One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was in the midst of the Civil War. And yet, a group of men dared to press a curious idea. A magnificent valley and a grove of immense sequoia trees had been discovered in California. What if this land were to be preserved and protected from exploitation and development for all time?
Sen. John Conness was persuaded to introduce legislation for the Yosemite Grant. Conness sold the bill by describing the land as:
… for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute perhaps some of the greatest wonders of the world. It is a matter involving no appropriation whatever. The property is of no value to the government.
On June 30, 1864, not long after a devastating loss by Gen. Ulysses Grant of 7,000 soldiers at Cold Harbor in Virginia, and during a major siege at Petersburg, Virginia, President Lincoln somehow found the time and attention to sign it, an act to protect a place he had never seen and that had been visited by only 653 tourists by horseback over the past 10 years.
Galen Clark, among the first white explorers to document the park, was put in charge of these newly protected lands, known as the Yosemite Grant and the Mariposa Grove, and given a budget of $500 a year to maintain and protect it from the influence of tourists and developers. These lands became the first California state park, and the beginning of that important conservation system.
Today we take the idea of a national park for granted. Of course, certain lands are extra special and beautiful and should be protected. It is hard to even comprehend that there had to be a first one, that it was once a novel idea that there was land too precious to exploit, trees too large to cut. (This is especially in contrast to the history of Big Trees State Park nearby in Calaveras County, where in fact the discovery of enormous sequoia was urgently met with enormous saws so that its mighty trunk could tour the populace as a curiosity. Today the park centers around its enormous stump.)
But at the time, Yosemite was a one-off to most in Congress, a bit of land deeded to the state to be protected in perpetuity, not really a national matter. But the commissioners of Yosemite had a larger vision, of a national trust, and saw themselves setting precedents. In 1872, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the right of the federal government to designate unsold land for national public parks.So in 1870, when an expedition set out to investigate the outlandish stories coming out of Wyoming Territory of boiling mud, immense canyons and steam gushing out of the ground, the nation had already taken the first step to imagine that it was rich enough that some land could be set aside forever. Lobbyists working for the Northern Pacific Railroad, eager to highlight attractions that would add to the popularity and success of the transcontinental route, urged Congress to set aside this new land as well. After all, it was unsuitable for homesteading or mining anyway.
On March 1, 1872, President Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone Park as the first national park anywhere on the planet. Congress must have been feeling short in the purse, though, because members didn’t even come up with $500 to manage the new park. No money was set aside at all, which of course left the new superintendent with hardly any resources to oversee 2 million acres, an influx of tourists and developers looking to get a cut of the action. (Fortunately or unfortunately, the railroad didn’t end up sending the route close to Yellowstone for several years.)
(Ironically, Congress did, a few months later, set aside $10,000 to purchase a painting by one of the artists that helped them decide to protect Yellowstone, a 7-by-12 foot masterpiece titled “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.”)
Yellowstone suffered the slings and arrows of lobbyists and inadequate funding for many decades. The National Park Service wasn’t formed until 1916. Today it oversees 401 national parks as well as thousands of national historic landmarks comprising more than 84 million acres of land. Countries around the world have copied our great idea of national parks.And all because a few people said, “You know, it would be a shame if these trees were cut down,” and did something about it.
More information:Yosemite’s 150th Anniversary at the National Park Service website
Yosemite National Park
Yellowstone National Park
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
Thomas Moran and the Spirit of Place
Research notes for Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Yosemite, a Storied Landscape at the California Historical Society in San Francisco through January 25, 2015.
Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
And if you want to get glorious pictures of your favorite national park every day, many parks now have a presence on Facebook.