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With a sorrow he could not describe Sheldon left Denali and Alaska in the summer of 1908, never to return. But the idea of a "Denali National Park" (so named in his journal entry of January 12, 1908) [20] remained fresh in his mind. He envisioned accommodations and facilities for travel that would allow visitors the same enjoyment and inspiration that he had been privileged to experience. The essence of the park would be its heraldic display of wildlife posed against stupendous mountain scenery.

Upon his return to New York, Sheldon broached the park idea to his friends in the Boone and Crockett Club. He was heartened by their enthusiastic response. But all agreed that the time was not ripe for a public campaign. Congressional interests had turned from conservation issues, and the club, Sheldon included, had more urgent business to attend to. For the time being the prospective park's remoteness, paired with the decline in nearby mining activity, would have to suffice for its protection. [21] As Sheldon and his colleagues bided time they refined the park concept.

Then in 1912, began a series of events that would vault the park proposal into the public arena. That year Congress passed Alaska's second organic act, providing for territorial status. To the existing offices of governor and non-voting delegate to Congress, the act added a territorial legislature. This body offered a political focus for working with the people of Alaska on the park proposal. Moreover, during the period of the park movement the delegate to Congress would be Judge James Wickersham, a friend of Sheldon's and an occasional dinner guest at Boone and Crockett Club affairs.

Tacked onto the organic act was a rider creating an Alaska Railroad Commission that would report on "the best and most available routes for railroads in Alaska which would develop the country and its resources." [22] President William Howard Taft appointed as chairman of this commission Alfred Hulse Brooks, another old friend of Sheldon's through their association in the Explorers Club. The commission quickly did its work and in early 1913 recommended two railroads to the Interior: one from Cordova to Fairbanks via the Copper and Tanana rivers, giving access to the Yukon Valley; the other from Seward via the Matanuska coalfield and Susitna River, then over the Alaska Range into the Kuskokwim Valley, opening up Alaska's second largest drainage system. After heated debates over the proposed routes and the socialistic implications of a government-built and-operated railroad, a single compromise route to Fairbanks via the Susitna and Nenana rivers was chosen. This route would tap both the Matanuska and Nenana coal fields. And, through purchase, it would start off with 71 miles of privately built Alaska Northern Railroad track running from Seward to Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, and another 39 miles of the Tanana Valley line from Fairbanks.

Fears of socialism subsided in Congress as railroad entrepreneurs testified in favor of a government railroad to open up Alaska's Interior. They maintained that except for short mining-associated railroads, private efforts had failed to overcome Alaska's terrain, climate, and vast unpopulated spaces. A government railroad was essential if the Interior were to be opened to commerce, homesteading, and general progress of the sort that had followed railroad land grants and financial incentives in the Trans-Mississippi West. Finally the Alaska Railroad Act passed Congress and President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law on March 12, 1914. [23]

The Congressional focus on Alaska legislation (organic act, railroad, coal leasing, land grant college); [24] the certainty of increased market hunting to supply railroad construction camps on the east side of the Denali region; and the prospects for gold-mining revival, coalfield development, and town-building along the rail line—all leading to yet more depredations on Denali's game—brought the park proposal to a head.

On September 21, 1915—with railroad construction already underway—the Boone and Crockett Club formally resolved to endorse the proposal for creation of a Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska. (Sheldon would continue to urge the name Denali, but Mount McKinley won out.) Sheldon and Madison Grant comprised a committee to carry the resolution into effect. Sheldon opened the campaign with letters to Delegate Wickersham and his old friend Doctor Nelson of the Biological Survey. [25]

Sheldon brought Wickersham in by seeking his views on the park proposal and how it might be received in Alaska, to which Wickersham promised careful consideration. But the letter to Nelson was a detailed statement of strategy. After noting that the time was now ripe for pushing the proposal and sketching boundaries that would "include a wide area of the best sheep, caribou, and moose country," Sheldon confided to Nelson:

Before doing anything about it, I wish to go to Washington with the plan complete as I wish to project it and win over Wickersham, the delegate from Alaska. He was once a strong friend of mine and I have been careful to say nothing publicly against him [in debates over the proposed Alaska Game Law], always with a view to winning him to this project at the opportune time. After I get him and the Secretary of the Interior and a few influential senators and congressmen, I shall start the campaign by a B. and C. [Boone and Crockett Club] dinner in Washington composed of congressmen and senators and others specially with a view to this plan. I shall try to win over the Alaska people first. You should say nothing about this yet, since I want to make Wickersham feel he is the leading spirit of it etc. etc. . . . After the plan is well underway then my successor on the Game Committee will have a definite object to work for. I believe that the creating of a demand for this in Alaska will be the key to the whole problem and perhaps I can assist in establishing this. . . . It is absolutely necessary that it should not get out in any detail until I see Wickersham and so arrange things that he will get the credit for the idea which the B. and C. Club will stand behind and support.

