Author Mark Fiege will peel back the layers of national park history
Presentation will focus on global legacy
Historian, author and national park expert Mark Fiege believes many people who visit national parks in the United States sees them as simple, but powerful expressions of American ideas and uniqueness.
“But if you peel back the layers of what they are and why they were established, you can see more complicated hidden histories,” Fiege said during an interview with The Park Record. “I think when you examine the history of U.S. national parks in a global framework, you get a deeper appreciation for them.”
Fiege, a professor of history at Montana State University, will discuss the beauty, reasoning and legacy of national parks and their complex relationship to the United States and the world at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Swaner EcoCenter, 1250 Center Drive at Kimball Junction.
The event, which is part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival, is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are required. To RSVP, visit http://www.swanerecocenter.org.
Fiege is the author of the book “Republic of Nature” and an editor — along with colleagues Adrian Howkins and Jared Orsi — of “National Parks: Beyond the Nation,” which is a collection of essays that looks at the international impact of national parks.
Both books will be included in the discussion, but Fiege said he would focus on the essays the latter.
“Given the ways that public lands are in the news right now, (Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter Executive Director) Nell Larson and I thought it would be better to focus on the essays,” Fiege said.
The discussion was also spurred by last year’s centennial of the United States National Park Service, and some of the programs that former director Jonathan Jarvis implemented to get visitors to the parks.
“He spearheaded the ‘Find Your Park’ campaign, which was designed to generate interest in the National Parks,” Fiege said.
That program may have worked because most of the national parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Montana, which has seen spikes in visitation, Fiege said.
“I lived in Colorado for 22 years and did a lot of work with people there, and in the last three years, visitation has increased 40 percent,” he said. “Yellowstone and Glacier national parks up here in Montana had similar spikes.”
Another factor that may have increased national park visitation is the national political climate.
“My feeling is that right now people are feeling disoriented,” Fiege said. “Our country and our political system is not working in many ways, and we seem to be a divided society.
“I’ve heard this from others, that people are trying to find ways to stabilize their senses of themselves and who they are as Americans,” he said. “I wonder, as it has happened in the past, when the U.S. extends itself abroad and gets itself into a little trouble people try to recover what they think is essential about being an American. Oftentimes that leads them into discovering local folk culture or regional history, what we used to call Americana.”
This interested Fiege because there was a slump in national park visitation 10 years ago that many historians said was caused by the recession and rising gas prices.
“The fear in the National Park Service was that the parks were losing their meaning with [younger people], but less than a decade later, I was finding the opposite. National Parks are being swamped by visitors, and I think the parks are being redefined by the young people and new populations.
“I’ve been doing this research at Sequoia National Park in the summer of 2016 and last summer, and was able to go to the park archive and researched a bunch of documents that went back to the park’s beginning,” he said. “I noticed that the majority of the population of California is non white, and I thought that was reflective of park visitation, based on who I saw at the campgrounds and who I crossed paths with.”
While Fiege will address his visitation findings, he will also discuss the experiences of other nations that have national parks in relationship to the belief that national parks were uniquely an American idea and creation.
“Now, was that really true?” Fiege asked rhetorically. “The U.S. National Park Service will say the idea originated here at Yellowstone. And that’s the mystique, but for the book, we invited scholars, some from foreign countries, whose specialties were national park histories of other countries.”
The essays were about Africa, Latin America, South Asia, Canada, Mexico and the United States.
“What we found that debating the whole notion that national parks was a one-nation idea isn’t very productive, because the light bulbs were clicking around the world at the same time during the late 19th century,” Fiege said. “People began to imagine setting aside natural areas for their beauty, wildlife and undeveloped values. Now, whether or not they were able to institutionalize those impulses and visions is another matter.”
One essay that caught Fiege’s attention was written by Alan MacEachern, professor of history at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.
“His essay is titled ‘Canada’s Best Idea?’ and it goes on to talk about Parks Canada, which is Canada’s national park service, which was founded in 1911 — five years before the U.S. National Park Service,” Fiege said. “So the question begs, was creating national parks purely an idea that came from the United States?”
The issues that emerged in these essays aren’t there to undermine the U.S. National Park Service, Fiege said.
“They were there to put things in perspective and show what was going on around the world and put things into a global framework,” he said. “It shows that U.S. national parks were not created in isolation, but in relationship to the world.”
The book opens with introductions by Fiege, Orsi and Howkins. Fiege’s introduction was about Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington.
Fiege said he sees it as a “global” national park because of all the international influences that have touched it over the years.
“The people who first lived there were an unusually dense concentration of indigenous people,” he said. “Also, the name of the mountain itself is named after a British admiral, (Peter Rainier) who fought against the U.S. patriots during the Revolutionary War.”
Adding to the international connections, Fiege learned that Rainier’s family were Huguenot refugees from France.
“So here is this mountain and national park named after this guy who fought against the colonists and whose family was from France,” he said with a laugh.
Another international link is the many Japanese who immigrated to the Puget Sound area.
“When they saw Mount Rainier, they thought of another volcano, Mount Fuji, in Japan,” Fiege said. “In fact, they sometimes called Mount Rainier ‘Takoma Fuji,’ and by the 1930s Rainier National Park and Fuji National Park had a sister-park relationship.”
Another issue Fiege wants to touch on is how national parks were sometimes set up for political reasons.
Sometimes they, like the ones in Africa, which, according to Fiege, have been sites of considerable violence, started as colonial impositions on local peoples to restrict their access to resources.
“One of the emerging criticisms of U.S. national parks, especially extensive natural wilderness parks, have not done a great job of preserving native culture, in comparison to some national parks in New Zealand, which preserve and promote the Maori culture.”
Most national parks in the Far West were premised on the removal of Native peoples from the areas, Fiege said. Fiege went on to say that some places, such as Bears Ears National Monument, are a hotbed of political contention, with the Navajo Nation threatening to sue the Trump Administration if it reduces the area.
“Also, various Native tribes have also proposed a name change to Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park,” Fiege said. “They are doing this because the explorer Ferdinand Hayden was a proponent of getting rid of Native people in the area.”
Fiege believes Native Americans only want to a greater say in these areas, based on their historic connections to the landscapes.
That said, national parks all over the world do have the potential to create unity and peace, he said.
“When you look at Mount Rainier and the sister park relationship with Mount Fuji National Park, you can see that there is an idea that national parks are a way for different societies to reach out to one another to find something that is integral and common to each to build a better future,” he said. “This is what intrigues me. This is why national parks are so complicated.”
Author and historian Mark Fiege will give a presentation about national parks at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Swaner EcoCenter, 1250 Center Drive at Kimball Junction. Although the event is free, registration is required. To register, visit Swaner’s wesbite.
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