Romance of the National Parks



"Nowhere in official Washington can an inquirer find an office of the National Parks, or a desk devoted solely to their management.

—Dr. J. Horace McFarland, Annual Convention,
American Civic Association, Washington, December 1911

IN 1890 the United States had four national parks, created through the unselfish devotion of a few public-spirited citizens who had the vision to see into the future and try to avert the disastrous results of excessive commercial exploitation of our lands and waters. So far no one had promulgated the idea of a National Park System. There were signs, however, that sporadic thinking and acting would bring into being enough of these new land-use areas to create a new category or class.

In 1890 visitors to Yellowstone or Yosemite traveled to certain railheads—the outposts of civilization—and then were transported by stage into the parks. If they penetrated beyond the rather rough wagon roads, they were obliged to walk or ride horseback. Who could have dreamed that a day would arrive when nearly thirty million automobiles would be distributed at the rate of one for every four people in the United States? What would our hard working New England ancestors have thought of the vacation trips of the twenties, of the thousands of miles of hard pavements which were to follow 1916?

In 1893 a bill was introduced into Congress by Senator Watson C. Squire to create the Washington National Park, to include the spectacularly majestic Mt. Rainier, but it was not until March 2, 1899, in President McKinley's administration, that Mt. Rainier, with its ancient glaciers lying deep and its pristine snowy robe renewed each year, with its trailing glory of forests and streams, was created a national park. The four national parks which had been created up to this time were taken from the public domain. Mt. Rainier National Park was set aside from the "Pacific Forest Reserve." That is, it had already been removed from the public domain and placed in the forest-reserve class. These forest reserves, later to become "national forests," were an evidence that the conservation idea was beginning to take hold. Today the far-flung national forests bear eloquent testimony to the vision of those who have, through the years, promoted this form of land-use. But, with Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant leading the way, it was already becoming apparent that there were these two separate and distinct forms of public land-use, besides others which were coming to be recognized. At first Rainier was not adequately protected against mineral claims but in 1908 an amendment prohibited the location of new mining claims in the park, although the old ones were protected. In Mt. Rainier National Park, as in most of the other national parks, except Yellowstone, private rights had already been established, but the act of dedication provided that settler- and railroad-owned lands could be exchanged for lieu lands in order to clear the title to the park. The American people gave land away with a free hand, and then, when it was discovered that they had been mistaken, the lands were often bought back, sometimes with the grant of other lands and sometimes for cash from the public treasury. This process, however unprofitable, worked little harm where the lands themselves were not damaged. Unfortunately, the granted lands which bore some of the finest forests of the New World came back to the ownership of the people shorn of their glory and without much economic value. The extent of erosion-control of this era is one indication that lands which once were assets have become actual liabilities.

And so Mt. Rainier, with an all too scanty rim of protection, became a national park. It could hardly be said that even yet we were consciously working for a National Park System. When the twentieth century dawned, twenty-eight years after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, we had but five national parks in three States. But in 1902 Crater Lake, with its icy waters of sapphire blue, became a national park. It was reserved from the public lands in the State of Oregon, "set apart forever as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit of the people of the United States," and assigned to the Secretary of the Interior for control and custody. The act expressly forbade "all residence and settlement and the engaging in business or speculative enterprises," but the park was to be open to "scientists, excursionists and pleasure seekers," and to the locating and working of mining claims, a menace which has been removed from many of the existing parks but which still hangs like a dark cloud over projects for parks-to be. We are a metal-hungry people, and in spite of over-production of certain metals and the uneconomic expense of operation for the mining of others, we still think that the impecunious should be permitted to "prospect" for wealth. Apparently we still have faith in Aladdin's lamp, rather than a sound economic system which will permit our people to become and remain joint owners of inspiring natural-scenic areas, safe from economic exploitation.

The Crater Lake Act mentioned specifically what was perhaps implicit in the original Yellowstone Act, and that is the invitation to scientists to come to the park. It was a good many years before we were to undertake seriously a program of education and science in the national parks, but it was coming, and here, thirty-five years ago, in the Crater Lake Act, was a recognition of its desirability.

