Gratitude for National Parks

Yellowstone National Park brings out the best in society. Photo George Wuerthner 

I spent the past week in Yellowstone National Park. I was grateful to the people who had the courage and foresight to establish Yellowstone in 1872.

It was with gratitude that I watched grizzly bears playing among the meadows. Gratitude that I got to see wolves at their den sites. Gratitude that I observed moving waves of bison surge across the valleys. Gratitude that I could see bald eagles, coyotes, fox, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and pronghorn, among other wildlife, including the brilliant blue of mountain bluebirds returning to the park.


A ranger makes sure people give sufficient room for wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner

Standing alongside the road with a 100 other people watching, say, a bear rototilling up the ground in search of roots, voles, or perhaps truffles, I noted that every person was enthralled and excited to see a grizzly in its natural habitat. Yet, all of the folks stood at a respective distance from the bear.

When a park ranger came to ask people to move a dozen feet farther from the bear, he didn’t order them. Instead, he said politely, “could you please move a bit further away from the bear.” Unfortunately, such civility is seemingly rare today.

Girzzly bear in snow. Photo George Wuerthner

People with spotting scopes willingly shared views with others without such equipment. Knowledgeable folks helped people locate the animals. There was a sense of common purpose and shared experience.

But the other thing I observed that was also very heartening in this day of social divisions and identity politics was the way people just put aside labels.

Among those on the road’s margin, I could see several women with hijabs. I saw another family with a woman wearing a sari. There was a black couple from New York City who excitingly exclaimed to me this was the first bear they had ever seen. I talked to a family from Puerto Rico. And another couple from China, who, in broken English, told me that visiting Yellowstone was the high point of a trip to America. I heard other excited observations spoken in foreign languages.

There were, no doubt, Trump supporters and others who voted for Biden. There were hunters and anti-hunting folks standing side by side. There were wealthy elites with new sport utility vehicles, and others were driving old rusted, dented, and barely operable cars.

All of us were there to learn, appreciate, and enjoy watching wildlife.

Watching Old Faithful being faithful–erupting on time. Photo George Wuerthner 

I have gratitude for the scenic beauty that parks preserve. I’m sure most of the people I saw were enthralled with the natural beauty of Yellowstone. We all need beauty in our lives.

There were no political, ethnic, or religious divisions among us at that moment. Is this not one of the great things about national parks? That we can all come together and enjoy the natural world and appreciate the value of our national park system?

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Photo George Wuerthner

So it is with gratitude, that I visit Yellowstone and appreciate how the national park system helps bring America together. Today, there are few things that bind us as a nation with a common purpose. I am willing to bet if you asked every person watching the grizzly bear there whether they are glad we have a Yellowstone National Park, there would be universal approval.

You can visit national parks, but you must prioritize wildlife and natural systems in your behavior and interactions with the parks. If national parks do nothing more than teach people the value of restraint and the idea of a greater good, including for wildlife and plants which don’t have a voice, they will have done enough.

The original purpose of Yellowstone was to protect the more than 10,000 thermal features, the greatest collection of such geological wonders found anyplace on Earth. Photo George Wuerthner

And I hope that parks will continue to generate gratitude and a shared commitment to protecting nature for its own sake. For my part, I feel gratitude to those working to protect nature across the globe. Parks, though not perfect, still foster the best in people, which is why I work to promote gratitude in people for parks.

Our national parks includes consideration for what I call the “others”, or the living systems that sustains us all.

Where wolves have killed a bull elk. Parks are more than just a place for people to vacation. They are central to maintaining ecological function and systems. Photo George Wuerthner 

I would put the creation of a national park system along side other American achievements including the Emancipation Proclamation,  public education, the Civil Rights Act, and other progressive policies. Like other goals such as equal rights, parks can be improved, but we should appreciate what they represent in a world where human desires are often put ahead of all other considerations.

And so, I have gratitude for parks because they represent restraint. They represent consideration of more than just people’s desires. They are an institution we should celebrate, not denigrate. What we need is more national parks, not less.

