Are National Parks Really America’s Best Idea?


Leave it as it is.

These words of Theodore Roosevelt’s rang out during a speech he gave at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Leave it as it is. It is a good phrase. A strong phrase.

But it, like Theodore himself, requires some deconstructing for our time.

When TR declared “leave it as it is” at the Grand Canyon and expressed a similar sentiment about the other national parks and monuments he would save, the “is” he had in mind was one that has been called into question of late. Some recent environmental scholars believe it was somewhat mythic, if not entirely fictional. The “is” for Roosevelt, and for the other conservationists of his time, John Muir included, was a pristine ideal of an unpeopled nature, of a place that existed without us—that is, without humans—an empty Eden. But this was not the North America that Europeans found when they landed. This was not the “is” that was.

What Europeans found was a land where human beings, in numbers much larger than we were once taught as schoolchildren, had been living, loving, procreating, working, and dying for thousands of years. Though there were plenty of places that we would consider “wild” and relatively unpopulated, many of the lands we would come to call “wilderness” were in fact landscapes that humans had manipulated and manicured by farming and fire for hundreds of generations. They were also lands that were extensively used as hunting grounds, summer grounds, winter grounds. If you wanted to call this—human beings working in a sustainable fashion with the animals and plants they lived amid—“pure,” you could. But what you couldn’t call it was uninhabited.

A couple of influential books on this subject have come out in the last 20 years, including Dispossessing the Wilderness, by Mark David Spence, and Conservation Refugees, by Mark Dowie. They argue that in our romanticizing of nature as a place apart, a place without people, we have created a kind of willful amnesia about the people who were actually living here when Europeans landed on this continent. Obviously, the first settlers were aware that the woods were anything but empty. Spence argues that up until the Civil War, Americans thought of “wilderness” as being virtually synonymous with the “place Indians were,” that the presence of Indigenous people was part of what made a place wild. Back then the country could be thought of as virtually infinite, and the Indians existed “out there,” but as America pushed onward after the Civil War, the Indigenous people were no longer seen as part of wilderness but as the enemy, the thing in the way. And at that very moment, two coincident and not unrelated movements were growing. One was the idea that Indians belonged on reservations. The other was that we needed to preserve some of the wilderness we were spilling over onto, and that we should do this by creating parks.

theodore roosevelt
(Photo: Courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Both of these newly conceived places were segmented off from the rest of the land, like islands, and to those doing the segmenting, it was clear that Indigenous people, forced onto one type of island, should be forced off the other. “Reservation” was in fact the general name for both the places the country wanted to put Indians and the forest preserves and other “saved” lands that were being set aside. The motivations for the two movements, intertwined and obvious then, seem strange and ironic a century and a half later. With the frontier closing, our romance with big monumental nature grew, as did the fear that our national vigor was fading. Wouldn’t we shrivel and grow weak and overcivilized (and somewhat European) without wild lands? “To protect wilderness was in a very real sense to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin,” writes the environmental scholar William Cronon in his groundbreaking essay “The Trouble with Wilderness.” He adds: “The myth of wilderness as ‘virgin’ uninhabited land has always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who had once called that land home. Now they were forced to move elsewhere, with the result that tourists could safely enjoy the illusion that they were seeing their nation in its pristine, original state, in the new morning of God’s own creation.”

Yellowstone, our very first national park, was a prime example. Created in 1872 by Congress and signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant, it became a template for all parks to follow. The story we were told about Yellowstone, and that we told ourselves, was that it was an “empty” place, the superstitious Indians supposedly spooked by the geysers, but as Spence argues, it had long been the hunting grounds of many tribes. The same was true of the tribe that gave Yosemite its name, but in John Muir’s eyes, and Roosevelt’s, what had been long inhabitation was viewed as encroachment. Muir liked his nature solitary, and while he marveled at the majestic views, he famously found the local Yosemite Indians “dirty.” You didn’t live in wilderness. It was where you went to get away from where you lived. To a place empty of people. A place that matched the increasingly refined and romantic notion of what nature was.

Where does this leave us today? For some it has led to a questioning not just of the history of our parks but of their present value. Rather than consider them as being what Wallace Stegner, citing Lord Bryce, called “America’s best idea,” they are now painted by some as poorly managed biological islands, tourist traps where Native people were expelled and where a false Edenic ideal of nature is promoted.

