Man-made National Parks

As I was reading Frederick Law Olmstead’s Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865  for next class, I came across an idea that we’ve touched upon before, and it really bothered me. Near the end of his writing, Olmstead is going through the details of the plan to preserve Yosemite as a national park and discussing the more administrative side of things. He outlines a plan for the upkeep and preservation of a national park. I think the word he used was “maintenance.” This strikes me as so unnatural, it’s almost laughable. The average visitor may not realize how much effort goes into keeping the “natural” landscape exactly how it is, but once you get a glimpse of that, it takes away from the overall effect of the park.

Yosemite Valley utility rehabilitation

National parks and anywhere in nature really are appealing to people because of the apparent wildness of them. I think that Olmstead’s plan, while is really important for arguing for the parks themselves, has a huge flaw where that is concerned. He takes the wild out of the wilderness.

While I think some regulation is important, such as not letting people cut down trees or throw trash everywhere, at some point the maintenance is changing the landscape of the park by making it stay exactly the same. In my opinion regulation and nature can’t really coexist in this situation. It would be more natural for the environment to change with time and environmental factors such as erosion. Who are we to try to stop nature from doing what it naturally wants? It seems pretty arrogant to me. I know that it was intended to be for the greater good of future generations, but how are we to know that what would follow wouldn’t be equally as beautiful? And anyway, I really doubt that the Grand Canyon will ever fail to draw crowds or Yellowstone stop being a tourist destination.

The whole thing makes me think of Niagara Falls and how commercialized and man-made it’s become. It’s still amazing and beautiful, but it’s not the same type of feeling you get going somewhere that is or seems to be more untouched. While I think it’s good to harness natural powers such as the hydroelectric power generated in Niagara, I think people take it a little too far. When you start to try to control nature, it loses some of what makes it so awe inspiring. One thing that draws us to nature is its autonomy from us. It is a force that’s greater than us. We appreciate that and we love that about nature, but for some reason we still try to change it. We forget how nature works. In real places each rock, bush, or tree doesn’t stay exactly in one place. There are storms and erosion and shifts in population of plants and animals. Instead of accepting and understanding these changes are a part of the environment, a long time ago we got an idea in our heads of what a “national park” or a “sublime” landscape is supposed to look like and close our minds to everything else.

The result of this is that the national parks start to become more man-made than nature. They lose their innocence. It reminds me of one of the first readings we did in class, Reproducing nature: the technology of national parks, from Richard Grusin’s Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks. Grusin says that “to establish a national park is to construct a complex technology, an ‘organic machine.’” He repeats this idea later by saying that “national parks are themselves hybrid technologies for the reproduction of nature.” This idea is has really stayed in the back of my mind throughout this class so far. Nature and technology aren’t two things we often think about together or in terms of each other, but I think Grusin is really on to something there. At this point, we are so involved in the “nature” of national parks, that they are hardly natural any more. In a sense, national parks have become a place for people to project what they want nature to be instead of a place to appreciate nature as it is.

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About Hannah S.

I'm a Graphic Design student pursuing a BFA at the University of Montevallo with minors in Art History and Math. On the off chance that I'm not doing schoolwork, I love funny tv shows, serious books, most genres of music and all kinds of animals. I'm also interested in environmental issues, coding and programming and making lists for everything.

One thought on “Man-made National Parks

  1. Great post! I had many of the same reactions when I read Oldmstead’s report. He seemed to extol the natural quality of the parks as the reason why the government should protect and fund them, yet he also seems to have a deep awareness that the parks themselves require a great deal of maintenance and shaping. This is the essence of his approach to landscape architecture. Did he try to hide the inevitable realities of this in the report from his audience, or was he simply unaware? Maybe this is something we can talk about in class.

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