When people try to find the answer to the question of ‘which was the world’s first national park?’ the obvious approach is to compare the dates of their establishment. Hence we have Yellowstone National Park established in 1872 and Royal (as ‘National Park’) in 1879.
The fact is though that in these two instances ‘national park’ was used to mean two different things as follows:
1) In the case of Yellowstone the term was used to mean that unlike the earlier park at Yosemite, which was granted by the US Congress to the State of California in 1864 it was to be a park under federal jurisdiction (there were no States at Yellowstone to grant the land to and two of the territories in which the land was located were vying for its control). Similarly there was no general legislation under which it could have been established, hence the special Act of Congress under which it was set aside;
2) In the case of what is now Royal National Park the term ‘national park’ was used to indicate a new type of land use. It was set aside under general New South Wales legislation (The Crown Lands Alienation Act, 1861) providing for the establishment of reserves on public land;
3) So, whereas the land in Yellowstone National Park had been set aside in 1872 as “a public park or pleasuring ground”, the land at National Park/Royal National Park was set aside in 1879 “for the purpose of a national park”. Both parks were given a name that included the words ‘National Park’.
So, the more accurate answer to the question we have posed is that both Yellowstone and Royal were first in different ways. At Yellowstone ‘National Park’ was used to indicate federal control and at Royal ‘national park’ was used to indicate a new form of land use on public lands. It is interesting to note that this difference was understood by Yellowstone in 1972 when it celebrated its centenary. In the centenary publication Yellowstone a Century of the Wilderness Idea the book makes the point that the first time the words national park were used in the land use sense described above was at Royal National Park. As the national park systems spread out across the US, Australia and the world both Yellowstone and Royal played an inspirational role and it is regrettable, that, applying the US concept of a national park as one requiring federal control (or control by the highest authority in the nation), the importance of the Australian innovation and subsequent record of achievement has sometimes been not properly understood.
We hope that has answered your curiosity about this matter but if you would like to delve further into the history of the establishment of these two important parks you can find more in The First National Park A Natural for World Heritage published by the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre in 2012 www.ssec.org.au