Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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Chapter 1
Quiet Genesis

In the last decades of the nineteenth century the federal government began to set aside—out of the vast public domain it was giving away to settlers, railroad companies, and the states—large areas of remote and scenic land to be held permanently in public ownership and known as national parks. [1] What exactly was meant to be accomplished by these unprecedented reservations is a mystery that will never be fully solved. There was at the time no tradition of rural nature parks anywhere in the world. [2] Neither was there a popular movement calling for the establishment of such places, [3] and the first park—the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of big trees in California—was created during the Civil War without fanfare, with hardly any congressional debate, and with a minimum of public notice. [4]

The quiet genesis of the national park system is hardly surprising, for the western mountain lands were then virtually unknown. To reach Yosemite Valley in the 1860s, it was necessary to take a boat from San Francisco to Stockton, followed by a sixteen-hour stagecoach ride to Coulterville, and finally a fifty-seven-mile, thirty-seven-hour trek by horse and pack mule into the valley. [5] Yellowstone, established in 1872, was even less accessible. Except to a handful of pioneers, it was unexplored territory, and reports of its spectacular thermal features were widely disbelieved as the inventions of mountain tale spinners. [6] Nor were those who urged the Congress to reserve these places celebrated figures in American life. The Yosemite bill was introduced on the basis of a letter to a California senator from a man named Israel Ward Raymond, described only as a gentleman "of fortune, of taste and of refinement," and of whom all that is known is that he was the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company. [7] The popular account of Yellowstone's founding holds that the idea for a park was conceived by one of the early exploratory parties in the area at an after-dinner campfire in 1870 which decided that so wonderful a region ought never to be allowed to fall into private ownership. Scholarly research has turned up a more plausible, if less romantic, story. [8] One A. B. Nettleton, an agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, passed on to Washington a suggestion which struck him "as being an excellent one . . . Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever. . . ." [8] Subsequently the Northern Pacific became the principal means of access to Yellowstone and its first concessioner providing services for tourists.

The statutes setting aside the first national parks were as cryptic as their histories. Yosemite was turned over to the state of California, to be withdrawn from settlement and held "for public use, resort and recreation." [9] Years later, it was returned to the United States and added to the much larger surrounding lands that comprise most of the present national park. Eight years after the Yosemite grant, Congress similarly withdrew Yellowstone from settlement and dedicated it "as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." [10] In the decades that followed, using a similar verbal formula, Congress set aside Sequoia and Kings Canyon (originally known as General Grant Park) in the high mountains of California, Crater Lake in Oregon, Washington's glacier-capped Mount Rainier, the Indian ruins at Mesa Verde in Colorado, and a number of other remarkable places. [11] It even made Michigan"s Mackinac Island a national park in 1875, only to repent and relinquish it three years later. In the first years of the twentieth century it added obscurity to magnificence by adding Wind Cave and Sully's Hill national parks in the Dakotas and Platt National Park in Oklahoma.

If the government had a plan for the parks it was establishing, it was certainly casual about it. No bureau existed to manage these places until 1916, forty-four years after the Yellowstone reservation. [12] Yellowstone, in fact, was run by the United States Cavalry, and the others were pretty much left to themselves and to a few hardy innkeepers and adventurous tourists. [13] The modern desire to view the parks as the product of a prophetic public ecological conscience has little history to support it. The early parks were reserved for their scenery and their curiosities, and they reflect a fascination with monumentalism as well as biological ignorance or indifference. [14]

The ability of a national park system to come into being and to persist most likely grew out of the happy convergence of a number of very diverse, but compatible, forces. Proposals to preserve scenic places followed a period of romantic idealism that had swept the country—the religious naturalism of Thoreau and Emerson, romanticism in the arts, and early nostalgia for what was obviously the end of the untamed wilderness, already in submission to the ax, the railroads, and the last campaigns against the Indians.

