Foreign Policy Magazine

THE Radically INTERNATIONAL History of AMERICA’S BEST IDEA

The United States may have invented national parks—but the rest of the world helped perfect them. Now, generations later, that spirit of cooperation and competition might just be the thing that saves them.

IN January 1886, a Canadian bureaucrat named John R. Hall was dispatched on an urgent mission to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Dominion government had recently protected 10 square miles outside Banff in Alberta, Canada, having learned of the “remarkable curative properties” of the area’s steamy, sulfur-rich waters. Given the close proximity to a railroad depot there, the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. had prodded the government to act in the hope that the new preserve would boost tourism on its recently completed transcontinental line.

But the cart had gotten ahead of the iron horse. Visitors who hoped the waters would restore their health began descending on the springs before the government could figure out how to manage its new possession. To further complicate things, squatters (some of whom had helped construct the railroad) had made their own claims to the land and built shacks near the springs. So, the Canadians turned their gaze south to Arkansas where the U.S. government had been running a similar operation for some 50 years; its popularity was widely known. Hall’s instructions were to study the workings of America’s first protected public land and report back on how the Yanks had done it.

Hall’s train was held up by a snowstorm in Missouri, but he eventually made it to the then-912-acre preserve in the Ouachita Mountains and promptly panned it in a note to his superiors. He declared that the springs lacked “intelligent supervision, modern appliances, cleanliness and civility.”

President Andrew Jackson had originally signed a bill setting aside the land that would become Hot Springs National Park as a federal reservation in 1832. But after enacting protections for the site, Old Hickory and Congress seem to have left the area mostly unregulated. Conditions had reached rock bottom in the years before Hall’s mission, and it was still largely a free-for-all at the time of his visit. The government had let

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Contributors
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, researching European history and politics, the development of democracy, and the history of the left. Her latest book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime