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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
Chapter 3:
The New Deal Years: 1933 - 1941
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The New Deal Years

Through the 1920s, the young National Park Service cemented its support among the public, defined its management priorities, and established the philosophy that was to guide the agency for the next four decades. However, the steady sequence of development and expansion was shattered by the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Depression. Ironically, although it did have a negative effect on visitation, the economic crisis actually spawned the greatest booms in construction of visitor facilities, road and trail development, park planning, identification of new areas, and new initiatives for expansion of the system to ever occur.

With the arrival of the new administration under Franklin Roosevelt came a whirlwind of government changes. In that first year, 1933, two pieces of legislation profoundly impacted the parks. First came an act to relieve unemployment among the nation's young men. This act led to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a military-style program of public works conducted in large measure in and around national and state parks and forests. Over the next nine years the CCC constructed more infrastructure in the parks than in the entire history of the system to that time. Five-year plans were completed in a season and park superintendents, in charge of choosing jobs for these brigades of laborers, were able to achieve development only dreamed of a few years earlier.

The second action came with congressional attempts to streamline and reduce the costs of the federal government. The executive branch reorganized its departments and their duties. One result was that the National Park Service received all the national monuments, many from the U.S. Forest Service, and all the battlefields and memorials from the War Department. Thus the system with which we are now familiar began operation under a single agency. Over the remainder of the Depression years through 1941, three major processes characterized the national park system—the continued definition of natural resources policy, the development of infrastructure and resulting challenges to perceived overdevelopment, and the accelerated expansion of the system into new areas of preservation. In 1933 the spate of policy statements provided by Horace Albright a couple of years earlier rounded out with an article by the director on the importance of research in the national parks. It was admission of the inadequacy of scientific data for management purposes and the first of a long string of calls for more systematic research in park policy-making.

Three years later a loophole in the philosophical framework of fauna management was closed with issuance of Office Order No. 323 defining the fish policies of the National Park Service. Director Arno Cammerer, following the lead of his Wildlife Division, ordered the exclusion or removal of exotic species and the encouragement of native ones as his predecessor had done in the case of mammals.

While natural resource policies matured and their scientific basis was at least temporarily encouraged, the construction of visitor infrastructure continued apace with CCC labor. Hundreds of miles of roads and trails opened hitherto wild backcountry and thousands of structures, from museums to employee houses and campground comfort stations, appeared across the system. By the middle of the decade conservationists and others were registering alarm at the scale and pace of development. The Emergency Conservation Committee released in 1936 a pamphlet entitled "Roads and More Roads in the National Parks and National Forests," in which this progress was challenged on the basis of its destruction of pristine wilderness. The author of the pamphlet and driving force behind the committee was Rosalie Edge. Her views were repeated in the publications of the Sierra Club, the National Parks Association, and other conservation groups. Clearly the time had come to challenge the Park Service's priorities, and increasing numbers of observers were ready to do so.

Within the agency as well, a variety of opinions existed on appropriate development However, most NPS personnel practiced a philosophy which might best be called "atmosphere preservation." Spawned and maintained by landscape architects, it was an immature holistic approach to the environment that considered entire visual and experiential scenes and the inspiration they provided as the highest preservation targets. This philosophy and its attendant reaction to the extraordinary development under the CCC was best expressed by Superintendent John White in a 1936 speech to his fellow superintendents entitled "Atmosphere in the National Parks."

The final process of the period concerned the expansion of the park system. With reorganization of the executive branch, the National Park Service became much more focused on historic preservation. At the same time concern about preserving the nation's historic structures and sites led Congress to enact the Historic Sites Act of 1935. This far-reaching act ordered the NPS to survey historic and archaeologic sites, buildings, and objects, and take steps to identify and protect them or assist others in protecting them.

The following year, a decade of discussion and concern about the availability of recreation resources for the nation's burgeoning population surfaced in the form of the Park, Parkway, and Recreation Area Study Act of 1936. This charged the Park Service to conduct wide-ranging studies of potential additions to the park system specifically to provide recreation opportunities. Given the philosophy of the time on park purpose, this was a departure into new areas of operation for the agency. Much of the ensuing study concentrated on coastal areas and resulted the following year in the authorization of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. In 1941 the Park Service released its report on the park and recreation problem of the United States. Although the report strongly recommended that state and local governments bear the brunt of responsibility for recreation, reflecting the Mather philosophy, many of the current national seashores, lake-shores, parkways, and recreation areas were studied and proposed as a result of this 1936 act.


Act for the Relief of Unemployment (CCC), 1933

Organization of Executive Agencies, 1933

Research in the National Parks, 1933

Preservation of Historic Sites Act, 1935

Park, Parkway, and Recreational Area Study Act, 1936

Roads in the National Parks, 1936

Atmosphere in the National Parks, 1936

Office Order No; 323: Fish Policy, 1936

Study of the Park and Recreation Problem, 1941


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

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