I work for the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Society as the historic specialist at the Stanley Museum. During this experience, I notice visitors always ask the same questions. These range from mundane to inquisitive, but perhaps the most common question is, “Do we have to pay to get in?” I always answer with a simple, “There is no admission fee; however, donations are appreciated.” This policy of free admission is not just a courtesy to our visitors—rather, it is a reflection of the overall philosophy of the surrounding land. More than 60 percent of Idaho land is public, making it the fourth-ranked state with the most publicly owned lands.

While it is nice to see Idaho top any list, it raises the question of why is public land so important. The answer lies in the reason why free museums are important. Public lands and free museums are for the benefit of the people. Public lands and free museums enrich lives by spreading knowledge and bringing joy. To understand the importance, it is necessary to know the history of both museums and public land. 

The Smithsonian, one of the most famous historical institutions in the world, has an interesting origin. It got its start when a wealthy British scientist donated his estate to the United States in 1829. The British scientist James Smithson’s will stated that his money was to be used to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson had never visited America, nor did he have any reason to give his money to the country. The only possible reason for his generosity was that he was purely motivated by passion for the proliferation of knowledge. His gift dramatically changed the United States’ relationship with the arts and humanities. It was not just a gift to the United States, it was a gift for all people. To this day, the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., are free of admission fees. 

The United States’ history of land use is fairly complex. The first century of U.S. history was more focused on land acquisition than management. By the mid-19th century, massive exploitation of land and nature was unleashed—particularly in the American West. With the excesses and abuses of the Gilded Age, people began to move toward a more reformist mindset; thus began the Progressive Age. In this Progressive Age, people began to champion causes, including land conservation. Conservationists sought ways to protect the lands from further harm, lobbying for public land in perpetuity. Public lands would be owned and managed by the federal government to ensure they would remain beautiful, wild and safe from exploitation. Furthermore, the lands would be for public appreciation and admiration.

In 1872, Yellowstone was established as the nation’s first national park due to its incredible scenery. Several more national parks and national forests followed Yellowstone, and then President Roosevelt took office. Throughout his presidency, he was a stalwart ally to conservationists, creating two new public land designations—wildlife refuges and national monuments.  Roosevelt was also responsible for a number of laws specifically for conserving land for public access. The actions of conservationists in the Progressive Era laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement today. 

On the surface, it seems as though museums and public lands have little in common. When one goes to a national park or forest, the activities usually consist of hiking or other outdoor activities. At a museum, one stays inside a climate-controlled building and ponders history. However, the core philosophy is the same: to enrich the people who visit these places. In wilderness, people reconnect to themselves. In a museum, one can peer into the past and learn from others’ lives to find meaning in one’s own. Everyone should have equal ease of access to this potential enlightenment. Public lands and museums are needed for the betterment of people. Therefore, that is why I love to tell visitors to the Stanley Museum that admission is free.

Megan Nelson is a historic specialist for the Sawtooth Interpretive & Historical Association in Stanley.

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