We then had six national parks, all areas of indisputable beauty and national interest; all of them, except Yellowstone, spotted with private rights and easements which were long to trouble their administrators and limit their service to the public. The promoters of these national parks had vision, but they were obliged to make concessions to the commercial demands of the times. Public opinion was not yet sufficiently informed or possessed of that firm conviction which is needed to resist the pressure of local business interests. But the idea of national parks was growing, and as visitors increased year by year, the education of the American people was being carried on. The time was coming when the people would unite to protect their joint property from harmful encroachments—at first not always successfully, but who can doubt the ultimate outcome?

In 1903 Wind Cave National Park was created in South Dakota. Wind Cave is an interesting phenomenon, but in the light of later discoveries of larger and more impressive caves, it may be that its correct classification would bring it into the State Park System, to be administered in connection with the highly scenic Custer State Park, only a few miles north of it. Possibly it should have been a national monument, a land status which at the time of the Wind Cave Act had not yet been defined.

In 1902 the Secretary of the Interior was charged with the administration of mineral springs in the Chickasaw Indian territory. In 1906, when Oklahoma became a State, the sulphur springs were designated as Platt National Park. This was reminiscent of the Hot Springs, in Arkansas, much visited for their curative waters, which had been a public reservation since 1832. It was awarded to the National Park Service in the Act of 1916, and finally became a national park in 1921. (There is some question, perhaps, as to whether a better classification and a more appropriate agency to administer these springs might be found.)

In 1906 Congress passed an Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities, which authorized the President by proclamation to set aside lands owned or controlled by the United States, containing "historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or prehistoric interest," as national monuments. Some fault has been found with the term "monument." To some critics it has unpleasant connotations. But so far no one has been able to think of any more descriptive or appropriate title. It has now been in common use in the United States, recognized by the law, for more than thirty years, and has come to have a meaning of its own.

Honorable John F. Lacey, Congressman from Iowa, who had taken the lead in securing passage of the Antiquities Act, also sponsored the bill to create Mesa Verde National Park which became a law three weeks after the approval of the Antiquities Act. Except for the fact that the reservation was created by statute instead of by Executive Order, there seems no reason why Mesa Verde, one of the most extensive and alluring archeological areas in the United States, should not be a national monument, for its scenery, though impressive, would hardly entitle it to become a national park. Perhaps the difficulty has been that many have thought of national monuments as less important than national parks. This is not the case. From an archeological or scientific point of view, they may be much more important.

In this little chronological account of how the national parks and monuments came into existence, piecemeal, without comprehensive plan, it is clear, for the most part, that the period was characterized by laissez-faire—"let it alone," or "let it happen" as it may. Then in 1908 came an event of great significance President Theodore Roosevelt called a Conservation Conference of Governors in Washington, and to this he invited public officials, university presidents, and officers of the leading conservation organizations. The Conference was called to give direction and impetus to the then comparatively new conservation of our forests, which many realized were fast disappearing from the surface of our land. President Roosevelt also had in mind a broader program of conservation to include lands, waters, and minerals. The proceedings of that Conference, three inches thick, stand on the library shelves today. One may look through these five hundred odd pages and find many useful suggestions for the conservation of our natural resources and our economic assets. Speakers from California, Washington, Colorado, and Wyoming, where there were scenic assets recognized by the entire Nation, made no mention of conservation as applied to these precious possessions. In over 200,000 words not over 2,000 were devoted to conservation of natural scenery. Dr. McFarland shared with Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York the honor of directing the attention of the Conference to this important subject.

Dr. McFarland urged consideration of "one of America's greatest resources—her unmatched natural scenery." Said he: "The National Parks, all too few in number and extent, ought to be held absolutely inviolate as intended by Congress. . . . The scenic value of all the national domain yet remaining should be jealously guarded as a distinctly important national resource, and not as a mere incidental increment. . . . We have for a century, Mr. Chairman, stood actually, if not ostensibly, for an uglier America; let us here and now resolve, for every patriotic and economic reason, to stand openly and solidly for a more beautiful, and therefore a more prosperous America!"

The high note of Governor Hughes' address was a sentence which indicated his sentiments: "The conservation of our resources means not merely their physical preservation but their safeguarding of the common interest in the beauties of nature and their protection both from the ruthless hand of the destroyer and from the grasp of selfish interest." Governor Hughes recounted as an important part of the achievements of the great State of New York the setting aside of the Adirondack Forest Park.

