ALTHOUGH National Parks is a saga of aesthetic appreciation, it is more often a sordid story than a pretty one. It is important, however, because it sketches out the politics of the preservation movement during the past half-century. Alfred Runte, assistant director at Baylor University's Institute of Environmental Studies, finds that the genesis and growth of our national park system occurred during the century following 1864, when Yosemite Valley received protected status as a state park. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, followed by Yosemite and the area immediately surrounding its gorge, plus Sequoia and General Grant national parks in 1890; Mount Rainier in 1899; Crater Lake in 1902; Mesa Verde, Colorado, in 1906; Glacier in 1910; Mount McKinley in 1917; Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Zion in 1919; Bryce in 1928; Grand Teton in 1929; and the Everglades in 1934 (the first park established according to a rationale for "total preservation" through awareness of a complex ecosystem).

Such a listing conveys only the bare-bones outline of a very complicated history which Runte unravels with admirable economy. Although his prose does not always sparkle, and his organization sometimes sags, his essential story is a compelling one that should interest anyone who has traveled across our magnificent landscape and visited the parks and monuments that have become an essential part of our vision as a nation of vehicular visitors.

Some of Runte's predecessors have argued that the national park system was spawned by persons dedicated to the conservation of natural resources. Others have insisted that the credit properly belongs to sportsmen (big-game hunters and fishermen) of the upper crust who, in the 1870s and 1880s, sought to protect specified areas as playgrounds for their new-fashioned life style as the Izaak Waltons of Victorian America. Advocates of this later interpretation believe that the role of John Muir and the Sierra Club has been vastly overrated.

Runte's thesis does not entirely obviate the other two; but it explains events of the 1860s-1880s which cannot be explained by those who primarily credit the conservationists (engineers and other professionals who emerged in the 1890s), and it offers a much broader cultural explanation than the view bestowing all the laurels on such editors and gentleman hunters as George Bird Grinnell and Charles Sheldon.

Runte contends that the intitial catalyst -- even so early as the 1830s and '40s -- was national enthusiasm for grand monumental scenery which might be regarded as a surrogate for the castles and cathedrals, venerable homes and other historical sites that we lacked. Runte quotes Clarence King, who in 1864 called the California redwoods "monuments of living antiquity," as well as John Burroughs, the naturalist who insisted that unique configurations in the Southwest provided a "semblance of historical continuity through landscape." Runte repeatedly calls attention to the language of those who described our great canyons, gorges, and mountain ranges as "cathedrals and colonnades, ramparts and rooms, terraces and temples, turrets and towers, obelisks and organs." (Sunset magazine, 1926)

Although national pride and an urgent quest for tradition played the key role, commercialism (in an inverted way) also had to be reckoned with. Again and again we learn, as Runte traces the enabling legislation past special interest groups, through Congress, and within the Interior Department, that land has to be deemed "worthless" (in terms of mineral wealth, timber, or water power) before a national park could be approved. Many of our grandest sites got gerrymandered into very strange shapes so that huge corporations and investors would not be denied their chance to get rich quickly from the nation's bounty.

Even today Secretary Cecil Andrus finds himself caught in a crossfire involving environmentalists, offshore oil drillers, fisherman, prospectors in search of mineral, timber and grazing rights on federal lands. The National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Geological Survey, the Bureaus of Land Management, Reclamation and Indian Affairs are all deeply involved.

Reading Runte's book will not supply a sense of deja vu. Times change: so do the players, the issues, and the stakes. Nevertheless, the United States now has a history, more than a century and quarter in duration, of either misusing our national heritage or else preserving pieces of it by serendipity. A knowledge of that history is indeed valuable in understanding what's happening today. As for the policy-makers -- at Interior, on the Hill, and in the White House -- National Parks is a must. Neither our natural wonders nor our serendipity is unlimited. As with most of our resources, we have already squandered lavishly. Henceforth let's cherish the wonders, and replenish our portion of serendipity as well.