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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 4:
The Poverty Years: 1942 - 1956
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The Poverty Years

The bonanza of development, expansion, and reinterpretation that came to the national park system during the Depression years abruptly ended with Pearl Harbor. In a matter of weeks, federal work programs halted, funding dried up, and personnel began leaving for the military or wartime support industries. As in World War I, there were calls for use of park lands and resources to support the war effort. Pressure particularly focused on grazing, lumbering, and mining the great western parks. During the earlier conflict, grazing had been allowed, in part due to inadequate understanding of its ecological consequences but primarily because the fledgling Park Service felt politically incapable of blocking it.

By 1942, however, a mature national park system, beloved by the populace, handily rejected the requests for intrusion by consumptive users. In a major statement Director Newton Drury spelled out the reasons why, even in times of emergency, the park system should remain inviolate. Drawing upon letters from servicemen overseas he painted an image of the parks as icons for America to be preserved pure and unabused for their inspiration. This article represents one of the clearest statements of the NPS philosophy that preservation supersedes all extractive uses regardless of their monetary worth. The Park Service was able to resist such intrusions throughout World War II.

The war years gave the National Park Service time to reflect on the status and future of the parks, and those employees remaining in the system engaged in elaborate planning for the expected return to prosperity and development after the war. Many plans challenged the level of development already present in some parks. Reflecting on these questions in 1945, the National Parks Association released a declaration of policy entitled "National Primeval Park Standards." Its recommendations demonstrated the increasing division between the Park Service's ideas of management and those of the conservation groups.

The expansion of the park system became a volatile issue in Congress by 1950. Antagonism to parks creation and expansion focused especially in the West among the consumptive local users recently denied access during the war. One of the key fights of the period culminated in the expansion of Grand Teton National Park in 1950. In this enactment, Congress stipulated, under pressure from the Wyoming delegation, that no further parks or monuments be established in that state without specific congressional authorization. This is notable for its challenge to the Antiquities Act and demonstrative of the backlash by western locals against the expansion of the park system.

Three years later Congress acted again, this time by defining the national park system and emphasizing that all units were to be managed under the Organic Act of 1916. This answered the criticism of many that monuments, historic parks, etc., should not be as stringently protected and denied to consumptive users.

By that same year, 1953, the park system Congress so defined was in serious trouble. Years of wartime abandonment were followed by neglect and underfunding as Congress grappled with ominous international events. Annual maintenance of trails and facilities lagged, and many features fell into serious, even dangerous, disrepair. Agitation by the Park Service and conservation groups convinced a few congressmen but it took an article in a major American periodical by an eminent historian, Bernard DeVoto, to turn the trick. Adopting the psychological ploy of shock, DeVoto suggested closing the national parks until they could be properly and safely operated. To a public annually increasing its love affair with the parks, this was indeed an appalling revelation.

Despite the now clear need for action it took one final hurdle for the NPS to receive the funding it needed. Piecemeal project funding was too easily pared when budget problems appeared. What the parks needed was a massive, coordinated rescue plan with its own budget. That rescue plan became known as Mission 66. Starting in 1956 and projected to last a decade, Mission 66 would ultimately cost more than one billion dollars and would substantially increase or renew visitor facilities and access throughout the system. Director Conrad Wirth's exhortation to Dwight Eisenhower's cabinet spelled out the details and emphases of the plan which itself would come under fire before the decade concluded.


National Parks in Wartime, 1943

National Primeval Park Standards, 1945

Grand Teton National Parks, 1953

Let's Close the National Parks

Act to Facilitate Management of the National Park System, 1953

Mission 66 Proposal to the Eisenhower Cabinet, 1956


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

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