On-line Book
Cover to America's National Park Service: The Critical Documents
Cover Page


Table of Contents


The Early Years,

Defining The System,

The New Deal Years,

The Poverty Years,

Questions of
Resource Management

The Ecological Revolution,

Transformation and

A System Threatened,

Summaries of
Lengthy Documents

About the Editor

America's National Park System:
The Critical Documents
Defining the System 1919-1932
National Park Service Arrowhead

Defining the System

During the period from 1919 to 1932, Director Stephen Mather, his assistant and successor, Horace Albright, and a cadre of handpicked superintendents consolidated the national park system and defined its operating policies. These "Mather men" would concentrate primarily on defining preservation priorities and molding the system according to definite ideas about its purpose. The national parks were for inspiration and education of the people, not, as many supposed, for recreation per se.

Several considerations had to be accommodated by Mather and his employees in devising these policies. First, the National Park Service was not a universally praised and supported idea nor were Sparks. Many believed that the U.S. Forest Service could easily, cheaply, and more ably administer these areas of scenic beauty. For a period, the parks' rationale for existence wavered in the minds of lawmakers. Second, Mather, Albright, and the others reflected the attitudes of the time regarding public access to the parks. It was implicit that any and all efforts be made to assure maximum use of the units by the public. It was both democratic and prudent to so promote use. Third, they believed that the existing parks were all so remote and of such limited access that only large-scale concession monopolies stood a chance of financially surviving and developing them. Finally, science was too underdeveloped to provide hard evidence against many popular wildlife management practices It would be another decade before scientists would be heeded and then only for an interim.

As the National Park Service struggled to establish and define itself the first challenge appeared. In 1920 the Federal Power Act authorized construction of dams on federal lands. After the debacle at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park, this was an ominous threat. After a flurry of action by conservationists and others, however, Congress added an amendment in 1921 forbidding dams in national parks and monuments without its specific approval.

For the next several years, as the National Park Service moved ward the end of its first decade, it further detailed its policies and philosophy. In answer to criticism about potential overdevelopment, the superintendents of the various parks passed a resolution encouraging some development but rejecting "overdevelopment." Although undefined, there is in the latter term an understanding that some limits must be contemplated for park tourism. Three years later Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work continued the tradition of secretary's letters on national park management by restating and elaborating the policies of Secretary Franklin Lane. In some cases such as grazing and summer home leases, the Work letter took a stronger tone to reject abuses of earlier orders.

Three years later, in 1928, Congress specifically defined the matter of concession operations and privileges, addressed legally only obliquely in the Organic Act. That same year the National Park Service moved to develop a rigid plan and staff to prevent or control forest fires in the parks. An address by U.S. Forest Service fire control pert Jay Price outlined the concepts of the time. Later that year the NPS appointed its first Fire Control Expert under the Branch of Forestry and devoted funds specifically to fire prevention programs.

In 1931, after a decade and a half, Director Horace Albright could reflect on many issues affecting the growing system of parks. Two issues in particular needed addressing. First, park planning, despite the adoption of a program for five-year plans in 1926, was haphazard and varied from park to park. In issuing an office order, Albright sought to streamline and make uniform the planning procedure. This represents a further attempt to cope with the parks as a system instead of as an amalgamation of independent units.

The second problem was the quality of care and preservation being voted to the natural resources of the parks. Early anthropocentric ideas had led to predator destruction, vista clearing of forests, introduction of exotics, and use of herbicides and pesticides in the parks. Often released through articles in popular or scholarly journals, Albright's policy pronouncements sought to correct or at least rationalize these early activities. Thus, in a policy memorandum the director specified forestry policy including such matters as fire control, incutting and fungal damage, hazard tree removal, and prevention of illicit cutting and pruning. In an article for the Journal of Mammalogy, bright rejected predator destruction and promoted the parks as the homes of all species.

Coming on the heels of the "predator policy" letter was one of the most advanced and profound statements about the parks for this era. Wildlife scientist George Wright and a staff he hired and personally funded released a seminal work in 1932 entitled Fauna of the National Parks. Wright and his colleagues laid down the ground rules for scientific wildlife management and for the provision of further research to shape decision-making. It was a piece ahead of its time and for a while led to a Wildlife Division with Wright as its head. However, after his untimely death in 1936, many of his ideas were ignored until the Leopold report of 1963 resurrected them.

Although the majority of profound actions and decisions during this period reflected concern about management of the parks, the system continued to grow, and Mather and his aides gave much thought to how to shape that growth. Studies of potential new areas commenced early in the 1920s, and proposals were fielded from all over the nation. Investigation particularly centered on the eastern United States where most of the people and almost none of the parks resided. Still no significant statements or studies appeared. The only exception to this organizational inactivity came in an exchange between the War Department and Congress. In 1926, acting on congressional orders, the War Department issued a study of potential areas in the United States for inclusion in a system of national battlefields and memorials. It directed public and congressional attention to a number of these historic places and influenced the shaping of this part of the national park system.


Amendment to the Federal Power Act, 1921

Superintendents' Resolution on Overdevelopment, 1922

Secretary Work's Letter on National Park Policy, 1925

Study of Potential National Battlefields, 1926

Act Amending Concessions Policy, 1928

Fire Prevention Plan for the National Parks, 1928

National Park Service Predator Policy, 1931

National Park Service Forestry Policy, 1931

Office Order No. 228: Park Planning, 1931

Fauna of the National Parks, 1932


Last Modified: October 25, 2000 10:00:00 am PST

National Park Service's ParkNet Home