The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How did our national parks come to be? A new book explores their rocky start.

Who doesn’t love national parks and public lands — besides, that is, our immediate past and severely un-outdoorsy president, who so cold-heartedly amputated Bears Ears and halved Grand Staircase-Escalante? His successor has returned these treasures to the safe-deposit box, thank goodness, and once again they enjoy the reverence and protection that the federal government bestows upon more than 400 kindred parks, monuments, memorials, preserves, seashores, lakeshores and battlefields.

But as Dennis Drabelle reveals in his new book, “The Power of Scenery,” the very notion of national parks met with naysayers early on, and, but for the persistence of a relay team — a Pony Express of high-minded, under-sung visionaries — the people’s gardens might have been denuded by squatters, vandals and money changers before they had a chance to take root. The first leg of that relay, Drabelle avers, was run by Frederick Law Olmsted — the same Olmsted who “magicked” the makeover of Central Park and other urban oases. Drabelle does not freight his peppily paced narrative with a full portrait of Olmsted; for that see Witold Rybczynski’s “A Clearing in the Distance” (2000).

We first meet Olmsted in California, November 1865. He has taken leave from the Civil War and Central Park and accepted a position managing, of all things, mines in the Sierras. Gov. Frederick Low seats him on the commission overseeing the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of sequoias that the feds have recently ceded to the state. (The term park was not invoked at this point; and even if it had been, Yosemite was not a national park until 1890.) Olmsted takes it upon himself to draft guidelines for curation of the virgin valley. Public pursuit of happiness, he proposes, ought to include access to nature and the salubrity derived therefrom. This was Olmsted’s (and partner Calvert Vaux’s) aim with Central Park, but by necessity its paths and ponds and meadows, however Arcadian in effect, were architected. For Yosemite, Olmsted favors (in Drabelle’s words) a “hands-off approach.”

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“The first point to be kept in mind,” the plan preaches, “is the preservation and maintenance as exactly as is possible of the natural scenery; the restriction . . . of all artificial constructions and the prevention of all constructions markedly inharmonious with the scenery.” Drabelle, a former Post editor who has written books on landscape architecture and railroad and mining booms (he also reviewed one of my books), parses the difference between the man-made and the sublime thusly: “[T]here is a landscape architectural feature called a ‘ha-ha’; there is not one called a ‘whoa.’ ”

The cautionary example of what not to do is Niagara Falls, which, as Henry James kvetched, had become “choked in the horribly vulgar shops and booths and catchpenny artifices.”

For all the good will and sense of Olmsted’s report, Gov. Low tossed it. Olmsted returned to New York, and “his splendid Yosemite analysis went into his files.” Buried but still alive.

Here Drabelle leaves Olmsted. Skeptics might question the conceit that a lost memo is the wellspring for what Wallace Stegner would call “the best idea we ever had,” and indeed the thread is thin at first. Olmsted himself would later acknowledge that national parks were mostly a matter of right-time-right-place. “They would seem,” he wrote in 1880, “to have been a common spontaneous movement.”

Yet this is where Drabelle’s tale becomes most engaging. Come to “The Power of Scenery” for Olmsted; stay for the cast of characters who lead us — and the park idea — first backward to Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope, whose Eurocentric travelogues expose America’s coarseness and provoke a nationalist desire to tout crown jewels of our own. On to Henry David Thoreau and artist George Catlin, who dreamed of national parks in the abstract. Then forward to Samuel Bowles, now-forgotten editor of Massachusetts’s Springfield Republican, whom Drabelle credits with salvaging, then ballyhooing Olmsted’s lost recommendations. Drabelle wishes us to believe that Bowles’s promotion found its way to three “self-appointed Montanans” who claimed to have hatched the idea of Yellowstone National Park while camping beside geysers in 1870. Drabelle scoffs at the “campfire myth” that the national park idea sprouted like an eruption of Old Faithful.

Pride of authorship aside, Yellowstone became the country’s first national park in 1872, and Drabelle lets it and its proponents — geologist-surveyor Ferdinand Hayden, painter Thomas Moran, photographer William H. Jackson, railroad tycoon Jay Cooke — dominate the middle chapters of this trim book. By contrast, John Muir hikes through a mere half-dozen pages of Yosemite. Theodore Roosevelt, who normally hogs conversations on conservation, doesn’t even make the index.

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Olmsted finally returns to the stage and spends his remaining years keeping Central Park from “going to the devil”; pulling Niagara Falls back from the brink of spoliation; landscaping the Chicago World’s Fair; and master-planning parks and campuses from Boston to Berkeley. He dies in 1903 at age 81. His original Yosemite recommendations would not be rediscovered until the 1950s. Yet the organic act establishing Yellowstone was its direct descendant. Yellowstone was “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Likewise, four decades later, the act establishing the National Park Service pledged to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner . . . as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Drabelle’s prose throughout is sure-footed, spirited and droll in its anachronisms. An early Yellowstone wanderer is a “proto-Mr. Magoo.” Hot Springs, Ark. is “our national hot tub.” He could easily have ended the book on a bummer, leaving us with snapshots of RVs circling the Old Faithful parking lot, Lululemoned lemmings switchbacking toward Angels Landing in Zion — or the low-hanging irony of the concessions, restrooms, and other hardscape required to accommodate the many millions of gapers who each year swarm our pleasuring-grounds. Olmsted’s ideal bedeviled. Instead, he lifts his lamp to a more Rushmore-esque vantage: “At times, Olmsted . . . can seem almost too good for the rest of us mere mortals.” Whoa.

John Taliaferro‘s most recent book is “Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West.”

The Power of Scenery: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Origin of National Parks

By Dennis Drabelle

Bison Books. 272 pp. $29.95

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