In As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, Dina Gilio-Whitaker distills this view of the history of the parks: “When environmentalists laud ‘America’s best idea’ and reiterate narratives about pristine national park environments, they are participating in the erasure of Indigenous peoples, thus replicating colonial patterns of white supremacy and settler privilege.”


As I drive into Yellowstone, I wonder: Am I simply clinging to an old romantic narrative, and worse, a romantic narrative based on a lie? Add the doom of climate change to the mix, and why fight for wilderness at all?

Steeped as I have been in Theodore Roosevelt’s life and work, I bristle at the concept that conservation is dead. But I have to admit that it is no longer possible to regard Yellowstone in the manner that Roosevelt did. I, and the four million other visitors, and our millions of cars, make that impossible.

In the midst of my panic and anger, I reach for the concrete, for anything solid to hold on to. “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” is what the sign above the arch says. But Roosevelt’s secret agenda was to preserve the park not just for the people but for the thousands of animals and plants and lichen and fungi. I am reminded of my friend Dan Driscoll, who battled for years to have bike paths put in along the Charles River in Boston, but whose secret agenda, an agenda that would prove largely successful, was to return native plantings to the riverbanks. He knew this wasn’t a perfect solution. He accepted that, as limited creatures, ours were only limited and partial steps. “We are all hypocrites,” he told me. “But we need more hypocrites who fight.”

Seen from a car, Yellowstone can seem like a disaster. But the caricature of a park is not the park. Only 1 percent of Yellowstone is made up of roads; 99 percent is the realm of the elk, bear, wolf, and cougar. Actual wild animals. That’s what Roosevelt loved about Yellowstone, not the geysers, and that’s what he wanted to save. And he did. I remind myself that there are 4,500 bison, 500 wolves, and 10,000 elk who don’t care what we humans think.

We can and should be critical of Roosevelt and his contemporaries for their expulsion of Native people from the national parks and monuments. It was part of a greater genocide, our original national sin. But while we are being critical of Roosevelt and others for not stepping out of their time, we should not fail to step out of our own. Take one step back and we can see a crowded, fractious world of Homo sapiens, battling as always for power, status, resources. But take another step back and the picture is less anthropocentric and even more dire. At this very moment, every second of every day, we are guilty of our own brand of biocide, destroying not hundreds or thousands but millions of creatures that we share this planet with. This is no exaggeration. Barely a day passes when we don’t wipe out a species, often a species that has never been categorized. We are killing the living world. We forget that we ourselves are just one sort of animal, though an animal that seems hell-bent on wiping out all others. We are the Borg on Star Trek, assimilating all. This is not just morally indefensible, and species murder, but it is very likely species suicide for us. Climate change, sure, that is part of it. But so is the larger destruction of the biosphere and most of the animals on earth.

This is where Roosevelt, whatever his flaws, remains relevant. Over a century ago he got it in a way most of us still do not get. He saw where we are heading. If you had asked the 14-year-old Theodore what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would not have answered statesman or soldier or author or even president, but a naturalist like his hero Charles Darwin. While Roosevelt was limited by the myopia and racism of his time, his training as a young scientist, combined with days in the wild, seems to have occasionally freed him from a larger limitation: Anthropomorphism. The inability to see beyond the human. It is this belief, that all of the great creation revolves around man, that is dooming the planet.

It may seem funny to say about a man who was by all accounts confident to the point of conceited, but Roosevelt possessed a larger humility. Call it “species humility.” Studying and hero-worshipping Darwin as a young man certainly didn’t hurt. He understood that we Homo sapiens are just, in E. O. Wilson’s words, “a fortunate species of Old World primate.” And for all his self-centeredness and egotism, he seemed to understand this primary insight: that the world is more important than we are.

We are right to question Theodore Roosevelt. But we are also right to question our questioning, particularly on the subject of preservation. As with TR, so with the parks and monuments he championed. Parks work. Whatever its limitations, and murky history, Yellowstone remains the largest wilderness in the lower 48 states and the one place where all the large mammals that were here when Europeans first came to this continent still roam with at least relative freedom. While the wolves were reintroduced by humans, the cougars, who had also been wiped out in the park, reintroduced themselves. Secretive and stealthy, they slid into the back spaces of the millions of preserved wild acres. Which meant that Yellowstone once again has its three great carnivores, the most charismatic of the charismatic megafauna: mountain lion, grizzly, wolf.