The rapidity and relentlessness of settlement also gave weight to efforts to reserve these remarkable sites. When the first Yosemite bill was put before Congress in 1864, the principal claim made was that reservation was necessary to prevent occupation of the valley by homesteaders and to preserve its trees from destruction. [15] Not many years later, John Muir worked for an enlargement of the park to protect the high valleys from the destructive grazing of sheep which he called "hoofed locusts." [16]

Spectacular scenery brought out curiosity seekers eager to turn wonders into profits. As early as 1853 some promoters denuded a number of large sequoia trees of portions of their bark, which were shipped to London to be exhibited for a fee. Ironically, the size of the trees from which the bark came was, to Europeans, so large as to be beyond belief, and the exhibition, thought to be a fraud, was a financial failure. [17] Souvenir hunters were also on the scene, and even early reports from Yellowstone remarked that "visitors prowled around with shovel and ax, chopping and hacking and prying up great pieces of the most ornamental work they could find; women and men alike joining in the barbarous pastime." [18]

Ruthless exploitation of natural marvels stimulated an uneasiness that was felt more generally about the burgeoning spirit of enterprise in the country. Houses were going up, and trees coming down, with such unbridled energy that it was easy to wonder whether Americans valued anything but the prospect of increased wealth. Thoreau's metaphor of lumbermen murdering trees was invoked repeatedly. [19] Andrew Hill, who led the effort to establish the Big Basin Redwood Park in California, is said to have formed his resolve when the private owner boasted that he planned to fell ancient redwoods on his land for railroad ties and firewood. An article in the Overland Monthly magazine, urging establishment of a Big Basin park, described the principal enemy of the redwoods not as fire, but as "the greed, the rapacity, the vandalism that would hack and cut and mutilate the grandest, the most magnificent forest that can be found on the face of the earth." [20]

The idea of publicly held parks was not only a predictable response to despoliation and avarice, it also harmonized with a principle that was then at the very crest of its influence in American land policy. The Yellowstone-Yosemite era was also the time of Homestead and Desert Land acts, when every American family was to have its share of the public domain free of monopolization by the rich. [21] The application of that principle to the great scenic wonders could not be realized by granting a sequoia grove or Grand Canyon to each citizen. But it was possible to preserve spectacular sites for the average citizen by holding them as public places to be used and enjoyed by everyone. The fear of private appropriation was far from hypothetical. In 1872, the same year that Yellowstone was established, an English nobleman named Windham Thomas Wyndam-Quin, the fourth earl of Dunraven, came to Colorado on a hunting trip, visiting the area where Rocky Mountain National Park is now located. He casually announced that he wanted to acquire the whole region as a private hunting preserve, and by enlisting a cadre of drifters to file homestead claims for him he was able to gain control of more than fifteen thousand acres. Fortunately, as it happened, the Wild-West style was still in force, and local people, under the leadership of a colorful character known as Rocky Mountain Jim, made things more than a little uncomfortable for Dunraven, who thought he could transpose the style of the European aristocrat to the Colorado mountains. By 1907, Lord Dunraven wrote in his memoirs, he had "sold what [I] could get and cleared out, and I have never been there since." [22]

The park concept also fitted neatly with the nationalistic needs of the time. It appealed to a tenacious American desire to measure up to European civilization. What little discussion one finds in early congressional debates is full of suggestions that our scenery compares favorably to the Swiss Alps and that we can provide even more dazzling attractions for world travelers. [23] In the awe some scenery of the mountain West, America had at last a way to compete on an equal plane with the Old World. This prospect was not lost on the railroads, then the most important element in the growing tourist industry, and their support for national parks was never far beneath the surface. [24]

The remoteness of the parks also assured, by and large, that they had little economic value, which dissipated industrial resistance to their establishment. Indeed, Congress regularly sought and received assurances that proposed parklands were "worthless," [25] and some places that did have important commercial value—such as the coastal redwoods of California—were kept out of the system for more than half a century. [26] Only rarely did conflict become bitter in the old days. as when San Francisco and the Sierra Club battled over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite Park for municipal water supply. [27] In 1913 the city won and the Sierra Club still bears scars from that fight, but Hetch Hetchy was an exceptional case. By the time major battles began to be fought over industrialization versus preservation, as in the struggle to keep dams out of Yellowstone in the 1920s, [28] the national parks were already a solidly entrenched feature of American life. [29]

The happy convergence of many disparate interests permitted Congress and the public to sustain the contradictory, but compatible, beliefs that permitted a park system to flourish: on one side a repugnance at the seemingly boundless materialism that infused American life, a spiritual attachment to untrammeled nature, and a self-congratulatory attitude toward preservation of nature's bounty; and on the other a commitment to economic progress wherever it could be exacted, nationalistic pride, and the practical use of nature as a commodity supportive of tourism and commercial recreation.

For a good many years, this fragile ideological coalition held together with only modest conflict. The preservationists (as they are now called), who always comprised the most active and interested constituency in favor of national parks, had little to complain about. The parks were there, but they were so little used and so little developed—Congress was always grudging with appropriations: "Not one cent for scenery" was its long-standing motto [30] —that those who wanted to maintain the parks as they were, both for their own use and as a symbol of man's appropriate relationship to nature, had what they wanted.

The professional park managers, organized as the National Park Service in 1916, also found circumstances generally to their liking. Like all bureaucrats they had certain imperial ambitions. But the park system was steadily growing, and that was satisfying. Some of their gains were made at the expense of the national forests, housed in another federal department, and while inter-bureau infighting was at times intense, the general public was indifferent to such matters. [31] Moreover, in its early years, and particularly before the full blossoming of the automobile era, the Park Service was able to take an actively promotional posture, encouraging increasing tourism, road building, and hotel development without losing the support of its preservationist constituency. [32] It was then in everyone's interest to create greater public support for the parks. If more people came to the national parks, more people would approve the establishment of new parks and would approve funding for management needed to protect and preserve them. Even the most ardent wilderness advocate complained little about the Park Service as a promotional agency. The adverse effects tourism might have were long viewed as trivial.

The tourists who came to the parks in the early days were in general not much different from those who come today. [33] They arrived in carriages, slept in hotels, and spent a good deal of their time sitting on verandas. But of course they came in much smaller numbers, their impact on the resources was much less, and, despite the comforts they provided themselves, the setting in which they lived in the parks was fairly primitive and marked a sharp contrast with life at home. A visit to a national park was still an adventure, quite unlike any ordinary vacation. The alliance of preservationists (whose interest in parks was essentially symbolic and spiritual) and vacationers (to whom the parks were a commodity for recreational use) was not threatened by the low intensity use the parks received for many decades. The contradiction Congress had enacted into law in the 1916 general management act, ordering the National Park Service at once to promote use and to conserve the resources so as to leave them unimpaired, was actually a workable mandate. [34]

The recreation explosion of recent years has unraveled that alliance and brought to the fore questions we have not previously had to answer: For whom and for what are the parks most important? Which of the faithful national park constituencies will have to be disappointed so that the parks can serve their "true" purpose? The adverse impact on natural resources generated by increased numbers is only the most visible sign of a cleavage that goes much deeper. The preservationist constituency is disturbed not only—and not even most importantly by the physical deterioration of the parks, but by a sense that the style of modern tourism is depriving the parks of their central symbolism, their message about the relationship between man and nature, and man and industrial society.

When the tourist of an earlier time came to the parks he inevitably left the city far behind him. He may not have been a backpacker or a mountain climber, but he was genuinely immersed in a natural setting. He may only have strolled around the area near his hotel, but he was in a place where the sound of birds ruled rather than the sound of motors, where the urban crowds gave way to rural densities, and where planned entertainments disappeared in favor of a place with nothing to do but what the visitor discovered for himself.

Tourism in the parks today, by contrast, is often little more than an extension of the city and its life-style transposed onto a scenic background. At its extreme, in Yosemite Valley or at the South Rim of Grand Canyon, for example, one finds all the artifacts of urban life: traffic jams, long lines waiting in restaurants, supermarkets, taverns, fashionable shops, night life, prepared entertainments, and the unending drone of motors. [35] The recreational vehicle user comes incased in a rolling version of his home, complete with television to amuse himself when the scenery ceases to engage him. The snowmobiler brings speed and power, Detroit transplanted, imposing the city's pace in the remotest backcountry.

The modern concessioner, more and more a national recreation conglomerate corporation, has often displaced the local innkeeper who adapted to a limited and seasonal business. There are modernized units identical to conventional motels, air conditioning, packaged foods, business conventions, and efforts to bring year-round commercial tourism to places where previously silent, languid winters began with the first snowfall. [36]

All these changes have made the preservationist, to whom the park is essentially a symbol of nature and its pace and power, an adversary of the conventional tourist. The clearest evidence that the preservationist and the tourist are not simply fighting over the destruction of resources or the allocation of a limited resource that each wishes to use in different, and conflicting, ways, but are rather at odds over the symbolism of the parks, is revealed by the battles that they fight. One such recent controversy has arisen over the use of motors on concessioner-run boat trips down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. [37] In fact, motorized boats don't measurably affect the Canyon ecosystem, nor do they significantly intrude upon those who want to go down the river in oar-powered boats. Reduced to essentials, the preservationist claim is simply that motors don"t belong in this remote and wild place; that they betray the idea of man immersed in nature and bring industrialization to a place whose meaning inheres in its isolation from, and contrast to, life in society.

Much the same observation may be made about the intense controversy over highly developed places like Yosemite Valley. Many of those who are most opposed to the claimed over-development of the valley do not themselves use it much. Wilderness lovers go into the wilderness, and Yosemite, like most national parks, has an abundance of undeveloped wilderness. What offends is not the unavailability of the valley as wild country, but the meaning national parks come to have when they are represented by places like Yosemite City, as the valley has been unkindly called.

What's wrong with the parks, says Edward Abbey—one of the most prominent contemporary spokesmen for the preservationist position—is that they have been too much given over to the clientele of "industrial tourism," people who visit from their cars and whose three standard questions are: "Where"s the john? How long's it take to see this place? and Where's the Coke machine?" [38] Perhaps serving vacationers who have questions like these on their minds would require the construction of some additional roads and the installation of a few more Coke machines, but those intrusions need hardly interfere with Abbey's own recreational preferences, particularly in the vast Utah parks he most admires. His complaint is of quite a different kind. Industrial tourism debases the significance that national parks have for him, and he is troubled to see people using the parks as they use Disneyland, simply as places to be entertained while they are on vacation.

Traditional approaches to conflicting uses in the parks are not responsive to the issue that really divides the preservationist and the tourist. It will not do simply to separate incompatible uses, or to mitigate the damage done by the most resource-consuming visitors. For the preservationist is at least as much interested in changing the attitudes of other park users as in changing their activities. And he is as much concerned about what others do in places remote from him as when they are vying for the same space he wants to occupy. The preservationist is like the patriot who objects when someone tramples on the American flag. It is not the physical act that offends, but the symbolic act. Nor is the offense mitigated if the trampler points out that the flag belongs to him, or that flag trampling is simply a matter of taste, no different from flag waving.

The preservationist is not an elitist who wants to exclude others, notwithstanding popular opinion to the contrary; he is a moralist who wants to convert them. He is concerned about what other people do in the parks not because he is unaware of the diversity of taste in the society, but because he views certain kinds of activity as calculated to undermine the attitudes he believes the parks can, and should, encourage. He sees mountain climbing as promoting self-reliance, for example, whereas "climbing" in an electrified tramway is perceived as a passive and dependent activity. He finds a park full of planned entertainments and standardized activities a deterrent to independence, whereas an undeveloped park leaves the visitor to set his own agenda and learn how to amuse himself. He associates the motorcyclist roaring across the desert with aspirations to power and domination, while the fly-fisherman is engaged in reducing his technological advantage in order to immerse himself in the natural system and reach out for what lessons it has to offer him. The validity of these distinctions is not self-evident, and I shall have a good deal more to say about them in the following chapters. They are, however, what lies at the heart of the preservationist position.

The preservationist does not condemn the activities he would like to exclude from the park. He considers them perfectly legitimate and appropriate—if not admirable—and believes that opportunities for conventional tourism are amply provided elsewhere: at resorts and amusement parks, on private lands, and on a very considerable portion of the public domain too. He only urges a recognition that the parks have a distinctive function to perform that is separate from the service of conventional tourism, and that they should be managed explicitly to present that function to the public as their principal goal, separate from whatever conventional tourist services they may also have to provide.

In urging that the national parks be devoted to affirming the symbolic meaning he attaches to them, the preservationist makes a very important assumption, routinely indulged but hardly ever explicit. The assumption is that the values he imputes to the parks (independence, self-reliance, self-restraint) are extremely widely shared by the American public. Though he knows that he is a member of a minority, he believes he speaks for values that are majoritarian. He is, in fact, a prophet for a kind of secular religion. You would like to emulate the pioneer explorers, he says to the public; you would like independently to raft down the wild Colorado as John Wesley Powell did a century ago. [39] You would like to go it alone in the mountain wilderness as John Muir did. Indeed that is why you are stirred by the images of the great national parks and why you support the establishment of public wilderness. But you are vulnerable; you allow entrepreneurs to coddle you and manage you. And you are fearful; you are afraid to get out of your recreational vehicle or your car and plunge into the woods on your own. Moreover you want to deceive yourself; you would like to believe that you are striking out into the wilderness, but you insist that the wilderness be tamed before you enter it. So, says the secular prophet, follow me and I will show you how to become the sort of person you really want to be. Put aside for a while the plastic alligators of the amusement park, and I will show you that nature, taken on its own terms, has something to say that you will be glad to hear. This is the essence of the preservationist message.


Mountains Without Handrails
©1980, The University of Michigan
Published by The University of Michigan Press

sax/chap1.htm — 22-Jan-2003