia, that Alaska-sized country sandwiched uncomfortably between Russia and China. Mongolia has a population of less than 3 million, but they do have national parks.

Charles Bedford, author of the Conservancy article, dates Bogd Khan Mountain National Park’s establishment from 1778, nearly a hundred years before Yellowstone! Additionally, according to Mr. Bedford, Bodg Khan Mountain was not just an idea, but also an operational protected area with 23 rangers on the payroll by 1783.

Mr. Bedford rests his case on two documents in the Mongolian Central Archives, both dating from 1778 (as derived from Chinese methods of dating). The first document is a letter from the enterprising governor of Mongolia to the Chinese Imperial Court at Beijing, describing the situation at Bogd Khan Mountain and offering some suggestions.

The second document is a letter of reply essentially agreeing with the Governor of Mongolia.

Now who is Charles Bedford? Definitely one of the tall dogs of the environmental NGO’s, neighbors! He is Regional Managing Director of the Nature Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific Region. Based in Beijing, Mr. Bedford has been in and out of Mongolia for the last five years administering the Conservancy’s Mongolia Program.

Obviously, his claims are not easily dismissed.

One can also understand the silence on the part of WASO. The Washington Office may have reasoned that there was nothing to be gained in crossing swords with an entity as wealthy and powerful as the Nature Conservancy over a matter of historical precedence.

So is the Nature Conservancy correct in its claim that Bogd Khan Mountain was the world’s first national park?

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Old Faithful, at the world's first national park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Not necessarily. A great deal depends on how you parse the evidence.

Fortunately, you can make your own decision; the evidence is before you. Simply Google up Bogd Khan Mountain, where you will find translations of the 1778 letters.

What is my opinion?

Well, neighbors, I would opt for the Scottish version of “Not Proven."

The two letters seem to describe religious practices in what looks to be an open air natural temple or place of worship of longstanding and how they might be enhanced. It is true that the lack of tree cutting or hunting is mentioned, but mainly to reinforce the idea of sacredness rather than something statutory.

Thus, it would seem that Bogd Khan Mountain is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Buddhist, Hindu, or Shamanistic sacred sites scattered about Asia. Their preservation is praiseworthy and desirable, but is one of their number the “First National Park”?

Well no, that would be Yellowstone.

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Your writing is not only enlightening, but also highly entertaining! Thanks for such a great article!

Dittos PJ, very informative and with good humor.

Always a good read.

One of the (few) things that annoyed me about the Ken Burns documentary on U.S. national parks was the writers' never fully stated but obvious assumption that Yosemite, not Yellowstone, was the first national park. Oh, and that John Muir was god, but that's another story altogether [wry g]

I knew about Catlin's preserve idea, but not about your other two examples, and thank you so much for telling us about them!

I have always liked Catlin's idea of a preserve for wild indians. But I fear they would have made peace with each other in order to enjoy all of the benefits that modern society had to offer. In Title 8 ANILCA gave Alaska natives the opportunity to live the subsistence lifestyle if they wished. I am not aware of any who lived a lifestyle devoid of all modern conveniences. A very few non-natives tried it but all eventually gave it up as children grew up needing schools and spouses tired of the extreme sacrifices it required.

Just to clarify, the national park system should not be confused with the national park idea. The idea had many roots. That said, the national park idea we celebrate--monumental scenery saved in the public interest--indeed began in Yosemite and not in Yellowstone. It was then Yellowstone that gave rise to the system, since it was the first to be called a national park. It's all in my book, National Parks: The American Experience, and yes, Ken Burns also gets it right. As for John Muir, no one before or since has ever come close to his ability to defend the parks with the written word. Millions of Americans learned from Muir what it meant to have parks just as millions today have learned to forget. These days, we are as likely to hear that the parks are a "taking" from this interest group or that. Thanks to Muir, those defending parks still have a mouthpiece--someone to call on for that perfect quote. My favorite is from 1910. "Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded." That may not be part of the Ten Commandments, but how true it remains.

I think Alfred Runte gets it absolutely right (as usual). After Muir, I might rank in importance TR's connection of wilderness/natural spaces to American exceptionalism. ( I think one can hear TR's rhetoric resonating in FDR's language, particularly in his address from Glacier.)

justinh, I agree, Mr Runte got it 100% right, humbly said. Just an excellent post.

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