The railroad which will reach that part of the country in two or three years makes a good reason for the Park, if the game is to be preserved as a reserve for that part of the country which is somewhat far for market hunters of Fairbanks. This letter to you marks the date when the idea is launched. [26]

Sheldon's calculated approach was not frivolous intrigue. During the park proposal's gestation the Boone and Crockett Club and other big game groups had been working with the Biological Survey and Congress to strengthen the Alaska game code. A law of 1908, passed over Alaskan objectives, had set bag limits to reduce the wholesale slaughter of bears and other species, and it had established a system of game wardens, game-guide registration, regulations, and permits to be administered by the territorial governor under the technical guidance of the Biological Survey. This law and the system it begat, including the inevitable "bureaucratic absurdities" (e.g., a late waterfowl season that postdated southerly migrations from northern Alaska), aroused Alaskan ire. The argument that Alaska's game was part of the Nation's public domain immediately polarized national vs. local interests. Those who subsisted on game, those who hunted for the town and camp markets—remote places where beef could not be raised and cost a fortune when imported, and those who routinely killed bears wherever found because they were "savage beasts" had no patience with Eastern Establishment and federal interference. Successive territorial governors and the territorial legislature after 1912 reflected overwhelming Alaskan sentiment when they called for home rule over Alaska's wild creatures. "Arrogant cheechako" (i.e., greenhorn, especially of the Eastern variety) battled "local bar-room bear hunter" over the fate of Alaska's wildlife, in a frame of argumentation little changed to the present day.

The onset of World War I—which among other things caused inflation and diverted shipping from Alaskan waters, further stressing tenuous supply lines—exacerbated the struggle between stateside conservationists and Alaskans. The latter called for a ban on all hunting restrictions so they would not starve or be bankrupted by "the beef monopoly." [27]

The first hints of this wartime game preservation battle—which would become nationwide—registered in Alaska even before the United States entered the war in April 1917. This was partly a result of vastly increased U.S. ship-borne trade with the Allies centered on food and war material.

In this heated atmosphere Sheldon and Doctor Nelson would advocate a middle course toward market hunting that recognized Alaskan difficulties but would yet avert lasting damage to Alaskan wildlife (e.g., game shot legally could be sold). But other conservationists stood firm on the main tenet of game preservation in this country: no commercial hunting. [28]

Thus, from the inception of the park idea to its enactment, the Mount McKinley park refuge proposal had to dodge and weave through a political minefield of strenuous opposition in Alaska. In addition, the conservation community itself would split over compromises on hunting that were the price paid for critical Alaskan support for both realistic hunting controls and a Mount McKinley National Park. The adamant and inflexible William T. Hornaday of the New York Zoo and the Permanent Wildlife Fund would brook no bending of the ban on commercial hunting. Sheldon and Doctor Nelson viewed him as intemperate, a potential derailer of those moderate game-and park-law provisions essential for any controls over Alaska's game. All those who understood the situation in Alaska knew that absolute solutions would fail in the vast territory with its mere handful of game wardens. [29]

In this context of larger affairs—international, national, and territorial—political acumen was essential to the life of the park movement and its successful conclusion. Proponents had to play both ends against the middle with perfect timing. For example, the respected Stephen Capps of the U.S. Geological Survey reported that market hunters were taking 1500 to 2000 Dall sheep from Denali's Toklat and Teklanika basins each year. This disturbing news, published in the National Geographic Magazine in January 1917, helped push the park bill through Congress the very next month.

