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Tourism and Conservation in the National Parks

This digital teaching collection investigates the topics of tourism and conservation in U.S. National Parks between 1897-1932.

Overview Essay

In 1872, the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park as a “public park...for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and placed it under the purview of the Secretary of the Interior. Yellowstone was the first of many national parks, historic sites, and monuments to be set aside for public use by the United States government. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service to manage these federal lands. The enabling legislation of the National Park Service, referred to as the Organic Act of 1916, defines its primary functions to “promote and regulate the use of Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations … [and] conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the 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.”¹

The materials in this primary source set come from the Abby Williams Hill and John M. Canse collections. Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943) was a landscape painter who worked primarily in the American West. In the 1920s and 30s, she undertook a project to paint the national parks in the West. Hill was an avid outdoorswoman and a passionate advocate for the parks. She felt that increased tourism within the parks was causing damage to the natural environment and blamed both the tourists and federal officials for this problem. John M. Canse (1869 - unknown) was a pastor for the University Methodist Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. Canse collected pamphlets, books, and maps on the history and development of cities and counties in Washington and Oregon, as well as materials on railroads, highways, bridges, and national parks. 

The documents in this source set relate to the national parks with a particular focus on the tension between conservation and public enjoyment of the lands. The many guidebooks included here illustrate how the United States government, businesses such as railroads and tourism companies, and others constructed the natural environment and the various ways in which visitors were encouraged to experience the parks.


¹"National Park Service Organic Act." Environmental Issues: Essential Primary Sources, edited by Brenda Wilmoth Lerner and K. Lee Lerner, Gale, 2006, pp. 286-289. Gale eBooks, Accessed 12 April 2021.