The origins of the national park idea lie in North America, where the world’s first national park was founded in Yellowstone in 1872. Europe followed with its first national parks in 1909 in Sweden and 1914 in Switzerland. In 1970 the Bavarian Forest National Park became the first German national park to be established. Worldwide there are now more than 3,800 national parks in over 120 countries. In the meantime the number of national parks in Germany has risen to 14.
The national parks of North America are today also regarded as “America’s best idea” and as the crown jewels of that continent. National parks were however, then as now, the battlefields of the nature conservation movement. Some 140 years ago a battle raged as to whether the monumental natural wonders of the United States should be left to a few profiteers for exploitation or be protected in trust by the state for the whole of mankind for all time. The search for an unmistakeable national identity provided the initial impulse for the protection of great landscapes. It is the vision of great men such as John Muir and Stephen Mather that we have to thank that the national park idea was brought to fruition and that all forms of exploitation and depletion were ruled out forever on these large areas.
At the time national parks were not established primarily as refuges for the wild animals within them, but rather for human society as “pleasuring grounds for the enjoyment and benefit of the people”.
To the extent in which people‘s perception of the environment has changed, national parks in the USA and later also in Europe became increasingly important for the protection of wilderness, wild animals, and ecological processes. With the advance of ecology the recognition gradually took hold that everything in a national park is connected, and that ultimately it is the processes in their entirety that we must protect.
This signalled a radical change in our understanding of nature. It meant that wild game should no longer be fed and hunted, but that animals should go their own way, in harmony with nature. It meant, that in the boreal coniferous forest zones natural fires play an important role in the regeneration of the forests, and that they should not be categorically be quelled in national parks. And finally we in central Europe have also leant that natural events such as storms and snow damage, together with insect infestations and fungus disease, are significant factors in the natural development of forests, which should in the wider protection of the planet’s biological diversity be regarded as advantageous rather than disadvantageous.
Today national parks are theatres that enable us to look deeper into nature and teach us, what they mean for the human soul.