National Parks and Nature Reserves

In 1830 the American painter and author George Catlin (1796–1872) set off on a journey up the Mississippi River into Native American lands at the start of a diplomatic mission led by General William Clark (1770–1838). By 1836 Catlin had visited 50 tribes, and in the following two years he visited 18 more on a journey up the Missouri River. As he went, Catlin painted some of the people he met, and when his travels ended he exhibited his paintings in the United States and later across Europe.

Catlin’s primary aim was to earn a living from his paintings, at which he was not very successful, but he also had another purpose. He had realized that the westward expansion of agriculture, which would soon be followed by industry and urbanization, threatened the way of life of the peoples he had grown to admire. He believed they should be protected, and to this end he proposed the creation of a national park that would allow people and wildlife to flourish undisturbed.

A version of Catlin’s idea aroused interest, and in 1864 Congress presented an area of land to the state of California to be preserved as a state park. The state park was then enlarged and it became a national park on October 20, 1890. On March 1, 1872, an act of Congress designated land near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, as a public park, making Yellowstone the world’s first national park.

Yosemite and Sequoia national parks were designated in 1890 and others followed. The first forest reserve was established in 1891, and the first national wildlife refuge in 1903. The United States now has 6,770 areas of federal protected lands with a combined area of more than 1 million square miles (26 million km2). The Royal National Park, established in 1879, was the first in Australia, and in 1885 the Rocky Mountains National Park became Canada’s first national park. Sweden was the first European country to designate national parks, in 1909. Today, worldwide, there are more than 6,500 national parks—the largest of which is Northeast Greenland National Park, which covers 375,000 square miles (972,000 km2). There are now national parks on every continent, and in Africa there are also game reserves set aside for that continent’s large mammals.

National parks protect the landscapes, wildlife, and natural features of relatively large areas. Nature reserves protect particular habitats and the species they sustain. Many are small in area and they are widely scattered, but their combined area is considerable. Germany, for instance, has 5,314 nature reserves with a total area of 2,642 square miles (6,845 km2).

Areas of worldwide importance for biodiversity may be designated as biosphere reserves under the Program on Man and the Biosphere administered by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Biosphere reserves may be on land or at sea; the aim of identifying them is to promote and demonstrate a balanced relationship between humans and the biosphere, and under the official regulations governing the scheme, in order to qualify an area must “encompass a mosaic of ecological systems.” There are 531 biosphere reserves in 105 countries. The United States has 47 and Canada has 15. The United Kingdom has 10.

There is now a worldwide network of land and sea areas that are afforded protection from exploitation that might damage their wildlife. This helps greatly in preserving species and habitats—in protecting biodiversity.