CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2009
CRM Journal

Book Reviews


Windshield Wilderness: Cars, Roads, and Nature in Washington’s National Parks

By David Louter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006; xvii + 288 pp., illustrations, maps; cloth $35.00.

David Louter’s Windshield Wilderness is timely and important. Although focused on national parks in Washington state, Louter’s well-written, engaging work offers insights valuable for any student of either the National Park System or of our automobile-oriented landscape—our windshield world.

Louter historicizes the complex interrelationship of automobiles, roads, the national parks, and an elastic concept of “wilderness.” Cars, he argues, “dominate the national park experience.”(p. 164)Louter examines how Mt. Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades National Parks, established in three different periods of park planning development (1900s, 1930s, and 1960s), accommodated themselves to cars. Continuity overshadows change, as the idea of “national parks as places of windshield wilderness, where it was possible for machines and nature to coexist” has retained perennial appeal” (p. 4).

This idea grew in the 1920s and 1930s under first National Park Service director Stephen Mather and his successor Horace Albright, of transforming parks into landscapes for highways in nature, partly by relying upon landscape architects to fit park highways carefully to the land as part of “master plans” for each park. Nature and wilderness were scenic or visual (rather than ecological) qualities; preservation occurred if the roadside picture appeared natural and roads blended into the landscape. While park supporters worried about extractive resource development and the Hetch Hetchy dam near Yosemite National Park, they envisioned “protection through development” for tourists.

Mt. Rainier, officially the first national park to admit automobiles in 1908, eight years before the founding of the National Park Service, was an early proving ground for Mather’s philosophy. Supported by tourism-boosting urbanites in nearby Seattle and Tacoma, Mather championed a (never fully realized) road system encircling the mountain and pressed for a network of connections from this park to others via the National Park-to-Park Highway dedicated in 1920.

In the 1930s, the new Wilderness Society and other critics suggested that wilderness should be an ecological rather than a visual/scenic quality, best protected by excluding cars and roads. In response, NPS established Olympic National Park in the late 1930s as a roadless area. But most visitors viewed Olympic’s wilderness from the “grandstand” of the scenic 13-mile Hurricane Ridge Road, opened in the 1950s just outside the park boundary. NPS planners believed this road and the highway connections to Washington’s urban centers were essential to allowing the public to experience the park’s wilderness character Finally, Louter explores the development of North Cascades NPS Complex in the context of the modern environmental movement, embodied in the Wilderness Act of 1964, which codified roadlessness as a key characteristic of federal “wilderness” and seemed to herald the demise of the accord between cars and wild places. However, the public and NPS clung to the “expectation of viewing splendid scenery from the roadside within a park.” The legislation establishing North Cascades in 1968 provided for a “park complex” in which the park proper was roadless but the associated “national recreation areas” featured the traditional scenic highways that provided a glimpse of the primordial wilderness in the park proper.

With policy and legal changes in the 1970s, North Cascades managers faced a conundrum of how to “impress upon visitors the value of the park if they could neither drive into it nor easily view it from the road” (p. 156). Discussions about road access, alternative means of mechanized visitor transport (tramways), or virtual “windshields” (new park films in the 1990s) as ways for viewing the wilderness dominated park management.

Based upon thorough research in primary sources and secondary literature, Louter’s book provides an excellent overview of the history of the NPS and offers a convincing analysis of the role of cars in allowing us mentally to map our park landscapes. His insights undermine longtime claims that eastern parks like the Blue Ridge Parkway represented revolutionary new directions in park development. Built during the 1930s, the Blue Ridge Parkway embodied the roads-parks symbiosis that Louter posits: there, the road did not just run through or around the park, the road was (and is) the park.

That said, Louter’s chronology and some observations might have been nuanced by incorporating more references to eastern parks, which were carved not from the trackless public domain, but from lands devastated from logging or other heavy industrial uses. Key books and dissertations on the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, are not referenced. This may explain why Louter can imply that, but for their roads, parks might have been remained “primitive.” And that is certainly why he can claim that the era of great scenic park road building was mostly over by the early 1930s, just as the Blue Ridge Parkway (completed in 1987) was getting underway.

Additionally, in focusing on the national context, Louter sometimes neglects the local contexts that shaped his three parks and NPS’s early adoption of a pro-roads stance. The Seattle and Tacoma boosters are only vague players in Louter’s account of the national drama. The book would also have benefitted from more and better maps showing the evolution of road plans for each park. The single undated map from each park is not sufficient to illuminate the various alternatives considered.

Too, as convincing as Louter’s argument is, the ubiquity of the automobile in 20th-century America calls into question his implication that a park system that grew in that same period might have made different choices. In a nation where people’s access to almost everything is provided by cars, is it reasonable to expect that we would see and use parks any other way?

Louter’s insistence on continuity downplays important changes and implies a lack of alternatives. If every suggested automobile substitute (tramways, shuttles, or films) is understood as another “windshield,” are we powerless to reduce or mitigate the impact of the internal-combustion engine automobile in the parks? Is the only viable option to bar machines altogether, leaving enjoyment to vigorous hikers alone?

These few reservations do not diminish the power of this book, which provides clear evidence for how malleable our concept of “wilderness” is and how hegemonic the automobile has been. Clearly argued and insightful, with an eye on the big picture, it is crucial reading for anyone thinking about the history of the national parks or how we might reshape them for a post-automobile age.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill