It was during one of the darkest hours, before Sherman had begun the march upon Atlanta or Grant his terrible movement through the Wilderness, when the paintings of Bierstadt and the photographs of Watkins, both productions of the War time, had given to the people on the Atlantic some idea of the sublimity of the Yo Semite, and of the stateliness of the neighboring Sequoia grove, that consideration was first given to the danger that such scenes might become private property and … their value to posterity be injured. To secure them against this danger Congress passed an act providing that the premises should be segregated from the general domain of the public lands, and devoted forever to popular resort and recreation.
— Frederick Law Olmsted, 1865 1
In the summer of 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted welcomed two groups to a campsite in the Yosemite Valley. Olmsted himself led one of the groups, a commission established by the state of California to determine what it should do with two spectacular landscapes in the Sierra Nevada: the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Olmsted’s fellow commissioners were there to hear him deliver a report about what these nature preserves, which had been granted to the state by Congress the year before, should become. The other party was a delegation of Republican Party power brokers from the East who were making a post-Civil War victory lap of the West. Their ranks included Schuyler Colfax, a U.S. Congressman (and Speaker of the House) from Indiana, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican. This was their first look at America’s western states, and especially at Yosemite, which had been made famous a few years earlier by the essays of San Francisco minister Thomas Starr King and the photographs of Carleton Watkins. Olmsted, already prominent as the co-designer of New York’s Central Park and as first head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a war-time relief agency, was particularly eager for the influential Easterners to listen in.
The Yosemite National Park that we know today is the result of the recommendations contained in Olmsted’s report.
“Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove: A Preliminary Report,” which Olmsted read that day and submitted to the California legislature shortly thereafter, is one of the founding documents of the U.S. conservation movement, and of what would later be known as the national park idea. While the state government formally rejected Olmsted’s text (the California Geological Survey feared that Olmsted’s proposed funding for the new preserve would cause a diminishment of its own appropriation), the Yosemite National Park that we know today is substantially the result of the recommendations contained in Olmsted’s report. More importantly, the principles underlying the nature-park idea — which have since been expanded upon by many nations — were first and most clearly laid out in Olmsted’s report. The heart of Olmsted’s concept was that America’s greatest places should be open to the broadest public:
It is the will of the Nation as embodied in the act of Congress that this scenery shall never be private property. … The establishment by government of great public grounds for the free enjoyment of the people under certain circumstances, is thus justified and enforced as a political duty. 2
At the end of October, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made an official proposal which stands as a full and stark rejection of this founding vision for Yosemite and the many national parks that followed. Specifically, the department is proposing to double and nearly triple the cost of admission to seventeen of America’s most popular national parks. The public comment period runs through December 22, which means it is especially timely to re-examine Olmsted’s idea, and its justifications.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s proposal is a stark rejection of the founding vision for Yosemite and the many national parks that followed.
Olmsted’s report outlined two distinct and fundamental ideas: the preservation of landscapes of natural beauty, and the establishment of full public access to these landscapes. The first idea was rooted in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s landmark essay from 1836, “Nature,” which complained that Americans mostly valued land as something to use until all the trees had been cut down and any ore had been mined. Emerson offered a radical alternative; he urged Americans to shift from using up land to appreciating landscape, and in so doing to prioritize the non-monetary value of natural beauty over the transactional value of commercial exploitation.
As Olmsted seems to have understood, Emerson had thus provided the intellectual underpinnings for the proposal which a group of San Franciscans had previously made to Congress to set aside the Yosemite landscape as a preserve. Congress agreed, and in the summer of 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed an act making Yosemite and the nearby Mariposa Grove “inalienable for all time,” a landscape whose value lay in the wonderment it aroused rather than in the natural resources that might be extracted from it. Olmsted, who knew and admired Emerson, underscored his friend’s influence in the nature-park idea by adapting passages from “Nature” into his report.
Having expanded Emerson’s ideas into what we now call “conservation,” Olmsted advocated for open public access. He located the source of this new principle in what might seem an unexpected text: the Declaration of Independence. As Olmsted argued, it was “the main duty of government … to provide means of protection for all citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles … which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.” Olmsted believed that public access to nature was, in the famous language of the Declaration, an “unalienable Right.”
Olmsted devoted more than one-quarter of his report to explaining how he had formulated this new idea. He first explained that because the European aristocracy enjoyed private access to landscapes of “reinvigorating recreation,” that common Americans should too — that a young, republican nation should open its greatest landscapes to all its citizens. Olmsted repeatedly emphasized the inequities of the emergent Gilded Age. “There are in the islands of Great Britain and Ireland more than one thousand private parks and notable grounds devoted to luxury and recreation,” he wrote. “The enjoyment of the choicest natural scenes in the country and the means of recreation connected with them is thus a monopoly, in a very peculiar manner, of a very few, very rich people. The great mass of society, including those to whom it would be of the greatest benefit, is excluded from it.” Olmsted concluded his report with a final burst of republicanism. Had Congress not set aside Yosemite as a public landscape, Olmsted said,
It would have been practicable for one man to have bought the whole, to have appropriated it wholly to his individual pleasure or to have refused admittance to any who were unable to pay a certain price as admission fee. … The result would have been a rich man’s park, and for the present, so far as the great body of the people are concerned, it is, and as long as the present arrangements continue, it will remain, practically, the property only of the rich.
This is the regressive condition which the Department of the Interior seeks to impose upon Americans who can’t afford the exorbitant new fees which are now being proposed.
As Olmsted surely knew, “Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove: A Preliminary Report” was a political document. Especially given his first-hand observations of the political shenanigans that plagued the planning and construction of his beloved Central Park, he would have understood that the new and as-yet-undefined parks idea would benefit from being aligned with the Republican Party’s position on the West and on slavery. In three national elections, starting in 1856, Republicans John C. Frémont and Abraham Lincoln had run on an anti-slavery platform promising that Western lands would be open to white men and women who wanted to improve their lives without competition from slave labor. Olmsted’s linkage of landscape preservation to universal access was more than a principled philosophical position, it was an attempt to embed the Republicans’ foundational belief in opportunity and upward mobility for the common white man (and the rejection of aristocracy) to a landscape. It was an alignment of one of Olmsted’s core beliefs to the Republicans’ core political position. (Today this relationship lives on the land: several of the peaks that surround the Yosemite Valley and the mountain above the Mariposa Grove carry the names of anti-slavery Unionists.)
Secretary Zinke and today’s Republican Party would do well to acquaint themselves with the history of the national parks they are charged with administering on behalf of the citizens of the United States. Zinke’s proposal to raise some national park admission fees — and thus to limit access — is ahistorical and un-American. Neither income nor class should determine who has the opportunity to enjoy our public lands.