As there were dangers, there were also opportunities when the Mount McKinley park movement began in 1915. That same year conservation-minded Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane invited his former college classmate Stephen T. Mather to come down to Washington and run the national parks himself if he didn't like the way others were doing it, as Mather had complained in a letter. Indeed, administration of the 13 existing national parks, plus several national monuments and other units, left much to be desired. No system as such existed. Rules varied from park to park. Superintendents and custodians a were a mix of military and civilian personnel. Some of the latter, being local political appointees, made up their own rules as they went along. Loose guidance from successive Secretaries of the Interior meant that nobody was really in charge. The parks were orphans of the federal government. [30] Secretary Lane, reflecting the aggressive executive-branch philosophy of the Wilson administration, wanted to change this.

Mather came to the department from a background of successful business and newspaper experience. He was 47, dynamic, and financially independent—ready to perform public service for the wildlands he loved. As Lane's assistant for National Parks Mather teamed up with Horace M. Albright—a young research assistant who had been studying the condition of the parks for Lane. Their joint objective was to get Congressional sanction for a National Park Service that would manage the parks and monuments as a system. This reform became reality in August 1916 with passage of the National Park Service Act. Mather became Director and Albright Assistant Director of the new bureau. [31]

Into this activist and expansionist camp came Sheldon's proposal for a new national park in Alaska. As it turned out, Mount McKinley would become the first national park admitted to the system after creation of the National Park Service.

Proposed boundaries for Mount McKinley National Park, 1916-1917. Kauffmann, Mount McKinley National Park, Map 1.

Sheldon wrote to Mather on December 15, 1915, using the Boone and Crockett Club's Game Preservation Committee letterhead, which listed such conservation luminaries as Sheldon himself (chairman), Charles H. Townsend, E.W. Nelson, and George Bird Grinnell. Sheldon described his visits to the Denali region, his love of its wilderness and wildlife attributes. He said that on this continent only the Grand Canyon could compare to the "region of the Alaska Range for the grandeur of the scenery and the topographical interest . . . From his first visit, Sheldon related, he had "believed that someday this region must be made a national park." The imminence of railroad construction made this time "peculiarly auspicious" for legislation because the proposed park's "vast reservoir of game" would otherwise be destroyed to supply meat for the construction camps. The park's status as a game reservation would have to be made explicit in any bill. Interests of miners on the fringes of the park would have to be protected. But the boundaries Sheldon had recommended should exclude significant areas of mineralization from the park. It was essential that Delegate Wickersham be assured that his local constituents would be protected. Only then would Wickersham introduce the park bill, giving it Alaska's stamp of approval. The Boone and Crockett Club would stand behind the effort and assist in its passage through Congress. Sheldon then proposed a meeting with Mather to be followed by presentation of the proposal to Secretary Lane. The letter ended with a note of urgency: Postponement of action on Mount McKinley National Park could lead to destruction of its wildlife values, the key reason for designating such a park in the remote Alaska wilderness. [32] This letter defined the substance of the struggle for park legislation and the counterpoint arguments of the opposition. Mather endorsed the proposal without quibble, accepted associate membership in the Boone and Crockett Club, and on January 6, 1916, addressed the club's members in terms of his and Secretary Lane's full support for Sheldon's plan. [33]

The park idea soon captured the imagination of a significant part of the Eastern elite, including government leaders and scientists in the conservation and wildlife preservation fields. It was a simpler time, those early years of the century. The excessive layerings of today's government did not exist. Movers and shakers in business and government interlocked through their schools, career paths, and clubs. Phone calls and hastily scribbled notes sufficed to align key people when a change of course or a tactical diversion was necessary to steer a piece of legislation, as the McKinley park proposal would demonstrate.

Coincidentally, as the park movement got underway, Belmore Browne of the Camp Fire Club of America independently evolved a similar plan for the Denali region's preservation. When he presented his proposal in Washington he was surprised to find the Boone and Crockett Club and his friend Charles Sheldon already in the field. Quickly the two clubs joined forces and brought into the fold the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, whose president, John B. Burnham, would become overall coordinator of the legislative effort.

