Celebrating our parks

The National Parks: An American Legacy By Ian Shive Insight Editions, 2015 Hardcover, 240 pages, $50
The National Parks:
An American Legacy
By Ian Shive
Insight Editions, 2015
Hardcover, 240 pages, $50

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation creating Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first effort to set aside a large undeveloped tract, protect it solely for its scenic and natural appeal, and make it available to the public.

Exactly what Grant and the Congress had in mind for Yellowstone was unclear, as was whose responsibility it was to take care of it. For several decades, protecting the natural splendors found there was assigned to the United States Army, which for the most part had other obligations it considered more pressing. It wasn’t until 1916, after complaints from the public about the government’s failure to take proper care of the growing list of parks, that the Congress created the National Park Service (NPS), under the direction of conservationist Stephen Mather, and charged it with administering the federally owned parks, all, at that point, west of the Mississippi. As we approach the centennial of the National Park Service, the opportunity for publishing lavish coffee-table books seems impossible to pass up.

The National Parks: An American Legacy, with sumptuous photographs by Ian Shive, is representative. A skillful photographer, Shive has deftly captured the splendor of a select handful (selected on what basis is not explained) of our national parks. The book opens with forty pages suggesting, but not really capturing, the diversity and breadth of the national park system. The craggy slopes of Mount Rainier, the wildflowers of California’s Channel Islands, the monumental trees of Sequoia National Park, the Hawai’i volcanoes, and even a shot of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin make this a volume that will be prominently displayed in many an American living room.

There is an Adirondack subtext to much of the story of our national parks. It’s probably not a coincidence that the first official New York State investigation of how it might protect our region began exactly two weeks after Grant signed the Yellowstone bill. On March 15, 1872, the New York Assembly began discussions of a bill to appoint “Commissioners of Parks,” whose sole charge was to explore whether the state should acquire title to and establish a park for the forested lands in the northern counties.

Since then, as New York created its Forest Preserve (1885) and Adirondack Park (1892), the history of our park and that of the national parks has followed parallel and often similar trajectories. In both cases, original goals were frequently murky and administrative focus vague, but protection of often huge expanses of public land for the benefit of all the people was paramount. The establishment of New York’s Conservation Commission in 1911 predated by half a decade the creation of the NPS.

There were significant differences of course: the national parks are contiguous, publicly owned lands, while the Adirondack Park, as we all know, is a complicated crazy quilt of state and private land. The national parks do not permit hunting, while hunting has always been a prime recreational pursuit on the Forest Preserve. The national parks, often to the chagrin of conservationists, have seen the massive buildup of a tourist infrastructure—hotels (some, as at Glacier and Yosemite, modeled on the Adirondack Great Camps), highways, and the like—while our Forest Preserve is guaranteed by the New York Constitution to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.”

A stream from Cathedral Lakes flows through a lush meadow in Yosemite National Park in California.
A stream from Cathedral Lakes flows through a lush meadow in Yosemite National Park in California.

In 1967, a serious proposal surfaced that brought the stories of the national parks and the Adirondacks together. In that year, a group of planners working for environmentalist Laurance Rockefeller proposed that the federal government create in the central Adirondacks an Adirondack Mountains National Park, to comprise some 1,120,000 contiguous acres of land from the Forest Preserve and six hundred thousand acquired from private holdings. This proposal went nowhere, but it did prompt the state to ponder its options and led in a roundabout way to the modern era of Adirondack history, with the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency (1971), the classification of all the Forest Preserve into different categories according to best use (1972), and the implementation of regional zoning on private land (1973).

The text of The National Parks is minimal: a two-page introduction by W. Clark Bunting, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, along with mostly unsigned and even briefer introductions to seven national parks. These seven are Acadia, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Teton. Why these seven is not clear, although I like the nod to parks in the East. Those of us with special attachments to our eastern mountains and natural areas are often miffed by provincial westerners who think the only spectacular scenery in the United States is west of the 100th meridian. According to National Geographic, two of the eastern parks selected by Shive (Acadia and Great Smoky Mountains) are among the top ten of all national parks in visitation numbers.

Nevertheless, the selection of photos presented here is statistically odd. One wonders whether Shive and his publisher, eager to get a book out for the centennial, simply went through his files and collected whatever photographs seemed appealing, thus providing a rather skewed sense of the vast and diverse lands that make up all of the places maintained and administered by the National Park Service. For example, by my count I see sixteen images from the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. They are lovely, to be sure, but why nothing at all from the scores of other sites under the supervision of the NPS? Could it be because the Channel Islands are easily accessible to Shive’s home base in Los Angeles? All the eastern parks get short shrift: three from Acadia, three from the Everglades, four from the Smokies, and nothing from Shenandoah or the other eastern parks. There are at least fifty-five photos from Shive’s home state of California. While we’re at it, why is there one photo here from a National Forest (Flathead NF), which has absolutely nothing to do with the Park Service?

Since 2016 is the centennial of the NPS, not of the national parks, one might have expected this book to expand its focus beyond the parks. For the Park Service has many other responsibilities. In addition to the fifty-nine national parks, the NPS administers national monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores, lakeshores, scenic highways, and other critical parts of our public domain (but not, it should be remembered, the national forests, which have their own interesting and often complicated history). Many of the historic and other sites under the aegis of the Park Service are in the East: New York’s Ellis Island, for example. More attention to the entire mission of the NPS would have been a more appropriate way to celebrate this centennial and would have helped to address this book’s disproportionate focus on the West.

The photography is splendid, but the book itself seems a hasty and even facile attempt to take advantage of an anniversary.