Though the National Parks Service celebrated its 100th birthday last year, our first national park, Yellowstone, was declared by President Ulysses S. Grant 145 years ago, in 1872. In 1879, only seven years later, some folks on the other side of the world followed suit. In that year, Australia created Royal National Park as the second such example of setting aside spectacular landscapes for the people. For a long time it carried the rather plain name, “The National Park,” but when Queen Elizabeth visited in 1955, it got the “Royal” treatment. Located on the coast immediately south of Sydney, it offers the residents of that large city a refuge of eucalyptus forest, wetlands, coastal heath, scenic sea cliffs, and beaches. The area originally served as a sort of a large city park for relaxation and human amusement, but later generations worked to conserve and study the natural landscape and its inhabitants.
Australia is a large country, nearly the size of the contiguous United States. It contains a lot of uninhabited land area, many parts of which have been deemed worthy of national park status. Whereas the U.S. has a list of 58 sites that it has given that accolade, Australia has over 500. The US National Park Service actually has 413 sites total, most of which have designations other than “National Park”, such as national monuments, national recreation areas and national historic sites. The U.S. parks have a total combined acreage close to 20% more than Australia’s. Many of the US parks are enormous: Wrangell-St. Elias NP in Alaska is over 20,000 square miles. But Aussie has set aside some vast tracts too. Yallabinna Regional Reserve, for instance, is no slouch at 7,726 square miles.
The organization of lands seems to be somewhat different in Australia than in the States. Their national park system includes conservation parks, recreation parks and regional reserves. Some of these allow some level of natural resource extraction, something like the U.S. National Forest system, which permits logging, mining, and grazing within forest borders. So it’s a bit of apples and oranges in the comparison, but on the whole, Australia has taken up the notion of land preservation and carried it quite far.
Australia, though second in history, wasn’t the only nation to take up the idea of national parks. Indeed, they are common throughout the world now, with different goals in different countries. National parks in Japan often seek to maintain shrines and locations of special spiritual and ancestral importance. African parks are based on providing protection to the huge herds of wildlife that wander across vast areas of their countries. As these big expenses are set aside, other less mobile species are also afforded safety. The high Himalayan peaks of Nepal’s national parks honor not only the incomparable environments that climbers covet, but show respect for natural places held sacred by the country’s people. As in the U.S., the parks in other countries sometimes experience less-than-idyllic situations. Disputes about land ownership, access, resource usage, poaching, and overuse can crop up whenever a government seeks to set limits on a stretch of its territory. But despite these conflicts, and whatever the philosophical driver of a country’s national park system, the upshot is a huge benefit for most of a nation’s citizens and especially for the local flora and fauna. It’s good to have some places where we preserve the important moments of human history, and try to keep a bit of the world looking something like it did before that history even began.