While acknowledging that it was once the Native hunting ground of tribes, we need to put this in the context of the times and remember what the realistic alternative to conservation might have been. It is unlikely it would have been happily allowing Indigenous people to go about their business. The rapacious pace of westward movement brought with it a force that downed forests, despoiled rivers, stripped vegetation, and killed animals, a force that is still very much with us. Tribes in Yellowstone would have been mowed down as surely as tribes in the Badlands. The hunger of settlers surging west rivaled that of locusts descending on a field. And in many cases, the eviction of Native peoples occurred not because of the creation of parks, but before the parks were even created. The choice, then, was not between a park and a Native settlement, but between parkland and private land.

John D. Leshy, a public-land expert and frequent visiting professor at Harvard, pointed this out in his 2018 Wallace Stegner lecture at the University of Utah: “How the U.S. acquired clear title to these lands from foreign governments and tribes is a complicated story and, especially where Indians are concerned, certainly one with a dark side. But it took place largely in advance of, and separate from, the movement to keep significant amounts of public land permanently in U.S. ownership.”

I believe that the park ideal, the public-land ideal, still has something great and bold in it. But if we reimagine it, we can make it newly relevant for our own times.

What if parks had not been created? There was no obvious reason they should have been. After all, it had never happened before in any other country. Where would we be then? While parks and other preserves might have been wrongly romanticized and, to some extent, built on false principles, they were, on a practical level, an attempt, an often desperate attempt, to stop our hunger from despoiling our last beautiful places. And whether or not our parks are “America’s best idea,” the idea of putting land aside, of not developing it, was inspired. Scholars can sneer at parks if they like, but without them and the habitats they provide, thousands more species would have been lost. If it was an idea mired in the prejudices of its time, it was also one that looked beyond those prejudices toward the future.

I believe that the park ideal, the public-land ideal, still has something great and bold in it. We need to acknowledge its historic flaws and current limitations. But if we reimagine it, we can make it newly relevant for our own times. Bears Ears National Monument does just this. Bears Ears was the first national monument to fully grow out of the thinking, support, and political power of Native American tribes. This is why its proclamation, at the very end of Obama’s presidency, was such a clear moment of hope. And why its massive reduction, by 85 percent, under Donald Trump, was so painful for so many. If America’s national parks are “our best idea,” Bears Ears was a better idea. Whatever the limited attitudes of those who created parks, something akin to a Native American attitude toward the land and its sacredness had always been floating around in the minds of those who fought to preserve this country’s public lands. This was true even if their behavior when it came to actual Native Americans didn’t reflect this. But until Bears Ears, actual Indigenous thinking played little part in the creation of our national monuments. Our policy toward public land had mostly ignored those who had lived longest on that land and for whom that land was sacred. The proclamation of Bears Ears as a national monument was the first step in recognizing the wrongness of this and of putting forth a new vision. Trump’s destruction of this ideal was a bitter assault on this vision.

But that doesn’t mean that the vision has faded. We need to hold to that vision and to remember that preserving land is not some antiquated idea that plays no role in the current fight. We need some places that are not shattered, fracked, and torn apart. We need to let places heal, not just to save our present but in the hopes of a future different from the one scientists tell us is coming. And as we look toward the future, we shouldn’t abandon the past. 

One of Theodore Roosevelt’s great legacies, not as great as the land itself but far from insignificant, was giving us a story to tell ourselves about this country and its land. To revise Roosevelt’s story for our time, we must take what was best about it, discard what doesn’t fit, and add the new. What Theodore Roosevelt left us with was a story of wilderness and wildness. It’s a damn good story, one that has worked quite effectively for over a century. There are flaws in the story, some due to the times he lived in and some due to his own biases. Roosevelt is dead, and so he can’t revise his story. That is up to us. We need to tell a new story about wilderness for a new time. With any luck, we can tell a story half as inspired as his. We likely won’t. But we must try. We owe it to the land and to the animals and to our children to try.

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Copyright © 2020 by David Gessner. From the book Leave It As It Is: A Journey Throughout Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness, by David Gessner, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc on August 11. Printed by permission.

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Lead Photo: Courtesy California Historical Society; Portraits Photography Col, PC-PT



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