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EDITORS NOTE: Below is an op-ed piece written by John Clayton, author of Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon, which was published in August. This piece appears on historynewsnetwork.com, a part of the Columbian College School Of Arts & Sciences. 

When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this summer proposed privatizing campgrounds in national parks, his opponents seized on this small move as a potentially big signal. Was this the first step in selling off public lands?

Zinke, who styles himself after the public-lands advocate Theodore Roosevelt, denied such symbolism. But what I found most interesting about the debate was the way it indicated a transformation in the meaning of national parks, their role in Americans’ self-identity. As I discovered in writing a book on the history of Yellowstone, what we want out of national parks keeps changing, with federally-run campgrounds as only the latest example.

When Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872, its extraordinary geysers were seen as a unique wonder that should be protected from Niagara Falls–style overdevelopment. National-park status was a sort of zoning measure, to control development around these geological features. A famous phrase from Yellowstone’s enabling act—that it be for the “enjoyment of the people”—actually traces back to Frederick Law Olmsted, architect-in-chief of New York’s Central Park: both were efforts to zone preserves of nature away from the industrializing world.

At its founding, Yellowstone-as-Central-Park was not particularly noted for wildlife—indeed hunters on the 1871 Hayden expedition had trouble finding enough game to feed the party. Only in the 1890s, with widespread attention to the potential extinction of bison and other species, did Yellowstone also become known as a wildlife preserve. Subsequent generations then overlaid additional meanings on the park: as a remnant of a bygone frontier, as an embodiment of a rustic national character, and as the carefree home of a rascally cartoon bear.

One important such meaning came in the Progressive era, with the 1916 founding of the National Park Service (NPS). NPS director Stephen Mather and his assistant Horace Albright re-conceived Yellowstone, and national parks in general, as reserves of patriotism, physical representations of the culture’s inherent strengths that were jointly shared by all citizens rather than privately owned.

But operationally—and here is Zinke’s strongest argument—Mather outsourced to concessionaires the running of the parks’ hotels, restaurants, gift shops, and tour packages. The only reason he didn’t also outsource campgrounds: they didn’t yet exist.

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