The idea for national parks has been called both “distinctly American” and “America’s best idea,” most famously in the recent Ken Burns documentary on the subject. We Americans were the first to think of setting aside certain areas for the sake of preserving nature from encroaching civilization, and our purposes for doing so always have differed greatly from those of the Europeans who have taken up the idea since. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service, an occasion that gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the relationship between the much-ballyhooed national parks and what is distinctive and “best” about our American political culture.

When Americans think of the national parks, we think of family vacations, camping, and recreation: enjoying the great outdoors. This common perception aligns exactly with the original and continuing purposes for which national parks have been designated and administered in the United States. Although conservation and scientific research have always had some place in the rationale for US national parks, by far the most important has always been recreation and domestic tourism. In designating Yellowstone the world’s first national park in 1872, President Grant called it “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

This contrasts sharply with the origin and development of national parks in Europe in the early twentieth century. In Europe, the priorities for establishing national parks were nearly the reverse of those in the United States. They established national parks partly for reasons of recreation and tourism, but predominantly for reasons of research by professional scientists. National parks were more like huge outdoor laboratories than areas for public recreation.

This difference between Europe and the United States stems from extremely important causes, causes with much more important and far-reaching consequences than their effect on national park administration. What lies at the root of the distinctively American national parks idea is a particular orientation toward nature, an orientation that is not generally shared by European political cultures. Over the past 400 years, we Americans have had a very different relationship with nature than the Europeans have, and this relationship has powerfully informed what is best in our political culture and public discourse. The idea for national parks is not itself “America’s best idea,” but it should remind us of what really is.

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American Origins

When the first English settlers arrived on the North American coast in the early seventeenth century, they continued to think of themselves as English and strove to maintain this political and cultural identification. It would be more than 100 years before they would even consider the possibility of national independence. But when the rumblings of independence began in the mid-1760s, it quickly became clear that the Americans had been developing a vastly different political culture, informed by vastly different political principles, ever since they arrived.

In England, English subjects were surrounded by buildings that had been around for centuries. Artificial civilization pressed in on them from every side and at every moment. Even in the countryside, the English encountered rolling green hillsides with docile herds of sheep. The English subjects in America, on the other hand, were in intimate and constant proximity with a wild and untamed natural environment. There were no buildings, and there was no political and judicial infrastructure to protect them from feeling the full weight both of human nature and of our relationship to other natural beings surrounding us. Even before they discovered the Rockies, the Americans were already exposed to mountains and forests the likes of which the English had never seen. As John Locke repeatedly suggested in his Second Treatise, the Anglo-Americans were experiencing something very much like the “state of nature” he had described.

This circumstance of a constant and intimate encounter with nature profoundly influenced American ideas and culture from the beginning. For Americans, nature quickly acquired a capital “N.” Nature was something thick with meaning and significance to everyone who encountered it. Nature contained an intelligible message that we human beings didn’t author, but that we could understand. This meaning and significance was, moreover, crucially relevant for politics. It was because of Americans’ early and unique experience with “Nature” that they came to embrace Locke’s political philosophy in the eighteenth century, with its emphasis on the importance of natural rights and the natural law for politics. The English, by contrast, had little use for these Lockean ideas.

This circumstance of interaction with the given, natural world was the reason why the Declaration of Independence—the authoritative expression of “the American mind”—was filled with a sense of reverence and awe for nature. The nature referenced in the Declaration isn’t a lowercase-“n” nature; it is a “Nature” that contains intelligible “Laws” given by a “Creator” who is both Provident and the “Supreme Judge.” The Europeans had ancient and magnificent cathedrals dedicated to the worship of religion’s God; the Americans came to see themselves as actually living in an even more ancient and magnificent natural cathedral dedicated to the worship of “Nature’s God.”

The Decline of “Nature” and the National Parks

As we Americans became removed further and further from this original experience of nature, through the passage of time and the development of artificial civilization and culture, the original meaning and political significance of nature progressively began to be forgotten. The anti-slavery movement kept the moral and political relevance of nature alive through the Civil War. After the war, however, and with the closing of the frontier a few decades later, we quickly lost touch with this original and distinctive discovery. By the early twentieth century, we were ready to “progress” beyond the founders’ and Lincoln’s ideas, which now seemed naïve, about the political relevance of a grand and significant “Nature.”

It was in this context of a disappearing nature—both materially and intellectually—that the national parks were founded. For the Europeans, who had been used to approaching nature with a more Baconian view of control and manipulation, national parks would predominantly serve modern scientific purposes. For us Americans, on the other hand, the national parks would serve as a way that we could connect—or rather reconnect—with something important and distinctive about our national heritage. This is why modern scientific research has never taken strong hold in US national parks; we are culturally and historically more attuned to appreciating and understanding nature as a powerful and significant force in our lives, rather than to viewing nature as a tool for our own comfort and convenience.

As we become ever further removed from our unique and exceptional beginnings, however, it is increasingly conceivable that we Americans will progressively abandon our relationship with “Nature.” This relationship can only be maintained in the modern world through consistent effort and struggle against the myriad forces pushing us to modify our approach in the direction of Baconian manipulation and control—the approach more in line with the “progress” of civilization.

In light of this, we should continue to use and enjoy our national parks. But most of all, we should try to remember that they are there not only for our “enjoyment” but also for our “benefit.” We will benefit most from the national parks if we can remember their role as natural cathedrals that orient us to the crucial relevance of “Nature” for politics and society.