Essay A brief History of the US National Parks

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A Brief History of the
US National Parks

Heather Acosta

US National Parks
Professor Jones 27 April 2015
This paper endeavors to explore the complex history of the US national parks, both in the environmental and political context. The timeline will span from the inception of the national park system and through to current times, and will cover the timeline of the national parks beginning with the first realization that people should be given access to the beautiful wild places of America, to the calls to conserve and ensuing battles, and ending in our current decade with new and old challenges that are being faced by conservationists.
Nearly 400 years after the first white settlers came to America, the concept of preserving the lands of this country started to become a popular idea. It was not until 1916, however, that the US government assigned an agency to perform such a task, and thus the National Park Service was born out of the awe and concern of regular citizens who shared their collective voice with congress. Now, the Park Service is about to turn a century old, and is in charge of maintain, preserving, and concerning over 84 million acres of American land and water. Not an easy task in and of itself, the agency also has to contend with those who would do the environment harm- something that the Park Service has always been in a battle with, and will likely continue to fight until the very end. Whether that end is funding, climate change, or otherwise has yet to be discovered.
California, here they come
It began with gold. On January 24, 1848, gold was found at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. By the end of that year, people were travelling in droves across the country with high hopes of striking it rich before the gold ran out. During this time period, much of the country was suddenly under a higher level of scrutiny, and that scrutiny led to the displacement of many Native American tribes by white settlers in search of new places to call their own. It is one such event that sparked the idea that some of our lands should be kept free of human settlement.
In the year of 1851, a group of armed men were formed to protect a group of miners from the Native Americans with whom they were coming into conflict. Initially, the problem had been about food, as the miners had not brought much with them on the march westward, and therefore were causing a game shortage as they moved1. It quickly became the mission of the Mariposa Militia to find the natives and drive them from their homes and onto reservations. It was on one such mission that the men came upon the Yosemite Valley, and within a few years the area became a popular attraction.
The call to conserve
After receiving national attention and multiple calls to preserve the land, a bill to protect the 60 miles of land surrounding and including Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law, creating the nation’s first tract of protected federal land. This law was not without opposition, however, as greedy intentions sought to exploit the land as well as the ability to see it. James Hutchings, who had first begun his efforts in 1855, simply ignored the new regulations and sought to expand his hotel business. He charged people to see the valley, but didn’t stop there- he also sought to build and use a sawmill within the valley.
In the Fall of 1868, Hutchings hired a Scottish-born American by the name of John Muir to run his mill. Muir, a lover of science and nature, spent most of his free time exploring Yosemite, calling it “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter...the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra.2" When Hutchings was finally banned and evicted from the park, Muir moved to Oakland and set to work writing about Yosemite in an effort to communicate to the masses the beauty of the place and the need to