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America's National Park Service: The Critical Documents
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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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By Superintendent John R. White, Sequoia National Park 1936

We have devoted a lot of time and thought in our meetings to attempts to standardize and improve our automobile regulations, to busses, to landscape preservation, to operator's accommodations and rates and so forth: all very necessary studies but not comparable in importance with the biggest problem of all, yet perhaps the most intangible; namely the preservation or the infusion of the right atmosphere.

Atmosphere, as I understand it, means the pervading influence which governs our national park development policies. It concerns the intellectual or moral, even in some aspects, the physical environment which we want in the parks. In language perhaps more specific, I take the atmosphere of a national park to depend upon what we permit in the way of public use, and equally what we do not permit.

Perhaps the public uses which affect the atmosphere of a national park are those connected with the recreation and entertainment of visitors.

Some of the questions that arise pertain to campfire entertainments, quiet camps and the use of curfew, entrance hours, radios in automobiles or operators' buildings, dances, tennis courts, golf courses, artificial swimming pools, bands, loudspeaker public announcers, electric lighting, winter sports, and so on.

Then in connection with the business of public operators we must consider the soliciting of conventions to fill up the hotels and camps, particularly at the slack opening and closing of the summer season; the publicity issued by the operators or their agents, whether by folders or in magazines or newspapers, and also by word of mouth at their own entertainments within their leased areas or on their busses.

The atmosphere of a park is also affected by the educational programs and building construction advocated by sincere friends of the parks or by technicians interested vastly in their own work, but lacking the experience or the ability to understand the administrative policy with its permanent policies and objectives.

Let us consider at least some of these matters affecting park atmosphere above outlined. It will be necessary of course for me to refer chiefly to conditions and treatments in the Sequoia National Park, while fully understanding that other superintendents have had variations of the same problems and may have solved them better than we have done. It is only by pooling all our experiences that we may be able to make visible some of those aspects of park atmosphere which are so difficult to define. If we can put them into form, we may be able better to settle upon some principles and policies which affect park atmosphere.

I would like the following observations to be considered merely as a humble contribution to thought upon a foremost and all-embracing park problem. It is so important for present and future park welfare that all of us in the Service must help in its solution.

There are four parties who have an interest in a national park; (1) future generations of Americans who have prospective inheritance in the country's natural resources and unspoiled scenery; (2) the people who visit the park and those who pay taxes to support it; (3) the Government, represented by the superintendent and his associates; and (4) the public operators who have invested their money and must have both security for the investment and fair returns from it.

Under the general policies of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, it is the superintendent who must play fair with all four parties and must harmonize the inevitable conflicts between the different interests.

The interest of future Americans in the park is bound up with the pride and responsibility that park officials, public operators and many visitors must feel in the share they have in preserving such choice parts of America to assist in the perpetuation of what is worth while in America. No man can live and work amid the fine permanent things of nature in the national parks and feel concerned only with his little affairs of today. Indeed, there is reason to believe that any interest that does not take the larger view cannot permanently succeed in national park business or administration. Fate may well curse those who are false to such a noble heritage.

The interest of the people is perhaps the most difficult of all to define in these perplexing days of social and economical changes. Visitors demand opportunity for physical and aesthetic enjoyment of park scenery, but also for amusement, entertainment, and instruction. There is a natural and steady pressure to place amusement and entertainment above other requirements. In many national parks the interests of local visitors conflict with those of national visitors and with the preservation of the park for the future.

The interest of the Government is in the general condition of the park, its good administration, protection and maintenance; the curtailment of expenditures, actual and prospective, to come within a reasonable budget; the orderly development of plans and their restrictions to the absolutely essential; and the morale of the park organization.

The interest of the public operators, while primarily the protection of, and return on, investment, must extend to many aspects of the interest of the other three parties, because unless the Government administration is good and fair to all, unless the visitors are satisfied and the park preserved, more indirect harm will be done to the operators' investment than by almost any direct regulation of schedules and prices.

Campfire entertainments and educational work:

There should be no paid entertainers unless they deal in the natural sciences, or in approved park diversions such as mountaineering, riding, hiking or winter sports.

The entertainment should be refined in its best sense, and so far as possible along natural history lines and explanatory of the park or other parks. This is a tremendous field, barely touched.

