Which was the World’s First National Park?

Bob Crombie, First National Park, October 2014

When people ask, “Which, of all the world’s national parks, was the first national park?” the obvious approach is to compare dates of establishment. Let’s look at four famous names: Yosemite 1864, Yellowstone 1872, Mackinac 1875, and Royal National Park, 1879. In each, the term ‘national park’ was used to mean a number of different things.

  1. Yosemite. The federal lands of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias were granted by Congress to the State of California in 1864 for the purpose of “public use, resort and recreation.’ It was dedicated as Yosemite State Park in 1864, and not until 1890 as Yosemite National Park. It came under federal jurisdiction in 1906.
  2. Yellowstone. It was dedicated Yellowstone Public Park in 1872 ‘as a public park or pleasuring ground’. The term ‘national park’ used in an appropriations bill at the time meant only that it was to be a park under federal jurisdiction. There were three territories vying for its control. However, it was officially called Yellowstone National Park from the beginning to ensure that people knew that it was under federal jurisdiction.
  3. Mackinac, termed Mackinac National State Park, was a federal military reserve of only about 1,000 acres on an island in Lake Huron. It was dedicated in 1875 as ‘a national public park or pleasuring ground’. The word ‘national’ was used to indicate that it was administered by a federal authority, the Secretary of War. In 1895 Fort Mackinac was closed down and Congress gave the park to the State of Michigan; whence it became Mackinac Island State Park.
  4. Royal National Park. It was dedicated in 1879 as National Park under general legislation (The Crown Lands Alienation Act, 1861) providing for the establishment of reserves on public land. As The National Park it was from the first ‘dedicated for the purpose of a national park’. There is no way that the term ‘national park’ was being used here in the American sense of being a federally administered reserve because federation did not occur in Australia until 1901.

So, an accurate answer to the question we have posed is that both Yellowstone and Royal were first in different ways: Yellowstone as a park under federal control ⎯ the highest authority; Royal as a new form of use on public lands, truly national from the first. This difference was understood by Yellowstone in 1972 when it celebrated its centenary in Yellowstone a Century of the Wilderness Idea, which makes the point that the first time the words national park were used in the land use sense was at Royal National Park.

Yosemite could claim to be the first ‘national park’ set aside in 1864 from the point of view of land use intention but this term was not used in the Act of Congress. It became a federal national park in 1906. Mackinac 1875 sits somewhere in the middle of all this. It is disregarded since it is small and was rescinded from federal jurisdiction in 1895 and given to the State of Michigan.

As the national park idea spread across the US, Australia and the world, both Yellowstone and Royal played an inspirational role. It is regrettable, that, applying the US concept of a national park as one requiring federal control (or control by the highest authority in the nation), the importance of the Australian innovation and its subsequent record of achievement has sometimes not been properly understood.

We have to draw a line somewhere, for there were many green reserves set aside before the three great national parks could exhibit to the world their potential. They conserved a whole range of features such as scenic beauty, special attributes, caves, hot springs, and grand groves of ferns and trees. For example, 486 hectares were set aside in NSW in 1824 as a ‘government reserve’, Bundanoon Gully Reserve, to protect its scenic values. It was later added to Morton National Park. (Although small, it can make claims for primacy as well.) Other examples include Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1832; Fish River (Jenolan) Caves, NSW in 1862; various reserves in Tasmania from 1863; various reserves in the Blue Mountains, NSW from 1867; and Kings Park, WA 1872. In 1794, a zone along the coast of Norfolk Island was reserved from settlement and free holding to protect the environment and the pines.

So what claim for Royal can be made by way of being ‘first’? It was the first time where the words ‘national park’ were used in the establishment of a protected area, in the actual naming designation of the reserve at the time of its establishment, and in defining its purpose as a ‘national park’ for the nation. These are significant firsts in the global history of conservation, particularly because the people involved made it clear in their statements why they had used these words and what they meant—the concept which remains today and affects a large part of Earth’s surface. Royal was the first reserve in the world ‘dedicated for the purpose of a national park’ in the conservation sense.

However, what is most important is that we can recognise Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Mackinac in the USA, and Royal in Australia as the pioneer national parks of the most significant development in the history of world conservation, the national park movement. There is no doubt that the sense of the concept ‘national park’ has changed over time, facilitated by various historic processes. What is also in no doubt is that from the early 1800s, a movement for the reservation of lands in the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand led eventually to the development of the modern national park system in those countries and later to the rest of the world.

National parks are the world’s best known and most important conservation measure, but of all the 1,004 places on the World Heritage List not one has been selected to commemorate and celebrate their European origin and early development in the Nineteenth Century. This gap would be bridged if Royal National Park is nominated for the World Heritage List and accepted for its internationally significant cultural and natural values. And this will open the way for Yellowstone and Yosemite to be so acknowledged as well.


We hope that has answered your curiosity about this matter but if you would like to delve further into the history of the establishment of these important parks, you can find more in the book The First National Park: A Natural for World Heritage published by the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre in 2012. www.ssec.org.au


  1. World heritage and national park assets cannot be secured in the economic system because they are Common Wealth or for the common good.Therefore only large POLITICAL support will prevent the next tragedy of the commons.

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