Conservation in the Department of the Interior
NPS Logo


WITH twenty-two national parks and thirty-four national monuments, variously distributed in regions where wilderness conditions are preserved, or where nature exhibits her strangest and most spectacular moods, or where the attraction arises from scientific or historic interest, this Nation may consider that it has made satisfactory progress toward the conservation of such areas for the generations that are to come. No other nation of the world has such a collection of park areas.

The idea out of which the National Park Service has grown originated in the wonders of the region now known as Yellowstone National Park. Its earliest white visitors, of whom probably the first was John Colter, a hunter of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific coast, told amazing tales of its wonders. Colter made a lone trip though the eastern portion of the present park in 1807, following his return from the Lewis and Clark trip, and upon his return to St. Louis some four years later his tales were received with derision and the region of the Yellowstone came to be alluded to as "Colter's Hell."

President Hoover Caught a String in Yellowstone Lake

Some years later, probably in 1830 or earlier, James Bridger, the celebrated trapper and hunter, visited the mysterious regions of the Yellowstone several times. His stories of the geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena seemed so fantastic that the newspapers of the frontier refused to print them for fear of ridicule, and he gained a reputation of being the arch prevaricator of his time. This so aroused his ire that he began to live up to his reputation by greatly exaggerating the already unbelievable truth. His stories to-day are classics of the frontier.

In 1870 a party of prominent citizens of Montana, under the leadership of General Washburn, surveyor general of Montana at the time, wrote history. For it was at one of the last camp fires of this Washburn-Langford expedition that the suggestion made by Cornelius Hedges, Montana lawyer, that the party work for the establishment of a great national park to preserve all the natural wonders of the region was adopted. The following year the Government sent an official exploring party into the region, and in 1872 Congress passed the law establishing the park.

Though the Yellowstone is officially the oldest of the national parks, the Hot Springs region in Arkansas was reserved in 1832 "for the future disposal of the United States." Active supervision of the area under the Department of the Interior, that the benefits of its hot waters might be available for all, was undertaken in 1877. In 1921 the area was proclaimed the Hot Springs National Park.

In 1890 three new national parks were created, all in California. These were Yosemite, with its gem valley, buttressed by huge headlands, veiled in waterfalls and surrounded by mountain wilds; Sequoia, home of the big trees and locale of Mount Whitney, highest mountain in the United States outside of Alaska, and the General Grant National Park, whose biggest tree measured 40 feet across and 266 feet tall, one of the most magnificent specimens of plant life in all the world. The year 1899 saw the creation of Mount Rainier National Park, in the State of Washington, hung with glaciers and studded with Alpine flowers. Then in 1902 came Crater Lake, in Oregon, cupping blue waters where volcanic lava once boiled, and in 1906 Mesa Verde, in Colorado, with the best of the prehistoric cliff dwellings.

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park

Glacier National Park in Montana, with rugged scenery, innumerable mountain lakes and splashing waterfalls, and 60 small glaciers, the remains of great ice sheets that once covered this part of the continent, was created in 1910. Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado, inclosing a typical section of the backbone of the continent, followed in 1915.

The next year saw the establishment of two volcanic national parks—Lassen Volcanic, in California, which contains the most recently active volcano in continental United States, and the Hawaii National Park, containing two of the world's most continuously and harmlessly active volcanoes, as well as one of the largest extinct volcanic craters in existence. In 1917 Mount McKinley National Park was established, to include the highest mountain in North America and to protect the great herds of caribou and Dall sheep, for which the region was famous.

Then in 1919 the Grand Canyon National Park, in Arizona, and Zion National Park, in Utah, with their demonstrations of the power of wind and water as tools with which nature can carve her fantastic designs, were established, as was the Lafayette, in Maine, now known as the Acadia, the first national park to be established in the East. Nine years later the Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah, also the work of erosion at its best, was established. Then came the Grand Teton, in Wyoming, with its great granite peaks comparable to the Swiss Alps. Nineteen-thirty saw two more national parks created—Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, inclosing a series of gigantic marvelously decorated limestone caves, and the Great Smoky Mountains, in North Carolina-Tennessee. Under the law establishing this latter park, however, it can not be developed for tourist travel until a certain specified amount of land is donated to the United States.

