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Recreating the wilderness—climate change challenges management of National Parks

1904 painting of Yellowstone National Park

When Central Park was created in New York City in 1857, the parks landscape designers—Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux—chose the picturesque style popular in England at the time for country estates. Subsequently, the development of a conservation ethic during the last half of the 19th century—Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and Yosemite National Park was established in 1890—greatly influenced landscape designs for public parks. By the end of the 19th century, the prevailing landscape style had evolved from the “picturesque” to one of “wilderness.”

Just north of Boston, Massachusetts, the City of Lynn underwent rapid expansion during the Industrial Revolution primarily as it became a center of shoe manufacturing. The resulting population growth led some civic-minded individuals to call for the establishment of a public park to provide the city-bound factory workers with access to the benefits of nature. In 1881, a group formed the Trustees of the Free Public Forest and purchased 2,200-acres of land in the northwest portion of the city—which at the time represented approximately 30% of the total land area of the city—for a public park. Consulting with Olmsted, who realized the park land already contained many of the “natural” features sought out by landscape designers, the Park Commissioners decided to adapt the prevailing wilderness style to the design of what became known as Lynn Woods Reservation.

In Washington, DC, the US Congress in 1890 designated a 2,000-parcel of land abutting Rock Creek (a tributary of the Potomac River) as an urban public park, the first urban national park created by the US Congress. In 1913, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was created to provide for pleasure driving for the city’s inhabitants through the “natural” landscape encompassed in Rock Creek Park.

While the goal of protecting natural landscapes as “wilderness” is indeed laudable, many of these wilderness areas are actually the result of heavy human intervention and are not “wild” at all. For example, Everglades National Park is undergoing the largest ecosystem restoration program in US history. Now, environmental effects from climate change are providing national park managers with a conundrum. How to balance human eco-management with the goal of protecting national parks in their so-called “natural” state? (The image of a 1904 painting of Yellowstone National Park above is in the public domain).


The National Parks Face a Looming Existential Crisis

By Madeline Ostrander, Undark Magazine

Republished on

September 14, 2017

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