These fine sentiments earned in the thousand-word resolutions adopted by the Governors exactly one word, which indicated that among the desirable effects of conservation of natural resources "the beauty, healthfulness, and habitability of our country should be preserved and increased."

But the words of Dr. McFarland, though they may have fallen on ears attuned only to the conservation and utilization of material resources, acted as a spur to himself. From the time of the Conference, he put the force of his dynamic personality behind the movement to secure a single agency in the United States Government which should be responsible for protecting and administering the national parks. He began to envision a system. The first step was to secure the agency. In the eight years during which there were pending measures before Congress to establish such an agency, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Hawaii, and Lassen National Parks were created, and a number of national monuments were set aside by Executive Order of the President.

Glacier National Park, embracing some of the finest of the northern Rocky Mountains, streaked with living glaciers and spotted with glacial lakes, comprising a long section of the Continental Divide, covered 1,500 square miles, directly adjoining the Waterton Lakes Park of Canada. The Act sounded a caution for the "preservation of the park in a state of nature, so far as consistent with the purpose of the Act," and "for the care and protection of the fish and game" within the park. Unfortunately, there were a great many private holdings within the boundaries. Many difficulties have attended the efforts to clear the park of private property, and the end is not yet.

Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915. The park came in with the usual wording that it should be set aside "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States," but most unfortunately it also provided "that the United States Reclamation Service may enter upon and utilize for flowage or other purposes any area within said park which may be necessary for the development and maintenance of a Government Reclamation project." This provision, as will be seen later, has risen to confound the park administrators, and to curtail the enjoyment of the people in the national park which they have dedicated to the pleasure of the people.

In August of 1916 Kilauea and Haleakala Volcanoes, with protective rims, on the Islands of Hawaii and Maui, were constituted Hawaii National Park by Act of Congress and it was provided that perpetual easements and rights-of-way should be acquired and transferred to the United States.

In August of the same year, Lassen Volcanic National Park was created by Congress to protect Lassen Volcano in northern California. As Lassen has been active in recent years, this area has provided a laboratory of research, but the park is also much visited by those who love to camp and fish and so provides a by-product of interesting outdoor life.

Following the Conservation Congress of 1908, Dr. McFarland inaugurated a campaign of education to place the national parks in the hands of a single Federal administrator. In 1910, at his behest, Secretary Ballinger recommended such a bureau in his Annual Report. He stated, "The volume and importance of the work of the supervision of the national parks and reserves under the Secretary of the Interior has passed beyond the stage of satisfactory control by operations carried on with the small force available in the Secretary's office."

At the 1911 Annual Convention of the American Civic Association, President Taft, Secretary of the Interior Fisher, and Dr. McFarland made notable addresses. President Taft made the situation clear when he said: "Now we have in the United States a great many natural wonders, and in that lazy way we have in our Government of first taking up one thing and then another, we have set aside a number of National Parks, of forest reservations covering what ought to be National Parks, and what are called 'national monuments.' We have said to ourselves, 'Those cannot get away. We have surrounded them by a law which makes them necessarily Government property forever, and we will wait in our own good time to make them useful as parks to the people of this country. Since the Interior Department is the "lumber room" of the Government, into which we put everything that we don't know how to classify, and don't know what to do with, we will just put them under the Secretary of the Interior.' That is the condition of the National Parks today."

Secretary Fisher told of the first conference on national parks, held in Yellowstone National Park, under the auspices of the Department of the Interior, with Dr. McFarland as an honored guest and participant. Concerning the proposed Federal agency, he said: "I have talked this matter over with the President, and I know that he is favorably interested in it, and that he gladly accepted the suggestion that he come over here this evening to meet this audience and express his own views in favor of this movement in which the American Civic Association is taking so prominent and leading a part."

Dr. McFarland made a plea, first for the national parks themselves. Said he: "The national playgrounds . . . can, if they are held inviolable, preserve for us, as no minor possessions can, our unique scenic wonders, our great natural mysteries. The spouting geyser basins and marvelous hot springs of the Yellowstone, the atmospheric splendors of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the silver threads of the Falls of the Yosemite, the ancient homes of the cliff-dwellers on the Mesa Verde, the ice marvels of the Montana glaciers, the blue marvel of Crater Lake, the towering temples among the big trees of the Sierra—how long would they last unharmed and free to all the people if the hand of the Federal Government were withdrawn from them?"