And if parks help to promotes gratitude in us, then all the better.


  1. Jerry L Thiessen Avatar
    Jerry L Thiessen

    A nod of appreciation and a hearty thank you for the reminder. Our national forests and public lands should be another shining example but sadly they are not.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    One of your best articles, George, and I agree wholeheartedly with every word.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “I would put the creation of a national park system along side other American achievements including the Emancipation Proclaimation, public education, the Civil Rights Act, and other progressive policies. Like other goals such as equal rights, parks can be improved, but we should appreciate what they represent in a world where human desires are often put ahead of all other considerations.”

    Giving voice to the voiceless, and recognizing rights in much the same way.

  4. Hiker Avatar

    Yes, and gratitude for the Wild Forest Service lands in my backyard.

  5. Aj Avatar

    Long live our nations parks!!

  6. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Absolute selfish drivel.

    Your gratitude should be to the carbon that allows you to travel to, and from the NPS that has no carrying capacity in, Yellowstone for the 1,000th time.

    Stay home, George, and work on carrying capacities. Leave the carbon and travel for the young. You and I as Boomers have had our chance.

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      “Restraint.” Ha! What a laugh.

    2. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
      Frank Krosnicki

      Chris, try to frame your writing in words and structure that do not boast of your apparent self righteousness. Seems to me that you are a legend in your own mind.

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        You bet I’m self righteous.

        I believe in carrying capacities for public lands and exercise restraint by staying home – unlike conservationists like GW, WW, WWP and, apparently, you.

        Seems to me none of you work to preserve anything but your access – flora and fauna be damned.

        1. Hiker Avatar

          Chris, even you think visitation is ok as long as there are limits. There is no way to visit Yellowstone without driving there. For you staying home is important, not so for others. While I agree that there should be limits (like at Rocky Mtn. N.P.) people should still be able to go.

          1. Hiker Avatar

            Sorry Chris, I forgot that some people like to bike throughout that region, so I was wrong when I said “there is no way other than driving”. More like, “for most visitors”. I sure wouldn’t be able to bike all over Yellowstone!

      2. Hiker Avatar

        Frank, Chris is an idealist. Maybe you disagree with his presentation but his ideals are worthwhile. In this age of yea-round climate catastrophes, we should be looking at limits that can help preserve as much as possible. His ideals are also influencing things. You should know that Rocky Mountain N.P. is requiring reservation now for most visitation.

        The news world-wide is grim. Here we are experiencing huge fires over a month earlier than normal. Meanwhile, there’s more and more deadly tornadoes and earlier hurricanes. Pakistan and India are in a deadly heat wave, more than a month earlier than normal. One city in Pakistan reached 121 degrees Fahrenheit!
        Limiting ourselves is one tool to help preserve things.

        1. Mark L Avatar
          Mark L

          …..and wait till the true implications of reduction in wheat, corn, and sunflower seed oil are felt worldwide since Ukraine can’t ship theirs out. Subtract Russian cereals, and…..

          (not good). One guess what many African communities will resort to: bushmeat

  7. Tom Ribe Avatar

    I agree. And the wonder of national parks is that they belong to all Americans. Everyone. Including urban people of all colors, rural people of all language groups, Native Americans, new immigrants and everyone else. Under no circumstances should they be given to any subset of American society exclusively.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Yes. Aren’t they beautiful. A real success story!

  8. rastadoggie Avatar

    I like your point about civility. I’ll try harder. Yellowstone is a spiritual center for me too and knowing it has changed my world view. Thank you for this beautiful essay.

  9. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Wildlife report (and gratitude for trees!)

    I’m such a geek, but I had to shout:

    We’ve been having some trees grow back naturally in our yard because it’s good for the planet and wildlife, and we’ll have less lawn to keep up with.

    One of them is a native red maple, and of course it is beautiful in the fall, but this spring it has tiny little flowers, and it’s the most beautiful thing. It’s shot up very tall in just a few years and provides great shade near the deck. I don’t know that I have ever seen it that close. What a wonderful thing to have.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner