Magnificent places like Yellowstone — and America's other national parks — inspire awe and reverence. They take us back to a time when very little separated us from nature. They are our nation's "common ground."
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In 1872, United States President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill designating Yellowstone as America's first national park. In fact, it was the first national park in the world. More than that, it was the birth of a new idea — the preservation of a natural site of notable beauty and importance. The idea caught on, and over the next 44 years, another 34 national parks and monuments, along with an agency to maintain them, were created. Here at Yellowstone National Park, we celebrate what author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called "the best idea (America ever had."
"Absolutely American, absolutely democratic," Stegner wrote, "(national parks) reflect us at our best" (see "Yellowstone National Park: A Truly American Idea" by Chuck Lyons, History, August/September 2012). For a relatively new nation seeking to distinguish itself from the rest of the world, the national parks helped give America a cultural identity. Europe had its ancient castles and palaces — all symbols of monarchy and social class; the United States had stunning natural beauty on an epic scale — a Grand Canyon; amazing geysers; majestic herds of bison, elk and other wildlife; and the biggest trees in the world — all symbols of the grand aspirations of its people (see “The Roots of ‘America's Best Idea,'” by Katia Hetter, cnn.com, Feb. 4, 2016).
The National Park Service now cares for 409 sites spread over more than 84 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories. Every year, visitors come by the tens of millions to see beauty that man could not create but could at least preserve.
Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, declared that the national parks were intended for all to enjoy. "A visit (to one) inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness. … He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks. (They) do not belong to one State," he said in the report of the director of the National Park Service in 1920. "They … are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest."
Magnificent places like Yellowstone — and America's other national parks — inspire awe and reverence. They take us back to a time when very little separated us from nature. But they are more than hiking trails and campgrounds, more than scenic vistas and wildlife preserves. They are our nation's "common ground" (see “This Land Is Your Land,” by David Quammen, National Geographic, January 2016).