Speaking of the need for a Federal bureau, Dr. McFarland declared: "Nowhere in official Washington can an inquirer find an office of the National Parks, or a desk devoted solely to their management. By passing around through three departments, and consulting clerks who have taken on the extra work of doing what they can for the Nation's playgrounds, it is possible to come at a little information.

"This is no one's fault. Uncle Sam has simply not waked up about his precious parks. He has not thrown over them the mantle of any complete legal protection—only the Yellowstone has any adequate legal status, and the Yosemite is technically a forest reserve. Selfish and greedy assaults have been made upon the parks, and it is under a legal 'joker' that San Francisco is now seeking to take to herself without having in ten years shown any adequate engineering reason for the assault, nearly half of Yosemite. . . . Now there is light and a determination to do as well for the Nation as any little city does for itself. The Great Father of the Nation, who honors us tonight by his presence, has been the unswerving friend of the Nation's scenic possessions."

Following this memorable meeting in Washington, President Taft sent to Congress on February 2, 1912, a special message: "I earnestly recommend the establishment of a Bureau of National Parks. Such legislation is essential to the proper management of those wondrous manifestations of nature, so startling and so beautiful that everyone recognizes the obligations of the Government to preserve them for the edification and recreation of the people.

"The Yellowstone Park, the Yosemite, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the Glacier National Park and the Mount Rainier National Park and others furnish appropriate instances. In only one case have we made anything like adequate preparation for the use of a park by the public. That case is the Yellowstone National Park. Every consideration of patriotism and the love of nature and of beauty and of art requires us to expend money enough to bring all these natural wonders within easy reach of our people. The first step in that direction is the establishment of a responsible bureau, which shall take upon itself the burden of supervising the parks and of making recommendations as to the best method of improving their accessibility and usefulness."

The Outlook, in its issue of September 30, 1911, commented upon the Yellowstone National Park Conference and upon the cooperation of the American Civic Association with the Department of the Interior: "It is in point to note that, at the instance and with the approval of the American Civic Association, Secretary Fisher's predecessor, Mr. Ballinger, had offered during the last session of the Sixtieth Congress a carefully drawn bill creating such a (bureau)." In the issue of February 3, 1912, the Outlook suggested that the new bureau be called the National Park Service, in conformity with the custom already established in naming the Forest Service. The bill considered by the Sixty-second Congress did in fact adopt that suggestion.

But when the American Civic Association held its 1912 Convention in Baltimore on November 20, the bill had not passed Congress. Again Secretary Fisher spoke. He said: "We did draw up and present to Congress a bill for the creation of a Bureau of National Parks, and this Association was one of the chief agencies that interested itself in pushing that bill. We had the bill considered in committee, and I think the general result was quite favorable, but our lawmakers—to indulge in a public confidence— were so engaged in preparing for the presidential election that they made little progress for us, and today we confront precisely the same situation; and though I am here to report progress, there is not very much progress to report. But I ask this Association to continue to use all the influence in its power to see that some effective means is provided to improve these conditions, and to apply sound principles of administration to our National Parks System."

On that occasion, too, the Right Honorable James Bryce, British Ambassador to the United States, made a memorable address. Ambassador Bryce displayed an intimate knowledge of the subject and of United States geography. Said he: "You have prodigious and magnificent forests; there are no others comparable for extent and splendor with those you possess. These forests, especially those on the Cascade range and the Sierra Nevada, are being allowed to be cut down ruthlessly by the lumbermen. I do not blame them; timber is wanted and they want to drive their trade, but the process goes on too fast and much of the charm of nature is lost while the interests of the future are forgotten. The same thing is happening in the Appalachian ranges in New England and the Alleghanies southward from Pennsylvania, a superbly beautiful country, where the forests made to be the delight of those who wish to ramble among them and enjoy the primitive charm of hills and woodland glades, have been despoiled. Sometimes the trees have been cut down and the land left bare. Sometimes an inextricable tangle of small boughs and twigs remains, so that when a dry year comes a fire rages among them and the land is so scorched that for many long years no great trees will rise to replace those that were destroyed." He continued: "You fortunately have a great supply of splendid water power. I am far from saying that a great deal of it, perhaps most of it, may not be very properly used for industrial purposes, but I do say that it has been used in some places to the detriment, and even to the ruin, of scenery.

