Book Review: Barringer's Selling Yellowstone and the Mythos of National Parks

Barringer, Mark Daniel. Selling Yellowstone: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

By Doctor Comrade

Barringer’s Selling Yellowstone is a powerful examination of the mythology surrounding America’s national parks and the complicity with which government and private enterprise conspired to commodify the country’s wilderness resources. The author dissects how national parks were perceived to be pristine spaces of untouched wilderness, but in reality they were “sites of some of the most intensive commercial activity in the West” (7). Barringer argues that the Department of the Interior’s strategy of leasing concessions to businesses led to the concessioners exploiting and propagating the Yellowstone myth that parks were “repositories of our national mythology” and that this belief facilitated the park’s economic and development problems in later decades (4).

The book is arranged chronologically, allowing the author to trace the development of commercial interests in the park. He contends that “frontier capitalists” had already established toll bridges, hotels, bathhouses, and hot-springs resorts before Yellowstone became the country’s first national park in 1872 (16-17). Early developers helped establish the precedent that in order to experience nature, tourists would need accommodations (21). Over time, these accommodations became increasingly monopolized by powerful families during the Progressive Era, while the Department of the Interior and later the National Park Service consolidated and encouraged commercial development. More importantly, Barringer argues that park officials “encouraged concessioners to mold parks to suit public expectations” (75). Despite suffering through national economic depressions, Yellowstone’s tourist industry grew steadily until World War II before reaching its highest point in the post-WWII era. However, the mythology of Yellowstone had been so successfully established by the concessioners and the NPS that “Instead of being able to create a public image of what the parks should be and then design a scene to meet expectations, they now were faced with molding a landscape based on expectations that were impossible to fulfill…. The mythology was simply too powerful” (162-164). The park’s troubles in the 1960s were facilitated by failed funding plans, like the infamous Mission 66 and its inability to revitalize the park, which drew scorn from preservationists, Congress, and businesses (150).

In this way, Barringer cleverly inverts the typical environmentalist declension narrative by arguing that business, rather than the environment, steadily declined after its apogee in the post-WWII era. From the beginning, Barringer contends that Yellowstone was never as idyllic as it was imagined to be, from hunting and burning by Native Americans to railroads and hotel monopolies. In effect, he cynically deconstructs what he calls the national civil religion of the parks (15).

However, the author’s biting critique often represents the characters of the story simplistically: park directors are portrayed as two-dimensional profiteers and hoteliers as bumbling capitalists. A fairer analysis would have presented them as calculating and efficient managers who rigidly adhered to a misguided reliance on free-market ideology rather than cash-starved bureaucrats seeking prestige. Moreover, in his rush to malign America’s romance with the parks, Barringer leaves out all but the most vocally negative voices from the American public. His sources from the NPS, Interior, and businesses help ground the political history, but primary sources for the “mythology” are often absent, even though his coverage of the secondary literature is impressive. Karen Merrill’s review in the Journal of American History raises a similar concern, asking what exactly the expectations of typical tourists were.

In totality, the book is an excellent examination of American capitalism and its complicit government allies, which holds messages for contemporary political debates. Cultural historians will appreciate Barringer’s thoughtful critique of the Nature mythology, and environmental historians will enjoy his problematization of the concept of Nature.