National parks, as their name implies, have been inextricably connected to the history of the nation state. In the United States, perhaps more than anywhere else, national parks have become a source of patriotic pride, highlighting not only the grandeur and diversity of the national landscape, but also the benevolent farsightedness of the Federal Government in preserving the “American” environment. The executive summary of the recently published Second Century Report (2009) begins with distinctly nationalist language: “Americans have a deep and enduring love for the national parks, places we treasure because they embody our highest ideas and values. National parks tell our stories and speak of our identity as a people and as a nation.” Even revisionist scholars who have challenged the triumphalist narratives of national park history tend to work within the framework of the nation state. But given our increasing awareness of global interconnectedness – particularly within the field of environmental history – is this national framework fully satisfactory for a historical understanding of national parks? How American, in other words, is “America’s Best Idea”?
Using global histories of U.S. national parks as a focus, this project sets out to think about how we can write environmental histories of national parks that go beyond the nation state. One of the claims often made about environmental history is that it transcends national boundaries: the nation is seldom the central actor in histories of acid rain, global warming, or the loss of biodiversity. One of the potential consequences of applying environmental history scholarship to the study of national parks might be that it unsettles the national framework within which this history is often told.
Rather than coming into the project with pre-determined ideas of what global histories of U.S. national parks will look like, the aim is to allow these histories to emerge organically through archival research and discussion. The project will raise numerous questions. What has been the influence of non-U.S. ideas and practices on the history of U.S. national parks? How have U.S. national parks influenced the history of conservation and environmentalism beyond the frontiers of the United States? How have policies first enacted in the United States physically changed environments throughout the world? Is there a Cold War history to be written of the national parks? Is this truly a global history? It is possible that attempts to write the history of national parks beyond the nation will in fact reinforce the idea that the nation state should be a central category of analysis for writing national park history. Or the project could fundamentally destabilize the idea of the nation within national parks scholarship. Throughout the project there will be a real sense that this is an open discussion in which the conclusions will not be predetermined.