Man in Glacier
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Chapter Four:

A great benefit would result to Montana if this section could be set aside as a National Park. The country included in such a park is not fit for agricultural or grazing purposes, but by placing it under the protection of the Government the forests would be protected and consequently some of the sources of water of the three great river systems.

Lieut. J. T. Van Orsdale
5 September 1883

early park visitors
(Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

In 1897, Dr. Lyman Sperry wrote a letter to the Great Northern passenger agent, F. I. Whitney, regarding the area around Lake McDonald, in which he stated: "The woods are full of Glaciers—but they are hard to get at. Good times throughout the country, and good trails in this region will make it a popular resort for campers, climbers, and lovers of science and scenery. The region ought to become a National Park." Dr. Sperry, a well-known lecturer, publicist for the region, amateur explorer, and returning visitor to these mountains, was not the first to suggest that a national park be formed nor was he the most influential. But he presents an interesting conflict in values. Only three years earlier, Sperry intended to claim some real estate on some of the choicest land near Avalanche Lake. What motivated Sperry and some his contemporaries to alter their plans to acquire this land for their personal use and keep it available to the public? Why did Lt. Van Orsdale, Sperry, Grinnell, and others suggest that this area be preserved rather than exploited? The attitude of people toward undeveloped land, their concept of "national parks" in general, combined with political power, publicity, and a concern for the future of these mountains, would ultimately lead to the formation of a park. This critical change of attitude, both of individuals and of the nation, is difficult to trace, for development of a "preservationist" philosophy was gradual and the concept itself was ill-defined even when Glacier National Park was finally formed in 1910.

The idea of "conservation," meaning the protection of all natural resources—such as soil, water, minerals, timber, and the like—for future use, gathered public support and influential followers during the late 1800s and came to flower during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt after the turn of the century. After the United States gained its land through the process of occupation, treaty, or war, the Federal Government began to dispose of it to citizens or corporations willing to settle or develop the resources contained on or in it. But during the last half of the nineteenth century, many Americans began to realize that their natural resources were exhaustible. Some historians link the antimonopoly feeling current in America with those calling for protection of resources from the "grasping maws" of capitalism. Concern over the continual exploitation by "robber barons" of railroad, timber, mining, or large corporations, led to Congressional action which prevented certain areas deemed important from being "despoiled."

All conservationists agreed that the Federal Government had to take action, but they disagreed on the purposes of "conservation." Some argued that limited "use" of natural resources was the grand purpose, while others felt certain areas and their resources should be entirely "preserved" for a future, unspecified purpose or for a nonconsumptive use like that of recreation. All agreed that certain areas, because of their timbered forests, their scenic value, their unsettled condition, or their unique natural features, had to be withdrawn from the possibility of private ownership. Once the areas were withdrawn, their function and purpose in America was subject to debate and would change as the demands of the American public changed or as the administrative policies of their Federal guardians developed.

early park visitors
George Bird Grinnell became a major proponent of the national park status for Glacier. His familiarity with the national conservation movement, his political connections, and his enthusiastic writings about Glacier combined to make him Glacier's foremost advocate. Grinnell and his wife visited the park many times—climbing its mountains, exploring its glaciers, and enjoying its scenery. Grinnell hoped that Glacier's wilderness character could be retained. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

As early as 1832, a region containing forty-seven hot springs in Arkansas was regarded as significantly important to be "denied to private ownership." While designated as a national reservation, not a national park, these hot springs became the first area in America set aside for the purposes of conservation. One year later, artist George Catlin suggested that an entire segment of the Great Plains be held in Federal control as much to preserve its wildness as to provide a permanent home for its primitive inhabitants. Roderick Nash recalled in Wilderness and the American Mind, that Catlin stated: "What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wildness and freshness of their beauty!" Along with Catlin, Horace Greeley, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and many others formulated a wilderness preservation concept during the 1800s and advanced their idea toward fulfillment.

By the 1860s, many regarded the Yosemite area as particularly valuable because of its natural wonders and concern for its preservation grew. One of its major advocates, Frederick Law Olmsted, fought for its preservation on the basis of the "natural scenes of impressive character" which it contained. In 1864, Congress provided that this area be given to the State of California and be established as a park for "public use." With that action, Congress established a precedent for withdrawing land on a large scale and the national park concept was essentially formulated. Later in the 1860s. following an expedition into the Yellowstone area, David E. Folsom proposed that that area be set aside as a "public preserve." And during the early 1870s, the concept of preserving the Yellowstone region was publicized. Congressional approval followed, and subsequently, on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park was set aside as a "public park or pleasuring ground" to be preserved in its natural condition. Private ownership ceased in the park area, but Congress failed to supply the necessary funds to protect its features. Later, in 1886, Federal troops arrived in the park to guard it against despoliation.

The popular attitude of giving government protection to unique, scenic, or otherwise valuable land continued to gain momentum. The concept of forest conservation, for watershed protection or limited timbering developed as Americans realized the devastating rape of the New England and Midwestern forests. Forester Gifford Pinchot, Land Commissioner Edward A. Bowers, and later, Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield, among many others, supported the forest reserve idea but expected their "wise use," meaning that grazing, limited timber harvesting, mining, and other activities would be supervised but not prohibited. Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley began to establish these forest reserves by Executive Order and set aside some fifty million acres for that purpose. The conservation-minded President Theodore Roosevelt added momentum to that movement when he added 150 million acres to the reserves, more than trebling the acreage withdrawn from private ownership. Forest reserves became established, but whether they were subject to "scientific management" or would be "maintained unimpaired" in a natural state was a subject for continuing debate. This argument, which began in the 1890s between the "use" advocates like Pinchot and the "preservation" advocates like John Muir, Robert Underwood Johnson, and George Bird Grinnell, continued for decades, and was being debated while Glacier Park was being considered in Congress, is still evident today.

park photographers
Early photography was no easy occupation. Park photographers like Shepard, Hileman, Marble, and others would have to transport considerable equipment to frequently treacherous locations. Trunks full of cameras, tripods, glass-plate negatives, and sometimes developing chemicals, were all toted along. Tents were occasionally used as darkrooms to process the negatives in a back-country location. Photographs of Glacier's spectacular scenery helped to sell the national park idea. Later, photographers also found that their scenic pictures would help to attract visitors to the region. Advertising brochures would be filled with fishermen, horse riders, and carefree vacationers frolicking in the alpine scenery. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

Some forest reserve lands naturally fit the preservation ideals of John Muir and his cohorts. During 1890, the Sequoia, General Grant, and Yosemite areas gained the status of national parks because of their scenery and unique, forested qualities. Similarly, the area encompassing Glacier was "set aside" during the 1890s on the basis of its forest land. The "forest reserve" status did not prevent settlement, hunting, mining, or other utilitarian activity in the region. And the final distinction between forest reserves and national parks, particularly regarding their purposes and appropriate uses, had yet to be determined. The debate over uses of this special government land continued as additional national parks were designated: Mt. Rainier in 1899; Crater Lake in 1902; Wind Cave in 1903; Sullys Hill in 1904; Platt in 1906; and, following the Antiquities Act of 1906, Mesa Verde in that same year. While a few of these areas were designated "national parks" for purely political reasons, the rest contained unique natural features like the geysers of Yellowstone, the volcanic crater of Crater Lake, the prehistoric dwellings of Mesa Verde, or some spectacular scenery which was deemed worthy of preservation.

The movement to preserve Glacier and to designate it a national park developed gradually, with the decision to preserve its wilderness character and mountain scenery coming only after it received substantial publicity, its exploitation proved fruitless, some influential supporters argued its case, and a successful political drive yielded the Congressional legislation. The creation of Glacier National Park followed a simple and uncomplicated outline, with almost no major opposition.

Lt. John Van Orsdale's letter to the Fort Benton River Press in December of 1883 became the first known public suggestion that the area of Glacier should become a national park. Van Orsdale wrote: "I sincerely hope that publicity now being given to that portion of Montana will result in drawing attention to the scenery which surpasses anything in Montana or adjacent territories. A great benefit would result to Montana if this section could be set aside as a National Park. The country included in such a park is not fit for agricultural or grazing purposes but by placing it under the protection of the Government the forests would be protected and consequently some of the sources of water of three great river systems, viz; the Missouri, the Columbia and the Saskatchewan." Historian James Scheire speculated that Van Orsdale based his suggestion upon the awareness of Yellowstone's preservation and upon conversations with his brother-in-law William R. Logan. Both men had traveled through the region while accompanying Raphael Pumpelly, with Van Orsdale making his second trip through the area at that time. While no immediate preservation plans developed, the concept was initiated.

During the late 1880s, George Bird Grinnell visited the region and published numerous articles describing the wonders of the region in Forest and Stream magazine. His publicity displayed the beauties of its scenery, the wonders of its wildlife and glaciers, and the wilderness condition it had retained. Since he was thoroughly familiar with conservation efforts in Yellowstone and in other sections of the United States, Grinnell gave his influential support to the preservation of Glacier during the two decades preceding Congressional action. His first suggestion to protect the area came as the Great Northern Railway construction entered the mountains in 1891. Grinnell suggested that the government purchase the St. Mary region and, as historian Madison Grant noted, "turn it into a national reservation."


Man in Glacier
©1976, Glacier Natural History Association
buchholtz/chap4.htm — 28-Feb-2006

Copyright © 1976 Glacier Natural History Association. All rights reserved. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and publisher.