Alaska delegate Wickersham—always conscious of the needs of his Alaskan constituency—saw the advantages of the park in bringing visitors to Alaska from around the world. He would introduce the park bill in the House in the spring of 1916. Thomas B. Riggs of the Alaska Engineering Commission (and later governor of Alaska) saw the park as an aid to the fledgling Alaska Railroad, whose 400-mile wilderness route from Anchor age to Fairbanks would benefit from tourist traffic. He would, with Sheldon and Browne, draft the park bill, using Sheldon's recommended boundaries. With remarkable speed the teamwork of the three clubs and the inside help of Lane and Mather at Interior propelled the park bill into the hands of receptive legislators and onto the legislative docket. Wickersham's bill in the House, introduced April 16, 1916, was matched by an identical companion bill introduced by Senator Key Pittman of Nevada.

Then momentum slowed as amendments unacceptable to Wickersham and other members of Congress jammed progress. These difficulties would be overcome, finally. But yet another hitch doomed the House bill in 1916. The House Committee on Public Lands, following an informal rule, would report favorably on no more than two national park bills in a single session. Just as the McKinley bill got close, two other park bills were reported, so the House delayed action. Pittman's Senate bill, however, passed unanimously.

When Congress resumed in January 1917 the park-bill proponents were ready. Their work during the Congressional recess resulted in piles of letters and editorials favoring creation of the park. Dr. Stephen Capps' supportive article in the January 1917 National Geographic Magazine also greeted the returning Congressmen. It stressed the urgency of stopping market hunting before Mount McKinley's wildlife was killed off. Several legislators attended the first National Park Conference, staged largely for their benefit, hearing pleas for the Mount McKinley legislation by Sheldon, Browne, and Mather, among others. Earlier committee hearings on the bill had given proponents another forum. The bill passed on February 19. And—in recognition of his park idea and tireless efforts to bring it to fruition—Charles Sheldon was delegated to deliver the act personally to President Wilson, who signed it on February 26, 1917, and gave the pen to Sheldon. [34]

Many years later Horace Albright recalled a footnote to this triumph: Sheldon had moved from Vermont to Washington to shepherd the park bill through. During the climax of the legislative process he had haunted the halls of the Capitol and mobilized his cohorts for the final push. Finally, he took a day off, and that was the day the bill passed. Next day, Albright, acting as Park Service director at the time, saw Sheldon approaching his office, jumped up, grabbed his hand, and congratulated him for leading the creation of this great park. For his part, Sheldon stood aghast. Unaware of the bill's passage he had dropped by simply to check progress. His day off made him miss the vote. "He kicked himself the rest of his life that that was the one day he didn't go up there." [35]

The Mount McKinley National Park Act reserved some 2,200 square miles laid out in a rough parallelogram nearly 100 miles long and averaging 25 miles wide, running from the southwest to the northeast. At its upper end it expanded to the north to include the mountainous sheep and caribou country of the Toklat and Teklanika drainages. The boundaries excluded the Kantishna mining district and the forested moose country to the northwest where many miners wintered and hunted. The park captured the ridgeline of the Alaska Range, which backdropped the bordering piedmont plateau, the great valley of the Denali Fault, and the north-side outer ranges crossed by the north-flowing Toklat and Teklanika rivers.

As Sheldon himself described the park, it was a country

mostly above timberline, and yet with tongues of timber extending up the rivers. Outside of the rough ranges are gently rolling hills, hundreds of little straggling lakes, a region which, when roads are once established there, and conveniences for tourists, you can ride all over it with horses. It is accessible in every part, and the game of the region will be constantly in sight, a thing which is not true of most of the regions of our other national parks. [36]

The price of this idyllic vision had been compromise. Delegate Wickersham had promised to protect his constituents in Alaska, and he did so. In addition to the Kantishna and northerly hunting-ground exclusions (which cut into the extended ranges of Denali wildlife), the law provided that prospectors and miners could locate new mining claims within the park. They could also "take and kill game therein for their actual necessities when short of food," but not for sale or wantonly. [37]

Amendments proposed by some conservationists to give the Interior Secretary greater regulatory control over these mining-related provisions had proved inimical to the bill's passage. Wickersham dug in his heels and was suspected of pushing the House Committee to render favorable reports on two other national park proposals, thus using up its first session quota and killing the McKinley bill in 1916. But the pragmatism of Sheldon, Burnham, and Grinnell, among others, led to withdrawal of such amendments, and the bill proceeded to passage in the second session. These and other maneuvers lend a chess-game intricacy to the trail of correspondence during this period, much of it in the Mount McKinley Correspondence File (1916-24) in the National Archives.