Ambassador Bryce had visited four of the national parks. After praising their unique beauty, he paid tribute "to the taste and judgment with which, as it seemed to me three years ago, the hotels in the Yosemite were being managed. There were no offensive signs, no advertisements of medicines, no other external disfigurements to excite horror, and the inns were all of moderate size and not more than two stories high. I earnestly hope that the administration will always be continued on these lines, with this same regard for landscape beauty."

The summation of the address seems incontrovertible:

"The world seems likely to last a long, long time, and we ought to make provision for the future.

"The population of the world goes on constantly increasing and nowhere increasing so fast as in North America.

"A taste for natural beauty is increasing, and, as we hope, will go on increasing.

"The places of scenic beauty do not increase, but, on the contrary, are in danger of being reduced in number and diminished in quantity, and the danger is always increasing with the accumulation of wealth, owing to the desire of private persons to appropriate these places. There is no better service we can render to the masses of the people than to set about and preserve for them wide spaces of fine scenery for their delight."

By 1913 there was a new Secretary of the Interior, Franklin K. Lane. Soon after he was inducted into office, Dr. McFarland and Richard Watrous, Secretary of the American Civic Association, called upon him. They laid before him the great need for a National Park Service. Secretary Lane, who came from California and knew the national parks of the West, gave his callers most sympathetic attention. In April of 1914 hearings were held on the Raker bill. Adolph C. Miller, Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, spoke for Mr. Lane. The bill was approved by the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. But the bill was not to pass the Sixty-third session of Congress.

In April of 1916, hearings were again held on two pending bills, one introduced by Judge Raker and one by William Kent. Stephen T. Mather had now become one of the principal actors in the national-park scene, and was taking the initiative for the Department of the Interior. In addition to the officials, Dr. McFarland and Mr. Watrous, of the American Civic Association, were the principal citizen witnesses. Dr. McFarland called attention to the fact that he and his associates had believed that there should be in the bill "whenever it might seem wise for Congress to pass it, a statement of what parks are for. "It was," he said, "Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted who framed the sentence . . . which is now a part of Mr. Kent's bill: 'The fundamental object of these aforesaid parks, monuments, and reservations is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historical objects therein and to provide for the enjoyment of said scenery and objects by the public in any manner and by any means that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

It was at this hearing that Dr. McFarland produced a letter from Chief Forester Henry S. Graves, written in response to Dr. McFarland's letter, stating that he had heard rumors that the Forester was not in sympathy with the development of national parks under a separate and distinctive administration. Colonel Graves stated bluntly: "Most certainly I am in favor of establishing a national park service, with adequate authority to organize and administer effectively the national parks. . . . I have consistently expressed myself in this way in public and in private. A few weeks ago when you were at my office with the draft of a bill providing for a national park service I again expressed myself as favorable to the idea. At the same time I called your special attention to two points. One was to make certain that the officers in the new park service would all be in the classified civil service. The second matter related to the national monuments. The proposed bill transferred the monuments now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior. I explained to you the difficulties of administration which would arise from this arrangement and suggested a modification of that part of the bill. . . .

"Your second question is whether 'there is proceeding with my knowledge and consent, within the Forest Service, or through its influence without the Forest Service, any opposition to this bill.' My reply is categorically, no."

And so, with the concurrence of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, and with the support of the American Civic Association, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society of New York, and with the editorial approval of the Saturday Evening Post, the Outlook and other journals, the Act of August 25, 1916, was adopted by Congress and approved by President Wilson. For eight years Dr. McFarland had worked in season and out of season, to bring about this result. He had interviewed, in turn, Secretaries Ballinger, Fisher, and Lane, had told his story and converted each one of them. It was not, however, until a deficiency appropriation was made available at the next session of Congress that the Service was organized, with Stephen T. Mather as Director.

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

Last Updated: 18-Nov-2009