Almost everyone reading this article has at some point visited and photographed one of our spectacular national parks. (If not, stop reading and go do that now!) As a child growing up in the South, I hadn’t witnessed the beauty of the western parks until I was a young adult. I had only seen photos in books.
I remember arriving at night on my first visit to Yosemite, when the dramatic cliffs were hidden in darkness. In the morning, I walked out of Yosemite Lodge and was stunned by the sight of Yosemite Falls and the surrounding cliffs. It was a moment that I’ll always remember as my introduction to the grandeur of the national parks.
Many years later, a hike up into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the John Muir Wilderness would kindle my love of landscape photography and the desire to share what I saw with others who couldn’t visit these places. Access to our country’s national parks and wilderness areas has made my career as a professional landscape photographer possible. I can photograph them because previous generations recognized the intrinsic value of our wildlands, and also understood the importance of protecting the public’s access to our nation’s most spectacular landscapes.
President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service (NPS) on August 25, 1916. Many of our most beloved parks were protected long before the creation of the agency that now oversees them. Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, was designated in 1872, establishing the United States as a leader in the protection of lands for public use and enjoyment. Yosemite began as a state park in 1864 and eventually came under the management of the National Park System in 1890. Since each of these early parks was managed independently, issues arose with mismanagement and lack of adequate resource protection. The NPS was established to provide a single management agency for all the national parks to ensure their continued protection. The legislation establishing the NPS mandates the agency “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Today, the National Park System covers more than 84 million acres and includes not only national parks, but national monuments, seashores, parkways and rivers.
The origins of landscape and nature photography are closely linked to the evolution of our National Park System. The images created by early landscape photographers brought public awareness to the grandeur of the American West and laid the groundwork for the establishment of our National Park System. The pioneers of landscape photography, including William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel Adams and, more recently, Galen Rowell, were all inspired by the scenic grandeur of places now protected as national parks.
Among the first photographers to establish a livelihood in the field of landscape photography was George Fiske, a Watkins protégé who lived in Yosemite and transported his cumbersome camera equipment in a cart pulled by a donkey. He made his living selling prints to Yosemite tourists, paving the way for future photographers like me to do the same. Jay Haynes, a photography pioneer in Yellowstone National Park, started a photography concession there in 1884. His work helped bring attention to the spectacular beauty of Yellowstone and facilitated its protection as a national park.
While the NPS has made its share of management mistakes (does anyone remember the “firefall” off Glacier Point in Yosemite or the bleachers set up in Curry Village for spectators to watch bears feeding on trash?), they usually have remedied errors of the past and led the way in finding solutions to vexing problems faced by the parks. One example of their leadership is the effective mandatory bus service in Zion National Park, which has vastly improved the visitor experience there. Park scientists and managers often develop innovative techniques for environmental restoration, traffic management, fire management, wildlife conservation and historic preservation.
Since there’s always room for improvement, the NPS has established General Management Plans, which guide the management of each park over a 15- to 20-year time frame. The plans set the basic philosophy and broad guidance for management decisions that affect each park’s resources and visitor experience. Development of these plans is open to a public process, providing all interested people a chance to be involved in a park’s plan for the future.
Establishment of national parks was followed by other forms of public lands protection, most notably the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Wilderness Act protects lands in their primeval condition as places of solitude “where people can renew the human spirit through association with the natural world.” Some of the most spectacular places on earth can be found in designated wilderness areas of the United States. Originating in the United States, the concept of protection of lands for public use has spread throughout the world. Now almost all countries have national parks or a similar designation to protect their natural wonders for future generations.
As populations increase, there’s mounting pressure on our public lands. The next 100 years of the National Park Service will bring untold challenges to the continued protection of our nation’s most treasured places. Threats to be grappled with include pressures to extract coal and natural gas resources on lands near or in park boundaries (currently an issue in Arches National Park), threats from climate change (think receding glaciers in Glacier National Park), and air pollution from traffic and encroaching urban development. A quick review of #parksinperil on Twitter reveals a long list of threats to our national parks.
Most importantly, we must educate the next generation who will be left with the legacy of our public lands and the caretaking responsibility over the next 100 years. The NPS has been a leader in providing natural history education to our nation’s students through its excellent visitor centers and Junior Ranger programs. As photographers who love the access and beauty provided by these parks, we can play a crucial role in educating the next generation about the importance of these lands. Our images are a window into these beautiful places that not all are fortunate to see in person. We can still share with others the magnificence of these places first photographed 150 years ago, following the examples set by founders of the landscape photography movement in the 1800s.
Happy 100th Birthday, National Park Service! I hope on your 200th birthday, future generations can look back and appreciate how the parks were cared for under our watch.
Elizabeth Carmel is a professional landscape and travel photographer. She and her husband Olof Carmel own and operate two art galleries in California, the Carmel Gallery in Calistoga and the Carmel Gallery in Truckee. You can get more information about her prints, galleries, workshops and books at ElizabethCarmel.com and TheCarmelGallery.com. For more information about her videos, go to VistaChannel.tv.