National Parks’ Homefront Battle: Protecting Parks During WWII

Though the National Park Service (NPS) was only 25 years old at the outbreak of World War II, the agency found itself fighting a battle on the homefront. With little precedent to work from and dwindling budgets and staff, the NPS strongly defended its parks against a flood of demands to log, mine, graze, drain, and take over national parks.

The needless sacrifice of this scenic and cultural heritage during the war would deprive the American people of some of the most potent symbols of their national greatness... pride and love of country. Wartime NPS Director Newton Drury

The Best Wartime Use of Parks?

At its founding in 1916, the fledgling National Park Service at first managed only a handful of (mostly western) parks. By 1941 that number had grown to 164 parks, historic sites, seashores, rivers and urban recreation areas across the nation.  As America entered World War II, demands for timber, meat, water, and raw materials forced the public to ration materials and food.  This allowed resources to be dedicated to the war effort first.  Industrial war producers, Congress and the military quickly set their sights on harvesting America’s great landscapes.

Requests ranged from demands to melt Civil War cannons and statuary for scrap metal to logging virgin stands of trees.  For the duration of the war, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, National Park Service Director Newton Drury, and park employees to struggled to balance unwavering support of the war effort with their mission to protect park resources for future generations.

As mobilization toward war increased, so did the pressure.  In 1940, with war on the horizon, NPS Director Newton Drury called together his staff to formulate a plan. The NPS was asking itself how park natural resources that were supposed to be there for “the perpetual benefit of the people” could be “mobilized for war?” The group developed criteria for use of ‘irreplaceable treasures’ only when ‘all other sources available to the Nation were exhausted.’ The team also set about plans to inventory resources and find equivalent alternate sources of resources on private, state or even Canadian lands.  

To turn attention from the raw natural materials it protected, the NPS attempted to highlight its role in national and military morale. Dozens of parks hosted recreation and healing programs for troops.  Some parks were turned over to the military for training purposes.  Historic coastal forts - long asleep - were woken up and linked together with radar and radio stations in coastal parks to defend the coastline. Though some compromises were made, the NPS aimed to protect America's and its most special places from the enemy, and from America itself.

Olympic's Forests Targeted

Olympic National Park became the first major battle in a long homefront war over natural resources.  Over the next two years, as the nation mobilized for the war effort, the pressure to log Olympic reached a fever pitch.  After and very long and complex battle over Olympics virgin forests, in 1944 the War Production Board came to the conclusion that logging of Sitka spruce in Olympic was not necessary at the time to meet war aircraft needs.

East Coast Forests Targeted

At the same time as Olympic was holding the western front in this homefront battle, eyes turned to eastern forests in Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Industrial war producers set their sights on red spruce, hemlock, and chestnut stands in these eastern, mountainous parks. Chestnut trees were useful, even as dead trees, for the tannin extract.  Enemy submarines operating in Caribbean waters caused shortages of tannin extract for American war industries.  Hemlock and red spruce were used readily in wood veneer and plywood.  

In both parks the National Park Service resisted the harvest, even of dead and downed trees, due to the steepness of the terrain.  Park officials made clear that logging equipment and roads for timber removal would cause irreversible erosion.  This was particularly true in Great Smoky Mountains National Parks where the red spruce largely grew along the ridge tops making no-impact extractions near impossible.

As a compromise, timber was offered up from blow downs and disease.  Park officials identified dead chestnut stands along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Removal of these trees, along a paved road, were considered a safety hazard to the public and prevented views.  The alternatives satisfied industry and military officials and logging never took place in Great Smoky Mountains or Shenandoah National Parks.

The NPS also made available downed timber in many of its east coast Recreation Demonstration Areas.  The great New England Blowdown of 1938 had left thousands of acres of downed oak and white pine trees across the east. Again, for public safety and fire prevention, these trees were provided to the war effort with the majority being used by the US Navy.

Old Tensions Arise Again Over Grazing

Across the national parks, superintendents were also staving off pressures to allow grazing in national parks.  These pressures were ‘as old as the NPS itself.’ The heavy hooves and waste from cattle and sheep during the First World War had set a ‘dangerous precedent’ causing pollution of water, and the destructive trampling of resources.  NPS officials considering issuing grazing permits during World War II remarked that it ‘took 10 years after the [WWI] armistice to get rid of the cattle.’

