Public Lands in the United States, Part Two: The Conservation Turn and ‘America’s Best Idea’

As Western expansion reached its geographic terminus, the U.S. government began tightening rules around land use and designating protected areas such as national parks and wilderness areas, often displacing local Native Americans in favor of a Wester

7 minute read

July 17, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Blackfoot memorial statue in Glacier National Park of Native American sitting on horse

A memorial statue in Glacier National Park, where Blackfeet residents were displaced during the park's formation. | Kit Leong / Adobe Stock

This is Part Two of a series. Read Part One here.

As the seemingly endless, wide-open expanse of the American frontier rapidly shrank with the advent of railroads and a growing population of European settlers hungry for land and livelihood, the U.S. government began to shift its land policy from a mindset of exploitation and expansion to one of conservation and regulation. Rather than parceling out vast tracts to farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders, the federal government began establishing protections for public lands, tasking agencies with preserving spaces for recreation or government uses, and limiting the activities legal on public lands.

Needless to say, this awakening to the scarcity of natural resources and the value of conservation came after a long period of wanton extraction, destruction of species and habitats, and appropriation of land from indigenous residents, who were not consulted on matters of land use. The creation of protected lands, hailed as a victory for conservation, recreation, and tourism, perpetuated a policy of removal and displacement of native people.

By the late 1800s, conservation-minded Americans worried about the rapid development of land and the exploitation of resources. Yet the country’s first national park was born, ironically, out of a desire to boost tourism and development in the surrounding area. Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, when Montana and Wyoming were still territories, after reports from a federally funded expedition by Ferdinand Hayden revealed the park’s natural beauty and rich resources and brought interest from government officials, tourism boosters, and ordinary Americans. The park, more than twice the size of Rhode Island, gave the Department of the Interior unprecedented power over federal territory and was criticized for going against the 1862 Homestead Act by barring white Americans from owning land inside the park.

As the deceptively wide expanse of the American frontier closed in, the federal government slowly limited the power of individual settlers, shifting to a mindset that prioritized land use planning and strategic conservation and use of public lands. At the same time, the invention of barbed wire led to stricter boundaries between properties and the end of open range grazing policies that had, officially or unofficially, dominated ranching in the West. This conservation effort also came in the form of the displacement of indigenous residents who occupied the land. The designation of Yellowstone also denied the rights of local Native Americans, the Očéthi Šakówiŋ, who could have laid claim to the Yellowstone Basin under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Native tribes like the Miwok, who lived in the Yosemite Valley, were brutally exterminated in military campaigns and eventually driven into reservations and forced to perform aspects of their culture for economic survival, a policy practiced throughout the country. The last Native residents of Yosemite were expelled in 1969. Native people were not included in discussions about national parks, with treaties and negotiations often presented in English. Broken treaties abounded. For many, conservation was just another instrument of colonialism, a paternalistic approach to land management that ignored centuries of indigenous interaction with the land.

In some cases, the effort to return the land to its natural state threatened to erase the history of regional settler groups. In the 1930s, Shenandoah National Park was created from 3,000 tracts of land, resulting in the displacement of at least 500 families.

After Yellowstone, more national parks were created before the turn of the 20th century, including Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in California, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, and Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. In 1891, the Forest Reserves Act—the precursor to today’s National Forests—was passed, giving the president the power to create forest reserves.  The 1906 Antiquities Act establishes protection for “prehistoric, historic, and scientifically significant sites,” letting the President create national monuments without an act of Congress.

While well intentioned from a conservation standpoint, designating parks and other public lands before creating agencies to manage and guide their development meant that economic interests and a patchwork of enforcement dominated early public land tenure. By 1916, the need for an oversight body became clear, and the National Park Service was formed, the only federal agency to include “enjoyment” in its mission. The concept of national parks took off, with more than 100 countries adopting a national park system today.

In the 1920s, the NPS heavily promoted the parks, espousing their natural wonders and encouraging Americans to travel to see them on the nation’s newly expanded railways. When the Great Depression hit, tourism ground to a halt—but the economic downturn became one of the most prolific periods for park development in the system’s history. Among the agencies founded during the Great Depression by President Franklin Roosevelt to combat the economic crisis was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided thousands of jobs building and maintaining infrastructure in the nation’s public lands and parks.

In the first decades of the 20th century, a series of laws related to grazing, mining, timber, and conservation authorized and regulated the use of public lands for specific extractive and recreational purposes. The national parks and monuments were further consolidated under the NPS in 1933, when the Reorganization Act brought more historic and military sites under the national parks umbrella and added a stronger focus on historic preservation to the agency’s mission. This legislation and the creation of the CCC in the same year led to a boom in the building of visitor facilities, trail and road construction, and park expansion and planning. Conservationists like the Emergency Conservation Committee warned that too many backcountry areas were being opened up to tourism and overdeveloped with roads, museums, park staff housing, and other facilities.

The Park, Parkway, and Recreation Area Study Act of 1936 acknowledged the need for recreational areas within reach of all Americans and commissioned a study to assess potential additions to the national parks system for this purpose. By 1945, 200 million acres of U.S. land were preserved as National Forests, Parks, Wildlife Refuges, or Department of Defense lands. After World War II, the federal government withdrew around 13 million acres of public land for military uses.

Federal public lands weren’t just reserved for recreation or conservation. Lands administered by different agencies enjoy different protections, with wilderness areas having the strictest rules.

  • National parks and preserves are designated through acts of Congress. Mining and oil drilling are generally banned and there are strict regulations on recreational activities.
  • National forests are available for grazing, timber, and wildlife conservation in addition to recreation. They allow a wider range of recreational uses such as off-road vehicles.
  • National wildlife refuges are managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They provide recreational opportunities while maintaining a focus on wildlife conservation.
  • National conservation areas and national conservation lands are also designated by Congress and administered by the BLM.
  • National monuments protect cultural or historic resources. Designation as a national monument can also be a pathway to becoming a full-fledged national park, which was the case for parks like the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Wilderness areas are heavily protected from development and lack roads, buildings, or other permanent facilities.
  • National historic sites, memorials, and battlefields preserve and commemorate sites of historic importance.
  • National recreation areas are lands specifically located near major reservoirs that offer water-related recreational activities. Similarly, national seashores and lakeshores protect shorelines for conservation and recreation.
  • Wild and scenic rivers are free-flowing, undammed and unaltered waterways. 

In 1946, the Bureau of Land Management was created, consolidating the General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service under the Department of the Interior. Lands held by the BLM permit a wide variety of extractive and recreational uses, including grazing and shooting. The Homestead laws that had allowed American settlers to claim land in the West were repealed in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which calls for keeping federal lands under federal ownership and establishing land use regulations. As awareness of environmental concerns grew, legislation like the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act and others created new avenues for land conservation and imposed regulations on land use, establishing some of the categories listed above.

Where once it (almost) freely distributed land and privileged extractive industries like mining, ranching, and development, the U.S. government’s tightening restrictions around public lands and resource management incited backlash from the people and industries displaced or economically impacted by the new policies. Next time, we’ll explore the late 20th century Sagebrush Rebellion, an era of high tensions between ranchers and other property owners and the federal government.


Diana Ionescu

Diana is a writer and urbanist passionate about public space, historical memory, and transportation equity. Prior to joining Planetizen, she started and managed a farmers' market and worked as a transportation planner in the bike share industry. She is Planetizen's editor as of January 2022.

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