When President Ulysses Grant established Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, he helped introduce a new concept to the West. By setting Yellowstone aside as the first American park, Grant provided the foundation for modern conservationism and environmentalism through the celebration of land’s inherent qualities, not its material usefulness. Since then, governments have traditionally been the stewards of protected land; however, mismanagement has shifted responsibility toward dedicated organizations and individuals, solidifying the presence of nature in our increasingly material lives.  

Despite a growing population and increasing demand for natural resources, protected lands have more than tripled since 1980. Fifteen percent of land and 12 percent of oceans are currently preserved, showing the widespread influence of Grant’s Yellowstone decision. Unfortunately, some of this expansion has come with questionable intentions.

An analysis in The Washington Post by Prakash Kashwan shows that authoritarian governments can establish sanctuaries to gain international legitimacy. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for example, used her environmental record to buffer criticism of human rights violations during the 1970s. These protected lands can come at the expense of indigenous and impoverished populations.

Sometimes, protected lands are “protected” in name only. In August, Brazilian President Michel Temer, desperate for political allies and cash, granted mining and logging companies access to conservation units and indigenous reserves in the Amazon rainforest. Ecological destruction and human rights violations represent the polar opposite of what is intended by conservation and demanded by protection.

Rare animals, palm oil, marble and other extractive resources have driven violence against rangers and protectors — usually indigenous peoples — in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Guardian reported four “environmental defenders” were killed weekly in 2017 — quadruple the total from 2002. Without support, poor communities are forced to fight industrial interests at the forefront of the battle for nature.

Environmental health is essential for the prosperity of all. Though the Amazon, for example, is in South America, it is part of a larger ecosystem that encompasses the entire planet.  Natural systems cross political boundaries and man-made divisions. All humans are part of this global ecosystem; the fight to protect its sanctity should be equally shared.

A promising private conservation trend has emerged, sometimes in coordination with governments. South American nations are leading in this method. In January, five national parks were created in Chile, aided by a donation of over 1 million acres from Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the former CEO of Patagonia. Before becoming Chile’s president, billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera converted a quarter-million acres on Chiloe Island into a private park with paid admission. Last December, 370,000 acres were donated to the government of Argentina for Iberá National Park.

In the United States, land trusts own and conserve 56 million acres, twice the combined area of national parks in the contiguous United States. These territories, which have expanded by almost 20 percent in five years, receive millions of visitors and financial supporters every year. Despite moves by the U.S. government to decrease the amount of federally protected land, the actions of local groups and concerned individuals give hope for the future.

These investments are not done solely by wealthy philanthropists, either. Through The World Land Trust, people can buy a quarter-acre of rainforest in Ecuador and Mexico for about $35, creating preserved land. Across the world, individuals are ensuring conservation regardless of the political winds.

Yellowstone was supposed to make us stop valuing nature for its utility to humans. It was made to amaze future generations with its unparalleled beauty. Yet, political gain continues to be a contributing force for the establishment of parks, sometimes at the cost of ancient lifestyles and the environment it was intended to protect.

Despite obstructions from those seeking short-term profit, the desire of average people to protect nature honors the decision to create national parks. As the face of conservation transforms, Yellowstone continues to lead the way as an inspiration.

Nabil Kapasi is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. This Week in History appears online every other Thursday.

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