In the end, the NPS allowed or expanded grazing of domestic animals in 43 areas during the war, totalling 1,300,000 acres. In 1943,grazing on NPS lands peaked at 28 % above normal levels due to wartime food shortages.  In one instance, purebred-only breeding stock was admitted into some NPS lands in california to save the stock from starvation during a drought.

Lack of Staff, Budgets Challenge Parks

The $30 million budget of the pre-war National Park Service employed a workforce of 6,500.  1,200 employees left the NPS due to drafts, transfers and voluntary enlistments in the armed services.  

Office and technical staff were slashed due to the agency’s dwindling budget. To save money and make room for War Department staff, NPS offices were moved from Washington, DC to Chicago, IL.  Many employees could not make the move and were laid off.  By war’s end, the agency’s remaining 1,500 employees struggled to maintain operations with only a 4.8 million dollar budget.

The repercussions of lack of staff ricocheted across parks and threatened park’s precious resources.  Lack of patrols combined with meat rationing for the war effort sharply increased poaching of wild animals on park lands.  

In 1942, at Glacier Bay National Monument logging crews began sawing down trees on the shore of Excurison Inlet where the US Army was developing a large shipping and logistics base for seagoing traffic.  The Army intended to use the trees for pilings for piers to on and off load ships.  The project was estimated to required 20-30,000 pilings (commercial cost of $15 million).  With no staff posted at Glacier Bay, Alaska Parks Superintendent Frank T. Been visited the site and saw that the unmonitored logging crews had crossed into park boundaries and logged a virgin stand of trees.

Though visitation had decreased sharply due to gas and rubber rationing, the skeleton staff at parks struggled to protect delicate natural formations. At Yellowstone National Park it was reported in June of 1944 the Morning Glory Pool exploded. Scientists determined the explosion was caused by visitors had thrown so much refuse into the pool during the war that it clogged. Lack of staff was blamed.

Historic Parks and Objects Targeted

For a brief period, NPS officials fought off a congressional effort to make it mandatory for parks to melt down statuary and Burgoyne cannon from battlefields and forts for scrap metal.  During the 1930s, the National Park Service had taken over from the military as caretakers of countless battlefield sites from the Revolutionary and Civil War.  Luckily, the bill did not pass, but if it had and the NPS had not been the wartime stewards of our nation's battlefields, many Revolutionary and Civil War monuments may not be here today.  

In the nation's capital - where the NPS manages most of the areas greenspace - impacts of military use were felt acutely. 30% of the major recreational facilities in Washington, DC were closed. This included closing the historic East Potomac Park Golf Course where defense installations and buildngs were constructed to house thousands of war workers.   The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was taken over by War Department to protect Washington, DC's water supply. On the National Mall, temporary military buildings were constructed, including bridges spanning the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. Just outside of DC, Fort Washington was taken over and closed to the public for a Adjutant General’s training school. Around the country, historic fort sites were revived to protect the nation's coastline.

Preservation for Future Generations During WWII

Throughout the war, the NPS would hold fast to the belief that the best wartime use of parks was their ‘superlative recreational assets’ and not ‘using up or destroying the scenic, scientific or historical resources within them’.  Wartime NPS Director Newton Drury remarked that

“The stress of war has compelled the Service to take stock of its primary functions and responsibilities.  As a trustee for many of the great things of america – areas of outstanding natural beautify, scientific interest, and historical significance, the NPS has realized its obligation to harmonize its activities with those relating to the war, aiding wherever possible, and striving to hold in tact those things entrusted to it and most important of all, the uniquely american concept under which national parks are preserved involate for present and future benefit of all of our people."

In an attempt to strike this balance, the NPS made compromises where it could have and held fast where it should have. In addition to these requests for raw materials, parks became training grounds for military units, sites of a vast network of coastal defenses, recreation grounds for troops on furlough, and places for healing from the wounds of war.

As a result, today's National Parks have a place in World War II history. Today's National Park Service now preserve that history for future generations as well.



Last updated: November 20, 2015