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Visitors to the parks are unaware of these tensions. For all the erosion of agency morale, the wear and tear, the backlog of uncompleted maintenance and repair projects, the widespread reductions of interpretive programs, national parks can still deliver a memorable experience. With patience and binoculars, one may now observe wolves as well as bison at Yellowstone National Park. Given gravity and sufficient precipitation, Yosemite's Bridalveil Fall will continue to ensorcell viewers for years to come. But what of some of the other values of the larger Yellowstone and Yosemite? Unspoiled habitat. Wilderness. Solitude. High country silence. Is it time to begin to wonder if we are about to lose the best of these, too?

Most historians trace the origin of America's "best idea" to the frontier artist George Catlin who, in 1832, after a tour sketching the tribes of the Great Plains, expressed hope that the government might set aside a vast section of the West for "a nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty." But it would be 32 years before the U.S. made its first tentative move in that direction, transferring a federally owned Yosemite Valley and a nearby grove of sequoias to the State of California to hold in trust for the entire nation as a place for public use and recreation. Eight years later Congress established Yellowstone as our first official national park, and Yosemite went federal as a national park in 1890.

In subsequent years, other congressional mandates authorized additional parks, battlefield sites, and memorials, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 enabled a President to proclaim a national monument on federal land without congressional consent. By 1916 the U.S. Department of the Interior had jurisdiction over 35 parks and monuments, and in August of that year President Woodrow Wilson signed an act establishing within Interior a National Park Service to manage and protect those areas and others that might be authorized in the future (such as the more than 50 monuments, military sites, and other areas it took over from the Forest Service and the War Department in the 1930s).

If any decade after that was to demonstrate how far the National Park System could move beyond its traditional image, rooted in the scenic values of the big western parks, it was the 1960s—the years of President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and a hard-charging Park Service director named George Hartzog. Udall and Hartzog wanted to break new ground, but first Congress would have to eschew its own tradition of creating parks on the cheap, either carved from existing federal lands or purchased with other people's money, principally that of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and his family. Enactment of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, primed mostly with receipts from oil and gas leasing on the outer continental shelf, soon helped the service develop a new menu of parklands: national lakeshores, wild and scenic rivers, national trails, and, last but not least in terms of visitor use and operating expense, the urban recreation areas that would fulfill Lyndon Johnson's dream of bringing nature closer to people.

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