The culture of conservation in America’s national parks

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Lassen Volcanoes

The purpose and utility of national parks is often questioned – are they places of wilderness, conservation, preservation, or economic utilitarianism such as tourism? Dr Tom Winterbottom is our guest blogger and offers his perspective on the purpose and being of America’s national parks….


Lassen Volcanoes

Lassen National Park, USA. Image copyright Tom Winterbottom.

Until I went, I never knew that Lassen National Park in the northeastern corner of California was famous for containing within its limits the four types of volcanoes that exist on our planet. For that matter, I did not know that there were four commonly accepted types of volcanoes. My previously unexplored interest in volcanology was piqued by stopping in at the visitor center, reading some informational exhibits, and then getting to know an interpretive ranger, who also introduced me to an immensely enthusiastic resident geologist who makes Lassen their research base. They taught me about the park, giving me tips on where to go, what to look out for, and informing me about the scientific and conservational importance of their work. The National Park Service employs this and many other scientists to undertake research within the idyllic, protected settings of America’s National Parks. Ever since John Muir promoted the Californian wilderness in the late 1800s, there has been a sensibility about the wild, open spaces of the United States that translated a generally progressive government-sponsored program of conservation that remains today.

At their best, these unique spaces offer conscientious visitors, researchers, and scientists the chance to commune with nature. They are controlled, demarcated spaces that are actively conserved according to predominant contemporary knowledge and techniques. In vital and constant dialogue with their scientific value as diverse natural spaces, throughout their history—Yellowstone is the world’s oldest designated national park, from 1872—the National Parks have also been promoted as tourist destinations. Since their establishment, they have been places to see the sights of the natural world and to experience their wonder. They are places where philosophers, writers, artists and scientists have sought inspiration and relaxation; they offer a distinct and nourishing rhythm of life, a place to achieve a distinct perspective on existence. In the thousands of designated national parks all over the world, these spaces have become synonymous with how, why, and where humans go to experience nature in a controlled and designated space. Rather than wild uncontrolled places, then, they are largely curated and manicured outdoors environments. They represent, as Americans and the National Park Service love to remind us, “America’s Best Idea.”

Geyser Yellowstone

Crepuscular rays over the steam from a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. Image source: Wiki Commons, Brocken Inaglory.


National Parks’ existence comes down to a question of a “use” of nature. As the National Park Service says, the terms conservation and preservation are closely linked: “conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.” In the National Park context, I see that preservation lies within the broader context of conservation. There is wilderness within National Parks, of course, but for the most part these are very much “used” natural spaces. Indeed, that is their essence. They were conceived of as and continue to be tourist destinations based around the natural world, as well as being centers of scientific research. As such, these are dynamic and evolving spaces of conservation that rely on an intriguing dynamic between visitation, tourism, money, and knowledge.

The US National Parks offer an interesting history. There are currently 59 federally operated flagship parks in the US, run by the National Park Service. They range in history and appeal, from the world-famous Yellowstone and the most popular Great Smokey Mountains, to the isolated American Samoa and the urban Arkansas Hot Springs. Some of the National Parks are new: a small square of land in central California, Pinnacles, was recently changed from National Monument (a slightly different designation) to National Park. Some are surrounded by water (the Channel Islands) or covered in water (the Everglades), and some have been shaped by a long history of water (Glacier) or are named after their water (Crater Lake). Some contain a series of 14,000-foot mountains (Rocky Mountain), and some have areas significantly below sea level (Death Valley).

Limnology Rocky Mountains

Lake Solitude, Rocky Mountains National Park, USA. Image source copyright Tom Winterbottom.


Above all, though, the National Park Service strives to create a protected and conserved, but not preserved, space. The wilderness that John Muir wrote of is not to be found in National Parks: that is not their nature. The idea of a delineated park represents land use through its very etymology: boundaries are constructed around parks for visitors to experience nature, whether in the busy heart of the park or in the backcountry.

This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service Organic Act, a 1916 federal law that established the Service as a part of the Department of the Interior. The idea was to have one federal organization to oversee the management of these various places of national interest and to generate income from otherwise non-lucrative land. Now there are 410 such spaces, covering Monuments, Memorials, Lakeshores, Seashores, as well as historical and cultural patrimony. Within the Service, the 59 national parks are by far the most famous and the most visited. Ever since 1916, and continuing today, the National Parks need to contend with the challenges of sustainable tourism and conservation in constant dialogue.

According to this interaction of visitors and the natural world, we must remember the notion and complexities of the “proper” use of nature. In the early years of the National Park Service, for example, tourism boomed in the Parks when railroad companies offered trips into these wonderful spaces, often covering several parks in one short trip. Now, in an age of car-based mass tourism and crowdsourced reviews, a bucket list mentality has emerged in which many visitors want to visit the National Parks to see the “must-see” sights. The “proper” use of nature is in some cases at a tipping point in which many National Parks—particularly, and logically, the most famous ones—are victims of their own success, drawing car and busloads of trampling tourists who just want to get the photos, buy a sticker, leave some trash, and move on. In this situation, we can think of National Parks as a sort of theme park: go there, see nature, be entertained, go home. With that mentality, there is the risk of not even attempting to attune yourself to nature and forgetting—or taking for granted—the “Leave No Trace” motif that is so fundamental. It is important to remember that, at their heart, these are places where we are the visitors.  The scientists and rangers do a vital job in reminding other visitors of this, but it is up to us to enact it too.

Florida Everglades

The Florida Everglades, USA. Image source: Wiki Media, USDA.


Nowhere is the positive sense of conservation more visible and appealing than in those scientists, specialists, and rangers who make the National Parks their home. In my experience they represent a dedicated and proactive community that is centered on evolving conservation techniques and relaying information as knowledge for other visitors. These are places to study, to find out new things both for the scientist working in the volcano and for the tourist who is just finding out his first thing about it, all within the remit of sustainable and long-term conservation. The challenge for the National Park Service in the next 100 years is to help shape what conservation looks like in the US and farther afield, to shape the paradigm that John Muir idealized on his first trips. Finding an evolved and suitable definition of the “proper use of nature,” and for people to be sympathetic to that, is a vital consideration in the future of the National Parks. It is the scientists and the conservationists who are most central to that: they help put into context quite what these spaces mean and why they are important to our human history.

It is within this dynamic that being in National Parks offer us a chance of perspective on our own existence. All I can do now that I am back in a city is to recount to myself as often as possible my geological mantra—cinder cone, shield, lava dome, composite—so that I do not forget that little bit of knowledge I acquired up in Lassen National Park.


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