Royal & Yellowstone — The World’s First National Parks

Janine Kitson, Member of the National Parks Association of NSW

Based on the NPA course presented to the WEA, Sydney on 4 March, 2017. With special thanks to Robert Crombie, Sutherland Shire Environment Centre.

In 1879 NSW led the world by establishing Royal National Park – then known as ‘The National Park’. This was Australia’s first official national park and one of the first national parks in the world. The first national park in the world was Yellowstone, created in 1872. Sydney’s National Park was renamed ‘Royal National Park’ in 1955 in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s 1954 Australian tour.

These first national parks ignited a new paradigm for both Australia and the US on how the environment was viewed, valued and protected.  In many ways the concept of national parks was revolutionary because it prioritised the protection of nature over extraction and production.  Both Royal and Yellowstone inspired people around the globe to call for more national parks, and protection and management of natural areas by government agencies.

Both parks are highly significant for their Indigenous heritage.  The colonial powers saw Australia as an empty place—terra nullius—and the Dharawal people who lived in the area of Southern Sydney were removed from their traditional lands, which they had inhabited for thousands of years.  The Board for the Protection of Aborigines was established in NSW in 1883.  The Board forced Aboriginal peoples onto reserves and had enormous controls over their lives. The American Indians were decimated by smallpox, warfare, and food shortages as the buffalo was hunted by Europeans to near extinction.

Promoting nature

Thomas Moran’s celebrated 1872 painting The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone showcased Yellowstone’s dramatic, spectacular and sublime scenery with its geysers, hot springs, and waterfalls.  These spectacular natural monuments were imbued with heroic qualities of American exceptionalism and nationalism.  America, emerging from its Civil War, needed a vision to unify the nation.  America also wanted to distinguish itself from its European past with its castles, cathedrals and grand history.  America now claimed it had the ‘best’ Nature in the world.  Railway barons marketed the slogan ‘See American First’– making mass tourism to national parks profitable up until WWII.

In the collections of the National Museum of Australia there is a simple 19th Century postcard of Royal National Park. This postcard reveals a pleasant and calming view of a walking track with a rustic hand-made hand rail and views to a pleasant tree lined river.  A charming place to visit, picnic and enjoy.  This postcard, in its day, was effectively an advertisement that promoted the National Park’s affordability and accessibility as a restful and relaxing place for ordinary working families to get away from the overcrowded, unhealthy and polluted inner city of Sydney.

An English model

The model for Australia’s first National Park – Royal National Park – emerged out of 19th Century England’s Parks and Playground movement that recognised the value of Nature with its trees, clean air and green open spaces, and how they were important for human health and well-being.  Natural areas became an antidote to the explosion of factories and pollution impacting on urban life. As early as 1824 the 486 hectare Bundanoon Gully Reserve was set aside as a ‘government reserve’ to ensure its scenic values were protected.

NSW Premier, Sir John Robertson (1816-1891), established The National Park.  With the consolidation of the railway network, the urban masses were able to afford to travel and spend a day in its pleasure and picnic grounds rowing, playing cricket and enjoying walks. Recreation was seen as vital for healthy citizens and particularly healthy children.

Yellowstone emerged when it dawned upon Americans that the ‘glory’ of conquering the Wild West was near completion. Some, however, realised the cost that came with the ruthless and excessive plunder of forests, prairies and wildlife and Indigenous peoples.

Despite the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, rampant poaching continued even after the US Army was called in to manage the park in 1886.  George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938) founder of the early conservation group, the Audubon Society (1886), worked with Theodore Roosevelt to create the Boone & Crockett Club and together they lobbied for legislation to preserve the few remaining buffalo in Yellowstone National Park.  Finally the Lacey Act in 1894 gave Yellowstone caretakers the authority to arrest and prosecute poachers.  Republican Theodore Roosevelt went on to declare many more protected parks and forests and is often referred to as America’s greatest ‘conservationist president’.

Ecosystems in balance

Sydney’s Acclimatisation Movement was keen to introduce exotic animals into Royal National Park.  Deer were introduced when the park opened and remain a problem to this day. However, the enthusiasm for introduced European animals soured by the end of the 19th Century when the few rabbits released in Geelong reached plague proportions for the continent and contributed to the severity of the 1890s drought.

What surrounds national parks is vital for wildlife.  Yellowstone National Park is recognised as existing within a critical Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Even General Phillip H. Sheridan, renowned for his brutal military campaigns during the Civil War and Indian Wars, recognised that Yellowstone was too small, and in 1882 called for the Park’s boundaries to be extended.  He understood that its migratory wildlife needed to leave the high country in winter and travel to the plains.  This proposal to enlarge the park failed.   Today this remains a festering problem as pastoral fences and suburbia encroach on the migratory lands of the animals that need to pass through these areas.