The audiences should not be too large; 500 is about our limit except on peak holidays. When the crowds grow we start new campfires. Of course, our policy of not to exceed about 300 camps in any one area helps. Participation by visitors is the keynote. There should be more funds to pay short-time assistants and provisions of accommodations for them.

No permanent platforms, stages or sounding boards should be permitted. If possible, an actual campfire should be lit and the entertainment center around it.

Just a warning about the scheduled, out-of-doors Peripatetic lectures, hikes and automobile caravans; they may grow to be too large or unwieldy or they may lack the best objectives, all in the endeavor to make a big showing in numbers served in the educational program.

Park Entrance Hours and Quiet Camps:

We admit travel up to 9 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. on Saturdays and days preceding a holiday. We open at 5 a.m. the year round. The complaints against these hours are fewer than formerly. We are reasonable about special permits and conditions, but not liberal.

We discourage rather forcibly unnecessary noise in public camps and all public areas at all times; and we impose a virtual curfew after 11 p.m. No automobiles are permitted to roam around after that hour except by special permit. If there are complaints, the visitor might be referred to the practices in many city parks which are closed by 8 or 9 p.m. or at dusk.

Radios and Loudspeakers:

We do not permit any use which makes a loudspeaker publicly available or may annoy others. We do not permit them in hotels or operators' units. But we realize that probably we must come to permitting a radio in some places in the operators' unit. Then its use must be carefully regulated to avoid jazz programs and any blaring forth that is improper.

In California the Standard Oil Company and others have loudspeaker announcer automobiles which they are glad to send to public gatherings out-of-doors. A trained announcer accompanies and humorously helps the programs along. They have twice sent such an outfit into Sequoia for the winter carnival. Last month it came in only because I was away in Death Valley while arrangements were being made.


Dances are one of the most difficult things to regulate. We dance only from 9 to 11 p.m. None on Sundays. I wish we could abolish them, but don't think it possible until we build up more of the right kind of entertainment.

Tennis Courts and Golf Courses:

We have avoided both. Formerly there was more pressure for them than there is now.

Swimming Pools:

We have no artificial or commercial pool and don't want one. We have worked out and improved two or three river pools, and might even consider warming them if the apparatus could be hidden.

Bands and Music:

Years ago we used to have bands for the Fourth of July and other occasions, but we are gradually getting away from them.

The violin and flute with perhaps the cornet are the best instruments for campfire use, with, of course, the piano.

Just now we have a proposal to install an organ at our Giant Forest amphitheater in the heart of the Big Tree area. It sounds properly atmospheric; but we are only considering it and our thumbs are inclining downwards.

Electric Lighting:

Electric lighting is such an accepted utility that at first it seems necessary everywhere in public or operator areas. Yet nothing conduces so much to a quiet park atmosphere as general darkness except in and near buildings. We have only small Kohler plants and no general street lighting. We may install small Diesel or hydro plants in certain localities, but we are against street or highway lighting.

Operators' cabins are lit by kerosene hand lamps and candles. Many visitors like it. Few complain. Some are loud in approval. I think that with a little pressure we could have had a $100,000 electric light layout at Giant Forest a few years ago; but we are now glad that the pressure was not exercised.

Motion Pictures:

We have no commercial pictures and believe that all should be educational with perhaps newsreel added. Certainly most careful supervision is necessary. There are special problems in parks far from towns and with large permanent communities at park headquarters. Yet even in those parks the distances to moving pictures outside the parks have been so reduced by good roads and automobiles that the problem is not as serious as formerly.

The filming by commercial companies in the parks needs most careful thought and supervision, and only certain types of pictures should be permitted. A standardized form of permit and a bond are needed. The personal conduct of employees must be carefully supervised. Secretary Ickes has much improved conditions; but more thought must be given to distinguishing between the good and bad producers.

Winter Sports:

Emphasis should be placed on opportunities for everyone to take part in free sports rather than on featured performances and competitions.

Skating rink, toboggan slide, and ski-runs should be as natural as possible and with little or no artificial construction. No charge should be made for their use. No attempt should be made to rival professional winter sport areas. Winter sports should be incidental to winter use of the park, not entirely dominate it.

