World spread of National Parks

Yes, our Royal was undoubtedly the first dedicated national park in Australia AND, we can claim, first in the world.

But, instead of being brashly nationalistic about this claim, let’s try more maturely to fit Australia’s achievement into the great world movement for national parks in the 19th century.

In other words, let’s make a historian’s distinction between event and process. “Events” are the surface of history, whereas “Process” is the depth. Process is what leads up to an event, plus the event itself, plus what flows from the event. For example, decades of national antagonisms led to the event World War I and then carried-over only twenty years later to World War II – showing how shallow is an exclusive focus on event.

Quiet remarkably, just a hundred years after NSW’s foundation, some leading citizens and MPs dedicated our park in 1879 as ”National Park”, in precisely those words. Bear in mind that up to Federation in 1901, NSW was a sovereign state within the British Empire, you might say “a nation”. (“Royal” was added in 1955, after young Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1954.)

Origins? Since ancient Greece, there’ve been instances of setting aside unspoiled national areas as reserves, refuges, parks or even “the king’s forest”. But the modern “national park” concept required “to be enjoyed by the people” – and dedicated as such by a government.

Not surprisingly, the modern movement arose in the 19th century, reacting to that century’s population explosion, urban explosion, industrial explosion.

Poets and artists were first to express the need: William Wordsworth in 1810 hoped England’s Lakes District would be a “sort of natural property in which every man had a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”.

USA. President Andrew Jackson set aside land in Arkansas in 1832 to protect thermal springs and mountainsides. In 1864 a large Yosemite Public Park was set aside and in 1872 Yellowstone State Park (not termed “national” till later). Yosemite became “national” in 1890, as did also the large Sequoia reserve.

Canada. Rocky Mountains National Park (Banff), 1885.

New Zealand. Tongariro National Park, 1887.

Sweden. Nine parks set aside, 1909.

In the 20th century, thousands of national parks have been dedicated, especially after World War II.

Note. The national parks movement has never been a breeze: bitter opposition has often come from profit-motivated property developers, miners and loggers; and even when dedication has been won, opponents have often striven to sequester areas.

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