Royal National Park, as one of the first national parks in the world, is extraordinarily unique being in the heart of a major capital city.  It forms part of a wildlife arc that joins with the Blue Mountains National Park in the west and Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in the north.

Pressure from urban development

Today, encroaching pressure for urban development is negatively impacting on both Royal and Yellowstone National Parks.  As Sydney’s population grows, Royal National Park and its surrounding areas face increasing pressures for higher density development that fragment these critical wildlife corridors.

Some say national parks were one of America’s best ideas.  Perhaps it is time to start saying that national parks are one of Australia’s best ideas!  There are calls for Royal National Park to be World Heritage Listed.  Good reasons when one begins to understand just how significant Royal was – Australia’s first national park, a place that was important for the beginning of Australia’s conservation movement, and one of the first national parks in the world.  These remarkable achievements led to a worldwide movement for national parks that then led to many becoming World Heritage for their spectacular natural and cultural contributions – including 19 sites in Australia.  However the political will for World Heritage listings for places in Australia, such as Royal National Park, The Eucalypt Forests of Northeast NSW, the Australian Alps, Lake Eyre, and Antarctica, have stalled. In our current global climate emergency never has it been more urgent to protect, connect and restore our global natural heritage.


Peter Coates, Nature, Western Attitudes since Ancient Times, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.

Bob Crombie, “The Royal Reserves are Naturals for World Heritage”, Australian Wildlife, Vol. 1 Summer, 2014, pages 8-16.

Bob Crombie, “Bewildering and Living with Nature”, 2014.

Dayton Duncan, The National Parks, America’s Best Idea, An Illustrated History, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011.

Daniel Lunney, “Integrating History and Ecological Thinking: Royal National Park in Historical Perspective”, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales 136, 157-199. 2014.

Geoff Mosley, The First National Park, A Natural for World Heritage, Sutherland Shire Environment Centre, 2012.

Michael Punke, Last Stand, George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West, The Borough Press, Republished 2016.

David Quammen, “Yellowstone America’s Wild Idea”, Journal of the National Geographic Society, May 2016, Vol 229 Number 5.

Lee Rhiannon, “Royal National Park”, Parliamentary Speech, 11 October, 2011.

Libby Robin, “Being first: why the Americans needed it, and why Royal National Park didn’t stand in their way”, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia Research Centre, Canberra.

Garry Wotherspoon, ‘Epidemics’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008.

Bob & Ann Young, “Understanding the Scenery, Royal National Park and Heathcote National Park”, envirobook, Annandale, 2006.

Royal & Yellowstone National Parks Timeline

  • 1820s  Squatters spread across NSW taking the best arable soils for farming and grazing and discarding the infertile sandstone soils that are now treasured National Parks: Royal, Blue Mountains, Ku-ring-gai and Sydney Harbour.
  • 1824    Bundanoon Gully Reserve protected for its scenic values.
  • 1850s  Gold Rushes.  Sydney’s population quadruples from 1861 (56,000) to 1881 (221,000).
  • 1870s  Concern that Sydney’s sanitation, overcrowding and pollution is responsible for high child mortality.
  • 1872    US President Ulysses S. Grant establishes Yellowstone as a place “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”  Yellowstone not eligible to become a state park as the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming had yet been formed.
  • 1878    R M Collins, born into one of Queensland’s oldest pastoral families, begins campaigning for McPherson Range (Lamington) National Park after visiting Yellowstone in USA.  He is elected to Queensland Parliament and campaigns for legislation to establish national parks, finally adopted in 1906.   Romeo Lahey continues the campaign for national parks in Queensland.
  • 1879    NSW proclaims Australia’s first national park – National Park.
  • 1879    Acclimatisation Society formed (later to be become the Zoological Society of NSW).  Originally it was committed to the introduction of exotic birds and animals suitable for game such as the deer into National Park.
  • 1870s  Native American tribes forced out of Yellowstone National Park.
  • 1883    Aboriginal Protection Board directs Aboriginal people to live on reserves.
  • 1886    Rabbits spread to NSW-Queensland border.
  • 1886    The US Army called in to manage Yellowstone and end illegal poaching of buffalo, bear, elk and other endangered wildlife
  • 1909    US President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) establishes wildlife reserves and triples the size of national forest reserves.
  • 1909    1st Australian environment group founded – Wildlife Preservation Society in Sydney.
  • 1916    USA National Park Service formed.
  • 1920s  Campaign to end logging in National Park.
  • 1932    Myles Dunphy forms National Parks and Primitive Areas Council in NSW to campaign for protected areas.
  • 1955    National Park renamed ‘Royal National Park’ in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 Australian tour.
  • 2009    Community Campaign begins to World Heritage List ‘The Royal Reserve’ that includes Royal National Park, Garawarra State Conservation Area, Heathcote National Park

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