Any mechanical aid to winter sports such as a ski-elevator or a toboggan elevator is out of place. Improvement of facilities should be limited.

In an attempt to excel and to build up operators' winter accommodations, there is a danger of commercializing winter sports and finally of injuring atmosphere and even scenery. If operators make considerable financial investment in winter sports facilities, equipment, buildings, and so forth, there is danger that winter sports will dominate the picture, be improperly commercialized, and make a hurly-burly of the park in winter.

Public Operators:

In their desire, indeed their necessity, to make proper returns on their investments, the operators may easily damage park atmosphere to their own financial disadvantage. Their publicity should be carefully supervised to prevent extravagant and inaccurate statements or anything that will cheapen the park. The operators' entertainments are likely to degenerate into cheap vaudeville shows designed merely to entertain the average visitor unappreciative of nature.

There is danger in the conventions which are so eagerly sought to fill accommodations at [the] beginning and end of summer season. Some types of conventions are opportunities largely for dissipation rather than enjoyment of nature. A man does not need the larger part of a bottle of booze to enjoy our park scenery.

The operator, too, often wants to operate a type of large bus and ballyhoo sightseeing service which much detracts from park atmosphere. We have a strict 14-passenger limit on our busses and hope to maintain it. Perhaps it is too large now.

Fortunate indeed is the superintendent who deals with a park operator who can see or feel beyond the end of his nose; and who can realize that the proper park atmosphere will in the long run attract more of the right kind of people to patronize his facilities than will any cheapening policy which brings in crowds of the unappreciative.

It should be clearly understood that the park is not in competition with other resorts; that the favorable provisions of the operators' contract fully offset the prohibitions on certain activities common to resorts outside the parks. The park atmosphere is the operators' best friend; but he may not recognize it.

Of course, it is hardly necessary to mention certain things that operators should not install, such as slot machines of various kinds, nickel or dime in the slot telescopes, or field glasses, and so forth. Perhaps the most difficult thing to regulate is curio sales. We must confess that much sold in Sequoia is atrocious. We should try to lead our visitors generally to better things.

CCC Camps:

The thing that perturbs me about the presence of the CCC as at present organized in the parks is the possibility that park standards will be lowered because of the lack of complete control by the superintendent over camp areas. Of course, we have kept dogs out of the camps which are located within the park, but the type of entertainments, such as boxing and vaudeville shows and certain motion pictures, lowers the park standards. Park visitors attend such shows. Much can be done by reasoning with the Camp Commanders, but several hundred youths cannot be either "sissified" or immediately raised to the aesthetic level which we at least set as our goal.

We are much less anxious about the damage that may be done by CCC work to park physical values than the damage that may be done to moral values. It is easy to protect park trees or rocks; it is less easy to protect park atmosphere.

In conclusion: to preserve the national park atmosphere we must curb the human desire to develop the parks quickly to compete in popularity with other resorts, or even State or other parks or national forest areas. When a new project is proposed, the first question should be, "how will it affect the park atmosphere which we desire to maintain or restore?"

We have made a fine beginning in our educational work in the parks; and we should see to it that not only the ranger-naturalists (I still dislike the hybrid word) but all rangers and employees assist in maintaining park atmosphere and educating the park visitors to better and different things in the national parks. Often the things which adversely affect the atmosphere of a park have small and apparently innocent beginnings; but they may grow along unsuspected lines; so that constant vigilance is needed when any innovation is proposed either by park men or park operators.

We should boldly ask ourselves whether we want the national parks to duplicate the features and entertainments of other resorts, or whether we want them to stand for something distinct, and we hope better, in our national life.

We are a restless people, mechanically minded, and proud of doing constructive work. Our factories, railroads, roads, and buildings are admired by the world. We have in the parks a host of technicians, each anxious to leave his mark. But in all this energy and ambition there is danger unless all plans are subordinated to that atmosphere which though unseen, is no less surely felt by all who visit those eternal masterpieces of the Great Architect which we little men are temporarily protecting.

Address to Special Superintendents' Meeting, Washington, D.C., February 10, 1936.
Transcript in Library, Sequoia National Park, Ash Mountain.

NEXT>Office Order No. 323: Fish Policy, 1936


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