The practical views of the chief sponsors, plus the urgency of protecting Mount McKinley's splendid assemblage of wildlife from the construction and development impacts of the railroad, had pushed the Mount McKinley proposal to enactment. Without that urgency—given plausibility by the repute of the chief sponsors, and by earlier revelations of wanton slaughter during the Alaska game code hearings—it is doubtful that the bill would have gone through. Alaska was a remote wilderness territory except along the coast and the major rivers. What need for a park designation in the mountainous Interior? Certainly the high mountains—girt by sub-ranges, vast gorges, and immense glaciers—needed no protection. So it boiled down to the wildlife, as the Congressional-hearings testimony amply demonstrates. [38]

Visitors would view that wildlife, which, with the mountains, composed that living landscape that had so moved Sheldon and shaped his vision. The utility of a great, unhunted game refuge in Alaska's center lent practicality to a proposal esthetic at its core. Here would be a reservoir of animals, which, upon overflow to surrounding regions, would supply the staunch miners and pioneers at frontier's edge. Thus would development of the country proceed apace, aided by visitors to the park whose locally expended funds would fuel progress, and whose enchantment with the country might lead to their own or others settlement there. [39]

On paper, all of this seemed certain to come about. But having created the park, Congress then rested. Minuscule appropriations proposed by the National Park Service and the Interior Department failed of passage. The war and immediate postwar turmoil had much to do with this. Whatever the causes, the park would suffer from this neglect.

Within a day of two of the President's signing of the park act, Sheldon had dashed off a note to Mr. Grinnell: ". . . I have been working to have included in the Sundry Acct. appropriations bill 10,000.00 for protection of the park and surveying the East North South and West line so that the game areas will be known." [40] But as Sheldon feared, the confusion of the last days of the session sidetracked this minor bit of business. The park would remain vacant of protectors, unmarked on the ground, and prey to poachers for more than 4 years.

During this interval, letters to Sheldon from his Alaska friends reported that poaching in Mount McKinley Park was on the increase. Railroad construction and the towns that sprang from its camps pushed on the park. So did the mining camps rejuvenated by the railroad. The National Park Service, frustrated by failure of its funding requests, arranged with the Governor of Alaska to have his wardens visit the park occasionally, but these rare inspections yielded nothing of protection, only evidence of the need for it.

In a resolution of January 10, 1919, the Boone and Crockett Club respectfully urged that Congress appropriate not less than $10,000 for a ranger force, with proper quarters and equipment, to protect the wild animals of the park, with a final paragraph that chided the Congress for its 2-year delay. [41] Five days later the Camp Fire Club of America issued a similar resolution. [42]

Territorial Governor Thomas Riggs, upon receipt of a copy of the Camp Fire Club resolution, wrote to the Interior Department requesting aid for the park so that its function as a game reservoir for the surrounding country, and its wildlife attraction for tourists, would be protected. Interior's Assistant Secretary John Hallowell responded to Governor Riggs with assurances that the Department had consistently pressed for appropriations for the park. He quoted Park Service Director Mather's memorandum in response to the Governor's plea: ". . . ever since the creation of the park, we have each fall submitted, with our other park estimates, one for Mount McKinley, to the amount of $10,000, the limitation placed in the organic act." Hallowell concluded his letter to Riggs with the hope that the House Appropriations Committee would see the light in the coming year, but warned that the war-debt problem was making many useful projects postponable. [43] Still there was no result.

More than a year later, on November 17, 1920, Sheldon wrote to Grinnell:

. . . to me the worst news is that the game, particularly the sheep, in the McKinley Park are rapidly being killed off by the market hunters. . . [and the new influx of miners to the Kantishna]. Unless all the clubs in N.Y. and Burnham get together and make a drive for an appropriation this winter, there is serious danger to the game, particularly as the railroad will reach there soon. [44]

A month later, in a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations, Sheldon cited all of the above, including fears that renewed mining activity in the Kantishna might cause a full-scale rush that would "add to the slaughter already going on there." He concluded with the information that "plans for a wagon road to this region have been completed." [45]

The conservationists' bombardment and the desperate efforts of Steve Mather and Horace Albright finally jolted Congress to action. An $8,000 appropriation was passed for 1921. The park's pioneer era would soon begin.

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004