The Rock of Ages, 750 Feet Below Ground in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico

Congress has given authority for the establishment of thee other national parks—the Shenandoah in Virginia, the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and the Isle Royale in Michigan—upon the donation to the Federal Government of the necessary lands for park purposes. The western parks have been carved out of the public domain. Since no public lands are available in the East, the land has had to be purchased, and in the case of both the Acadia and the Great Smoky this was done by private subscription and, in the latter case, State appropriation.

During the early years of the present century three small parks crept into the system which are not considered of national caliber. One of these, Sullys Hill, in North Dakota, by act of Congress was turned over to the Biological Survey early in 1931 for game-preserve purposes. It has been proposed that another, the Wind Cave, in South Dakota, be used for game-preserve or State-park purposes, and that Platt Park, in Oklahoma, be made a State rather than a National park.

An incident that contributed much to park history occurred in 1906, when Congress passed an act for "the preservation of American antiquities." It authorized the President to create national monuments out of areas containing historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest. The act provided that these areas were to be under the jurisdiction of the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, or War. At the present time there are 34 of these monuments administered by the Secretary of the Interior, 16 by the Department of Agriculture, and 16 by the War Department. Those under the War Department are primarily of military significance, as are the national military parks, while those under the Department of Agriculture are inside or contiguous to forest lands and therefore are administered by officers of the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture as a measure of expediency and economy. All other national monuments are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. A particularly interesting group of southwestern national monuments contains the ruined homes of prehistoric cliff-dwelling and other pueblo Indians. Others contain fossils of prehistoric plants or animals, some display huge natural bridges carved by erosions, while still others are landmarks connected with our early history. Just recently the national-monument system has been extended to the eastern seaboard through the establishment, in Virginia, of the George Washington Birthplace and colonial national monuments, the latter including historic Jamestown Island, Williamsburg, and portions of the Yorktown Battlefield.

A Stone Log in Petrified Forest, Arizona

In pursuance of an agreement between the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Interior, legislation was introduced during the first session of the Seventieth Congress for the transfer of 10 national military and other parks and 9 national monuments from the jurisdiction of the War Department to that of the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior. It received favorable consideration in the Senate but failed of passage in the House of Representatives.

For a number of years the various national parks and the national monuments under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior were handled as an incidental item to the work of the miscellaneous division of the Office of the Secretary. Some of the parks were under the direct supervision of superintendents, who nominally were under the miscellaneous division, while others for a period were patrolled by troops furnished by the War Department upon request from the Secretary of the Interior.

Wilderness Areas Unsurpassed in All the World Have Been Preserved

Boating in the Magnificent Solitudes of Glacier National Park

Gradually, however, the importance of a unified organization to control these areas became apparent, and various individuals and organizations began to urge the establishment of such an organization. A series of national-park conferences were held—in Yellowstone in 1911, at Yosemite in 1912, and at Berkeley, Calif., in 1915—for the purpose of coordinating activities.

The first general officer in charge of parks and monuments was appointed in 1913 by Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior. The following year a general superintendent and landscape engineer was appointed, to reside in San Francisco and to have authority over all the park superintendents. In 1916 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to appoint a general superintendent of national parks, with headquarters in Washington, and finally, on August 25, 1916, the act to establish the National Park Service was signed by President Wilson.

In April, 1917, funds for the establishment of the National Park Service were appropriated, and Stephen T. Mather, who had been made an Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior in Charge of National Parks in 1915, immediately was appointed director of the service. He served in that capacity during the 12 formative years of the service, retiring because of failing health, and was succeeded in 1929 by Horace M. Albright, who long had been associated with park work.

The Magna Charta of the national parks was written in May, 1918, in the form of a letter from Secretary of the Interior Lane to Director Mather:

The administration policy to which the new service will adhere is based on three broad principles: First, that the national parks must be maintained in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations as well as those of our own time; second, that they are set apart for the use, observation, health, and pleasure of the people; and, third, that the national interest must dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks. Every activity of the service is subordinate to the duties imposed upon it to faithfully preserve the parks for posterity in essentially their natural state. * * * You should not permit the leasing of park lands for summer homes. * * * Every opportunity should be afforded the public, wherever possible, to enjoy the national parks in the manner that best satisfies the individual taste. * * * All outdoor sports which may be maintained consistently with the observation of the safeguards thrown around the national parks by law will be heartily indorsed and aided wherever possible. The educational as well as the recreational use of the national parks should be encouraged in every practicable way. * * * Low priced camps operated by concessionaires should be maintained, as well as comfortable and even luxurious hotels wherever the volume of travel warrants the establishment of these classes of accommodations. * * * You should encourage all movements looking to outdoor living. * * * The national-park system as now constituted should not be lowered in standard, dignity, and prestige by the inclusion of areas which express in less than the highest terms the particular class or kind of exhibit which they represent.

A Lost Bit in Havasupai Canyon, Arizona

One of the first problems facing the National Park Service was that of providing accommodations for visitors. To insure the best service, public utilities, such as transportation lines and hotel and other accommodations, were given long-term franchises, operating under Government supervision as to rates and type of service furnished. The increased travel of recent years has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in facilities. Some minor forms of service are carried on under annual permit.

The living accommodations vary from luxurious hotels with every convenience to comfortable lodges, cabins, and tents, and even include housekeeping cabins and in some places cafeterias for the benefit of motor campers. Motor-transportation lines with comfortable buses are operated from the railroad terminals to and through the parks, taking in the main points of interest. All structures built in connection with the operations of the public utilities are built under the strict surveillance of park landscape experts and on plans approved by the National Park Service. The service in all cases insists that the structures fit harmoniously into their natural surroundings.

The roads, trails, automobile camps, and structures used in the administration of the parks are built by the National Park Service, also under strict regulation as to landscape requirements. Only about 25 per cent of the area of the national parks is now reached by highway, the remainder being reserved for the use of the hiker or horseman who wants to get off the beaten track. Free public automobile camps, with all modern installations, are located at convenient points along the main highways for the use of motor visitors.

The Public Is Invited to Pitch Camp in the National Parks

Although the recreational use of the national parks and national monuments is an important one, they serve a higher function in the opportunities they afford for esthetic and educational development. The very fact that each park admitted to the system must be a typical example of the particular scenery of natural phenomena which it represents makes it an excellent field laboratory for study.

That visitors to the national parks may study to the best advantage the natural phenomena in these areas an educational program is operated by the National Park Service to explain the objects of interest and to direct study. The main phases of this work are the naturalist service and the museums. Ranger naturalists conduct parties out in the field, explaining the interesting natural history exhibits encountered along the way, and give talks on natural history subjects in the hotels, lodges, museums, and about the community camp fires.

The local administration of the national parks devolves upon the superintendent, who reports to the Director of the National Park Service. Under the superintendent is a corps of clerical and ranger assistants. To the rangers are entrusted the duty of protecting the natural formations and wild-life exhibits of the parks. They also must handle traffic and assist the visiting public whenever necessary, fight forest fires, plant fish, and a wide variety of other activities.

Special engineering and landscape architectural divisions cooperate with the park superintendents in all construction work, while the educational activities of the naturalist force are directed by the educational branch of the Washington office.

All activities in connection with the administration of the national parks and monuments are directed toward two important achievements. The National Park Service, to live up to the requirements of Congress in passing the organic law, must protect these areas in their natural condition for the use of future generations and at the same time must make them available for the enjoyment and benefit of Americans of to-day.

Natural History

As an example of successful conservation the Department of the Interior offers the National Park Service as one of its prize exhibits. It has here developed group wilderness areas, scenic playgrounds, natural wonders, to which it is entitled to point with pride. Had they not been taken over by the Government and preserved their peculiar values doubtless soon would have disappeared. As it is, they will be available through the generations for the enjoyment of the public. They admittedly constitute one of the outstanding examples of the exercise of foresight on the part of the Government.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 20-Jul-2009