Preserving Nature in the National Parks


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A History; With a New Preface and Epilogue

Richard Sellars

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This book traces the epic clash of values between traditional scenery-and-tourism management and emerging ecological concepts in the national parks, America’s most treasured landscapes. It spans the period from the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to near the present, analyzing the management of fires, predators, elk, bear, and other natural phenomena in parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Great Smoky Mountains.

Based largely on original documents never before researched, this is the most thorough history of the national parks ever written. Focusing on the decades after the National Park Service was established in 1916, the author reveals the dynamics of policy formulation and change, as landscape architects, foresters, wildlife biologists, and other Park Service professionals contended for dominance and shaped the attitudes and culture of the Service. The book provides a fresh look at the national parks and an analysis of why the Service has not responded in full faith to the environmental concerns of recent times.

Richard West Sellars, a historian with the National Park Service, has become uniquely familiar with the history, culture, and dynamics of the Service—including its biases, internal alliances and rivalries, self-image, folklore, and rhetoric. The book will prove indispensable for environmental and governmental specialists and for general readers seeking an in-depth analysis of one of America’s most admired federal bureaus.

Richard W. Sellars is a historian with the National Park Service, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"Richard Sellars has written an indispensable book on the history of biological conservation in the national parks. Relying on prodigious new research, he demonstrates that conflicts over recreation, aesthetics, and ecology are nothing new, thereby offering much-needed historical perspective on some of the most vexed issues now facing these treasured American places. Scholars, managers, and activists will be learning from this important volume well into the next century."—William J. Cronon, Professor of History, Geography, & Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"A major contribution to the history of a controversial and timely topic."—Robert M. Utley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and author of many books on the American West

"Richard Sellars writes with the searching insight of one who has devoted a career to understanding the enigma of park management from the inside out. His painstaking archival research and sustained reflection on the evolution of park policy has produced a critique that is must reading for all who love parks and the values they are expected to protect."—Susan Flader, Professor, University of Missouri-Columbia, College of Arts and Science

"This is a valuable study, one enhanced by Richard Sellars' clear explanations and careful critiques. The book deserves a wide audience."—Stephen J. Pyne

"Few human institutions have been so loved and at the same time so tangled in conflicting visions as America's National Park System. Richard Sellars' superbly researched, lucidly written, and unrelentingly honest story of how the National Park Service has met its obligations to preserve the natural values of our parks is more than history."—T.H. Watkins, former editor of Wilderness magazine and author of Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes

"This book complements such general histories of the conservation movement as Roderick Nash's Wilderness & the American Mind. Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries."—Library Journal

"This book is a scholarly presentation of carefully researched and documented facts, woven into an unbroken story. . . .This account illuminates our path. Read it. You will like it. You may not agree with everything in it, but you will learn from it. We and our national parks will all be the better for it."—Gary E. Davis, Park Science

"A carefully documented, unblinking critique of bureaucratic self-aggrandizement by the agency that employs him."—Frank Clifford, Los Angeles Times

"It is the mark of good literature to stimulate a reader; it is a sign of great writing when the author effects a change in the reader's way of thinking. This book had changed the way I think about the National Park Service. Its honesty, clarity and deep research all mark this book as a landmark in N.P.S. historical treatises. . . . It is Sellars' insightful analysis and interpretation of the historical record that gives this book its credibility and value."—Robert C. Pavlik, Yosemite Association

"In examining the struggle between facade management and scientific management, Sellars has developed a framework for an original and incisive critique of national park tradition, agency culture, and the enduring influence of aesthetics in NPS natural resource management."—Theodore Catton, The Public Historian

"Sellars has produced a book that will be of interest to a wide range of readers. For those who want a case study of the creation of nature, Sellars offers examples of careful manipulation of parks to produce the picturesque. For those who are interested in public land management, Sellars offers a detailed accounting of the role of private interests in creating the service and fostering its tourism-driven agenda."—Western Historical Quarterly

"This fine work focuses on the National Park Service's stewardship of the nation's most spectacular natural regions. . . . This is a fine book about the in-house disagreements of an exceptional agency."—Robert W. Righter, Environmental History

"Sellars has performed a valuable service for the agency, for the discipline of environmental history, and for all us interested in the proper management of our national parks."—Geoff Cunfer, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The book should be required reading for all National Park Service professionals and for anyone who frequently works or recreates in national parks. It provides insight on both positive and negative aspects of modern-day resource management in the agency."—David L. Peterson, Northwest Science

"Much to say to those interested in the way national resources are managed."—Kirkus Reviews

"Because he’s worked as a historian for the National Park Service, Sellars is better able to understand why the Parks have ignored science. . . . Sellars details, Park managers have viewed science, at best, as an addendum, an aid to interpretation; more often, bureaucrats have viewed scientific research as a hindrance to expedient management."—Ron Steffens, The Bloomsbury Review

"The most thorough history of US National Parks and the National Park Service (NPS) yet published. . . . For anyone interested in American conservation history, public lands, and particularly National Parks, Preserving Nature in the National Parks provides a case study of one agency's role in the contextual framework of the larger ideological struggles within the conservation movement. It will likely be a long time before anyone writes another National Park history that can surpass Sellars's book for honesty and careful scholarship."—George Wuerthner, Wild Earth

"One of the most important books ever written on the realities of biological conservation. It is full of important insights and lessons and should be required reading for anyone interested in national parks, their management history, and the values they are expected to protect."—David J. Parsons, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, USDA Forest Service

"Richard West Sellars has written the best history of the National Park Service (NPS) now available. . . . A lively, astringent, and balanced investigation that will be a benchmark for generations of future researchers."—Robin W. Winks, Journal of American History

"[Sellars] has written a fascinating political commentary, with all the benefits of an insider’s knowledge and contacts, on the way in the National Parks were created, manages, and administered over the course of the past century. It is a searing critique, illustrating vividly how big business, mainly in the form of the railway and forestry companies, was allowed to dominate the agenda and how badly the needs of science have been neglected. . . . A superb and grippingly written book."—Mark Blacknell, Ecumene

"The national parks are an American idea, and like all great American ideas, it is never static. As Richard Sellars so convincingly demonstrates, the struggle to define what, exactly, the parks are meant to preserve is an important and compelling story.  Anyone who hopes to understand the rich history of our national parks—or cares about their future—needs to read this penetrating book."—Dayton Duncan, author of The National Parks: America's Best Idea

Winner of the 1997 Authors Award in the field of natural science or history, awarded by Eastern National

Selected as one of the top 12 books on conservation by Dave Foreman of Earth First

ISBN: 9780300154146
Publication Date: October 1, 2009
440 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
25 b/w in 16-page gallery