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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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By Newton B. Drury 1943

The impact of war upon the National Park Service and the areas it administers has of necessity altered its immediate program. At the same time it has served to highlight the primary function of the Service as trustee for that portion of the Federal estate in which are preserved examples of some of the greatest phases of America.

Questions that have been latent ever since the first "national park" was established in 1872 are now sharply brought to issue. Most important among these is whether we can justify, under wartime conditions, the concept that some reasonable percentage of the lands of the Nation should be held inviolate from commercial exploitation on the theory that, thus administered, they serve their highest purpose.

The test is whether this austere ideal can be maintained in war as in peace.

Today, the lands within the forty-eight States designated as the National Park System, which consists of 163 distinct areas, amount to approximately fifteen million acres, or about three-fourths of one percent of the Nation's total land area. The function of the National Park Service is to protect, administer, and interpret this nationwide system of significant and irreplaceable properties, which Congress, by the Act of August 25, 1916, establishing the National Park Service, indicated was to be so administered as "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The American people have every right to expect that so far as possible their national parks will be held intact as an important part of their cultural heritage.

Stress of war has compelled the National Park Service to take stock of its functions and responsibilities. Travel to the parks has declined to the point where it is only twenty-seven percent of the peak figure of 22,000,000 visitors in 1941, and it is obvious that increasing transportation restrictions will result in still further decreases. Appropriations and personnel have been curtailed and activities of many sorts have been suspended. Until after the war, the main task of the Service is one of protection and maintenance.

Travel to the parks, however, has not ceased, nor are they closed to visitors. A flexible system has been adopted which will adapt services and accommodations to the varying need as it develops under rapidly changing conditions. In war, no less than in peace, the national park areas serve as havens of refuge for those fortunate enough to be able to visit them. Affording an environment that gives relief from the tension of a warring world, the parks are, even now, being looked upon as a factor in the physical and mental rehabilitation that will be increasingly desirable as the war progresses. It has been necessary for the Secretary of the Interior to discourage civilian use of transportation resources involved in long-distance travel. Civilians not close by will find it exceedingly difficult to visit the parks. But even though the demands of war may sharply curtail civilian use for a time, Americans take pride and courage in the fact that the national parks and monuments are being protected and will be available for future enjoyment.

A new form of use has arisen. Since Pearl Harbor, approximately two million members of the armed forces have visited the areas administered by the National Park Service. There is significant meaning and definite justification of the national park concept in the fact that increasing thousands of members of the armed forces are being given opportunities they never had before and may never have again to see the inspiring beauty of this land of ours. A typical letter from the commanding officer of one battalion states: "Officers and enlisted men of this battalion join with me in expressing our appreciation to you and the members of your staff for the enjoyable time spent at Grand Canyon. I am sure the pleasant memories of this battalion's visit to Grand Canyon will long be remembered as a most worthwhile and educational trip."

Families of men on furlough have made great efforts to give their boys lasting impressions and experiences. One of the park rangers met an elderly gentleman on a Yosemite trail and asked him how he was enjoying himself. He said: "This trip is not for me. It is for my son who is a sailor in the United States Navy and has a furlough for a few days. I wanted to get him away from the war and give him something peaceful and beautiful to remember. One of the main reasons for this is that my other son was killed on the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor."

Another phase of the usefulness of the parks to the military organization is indicated in a letter the park superintendent of Hawaii National Park received from a major general at the time he was transferred: "When I arrived, you turned over to me your new park headquarters building. Without it and your very effective cooperation in assisting me to carry out my mission, the work of my headquarters would have been seriously hampered. It is my hope, that when peace has come again, I may have the pleasure of visiting this wonder of nature with the leisure to enjoy the many scenes and exhibits for which, up to now, there has not been time available."

In defining the purpose of this war President Roosevelt has said that we are protecting a great past. Evidences of this past, both as to human history and natural history, are contained in areas of which the National Park Service is custodian. The march of freedom in the United States is realistically revealed at the scenes where our forefathers fought and won independence and national unity. The battlefields of Yorktown and Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty, the sites of pioneer exploration and national expansion, are well-springs of patriotism from which thousands gain inspiration and renewed courage. Pride in America swells in the hearts of all who look upon the mile-deep chasm of Grand Canyon, the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, the thundering waterfalls of Yosemite, the towering Sequoias, and the sweep of mighty forests on the Olympic Peninsula. Consciously or unconsciously there is built up within all who have had such experiences an increased faith in our country. Can these experiences fail to strengthen the conviction that this is a nation worth fighting for?

Direct use of national park lands not contemplated in peace time has been arranged when required by the needs of war. Over 675 permits have been issued to the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, and other war agencies for the utilization of lands, buildings, and facilities. These permits cover a wide range of uses, some of them confidential. In the nation's capital, for example, the National Capital Parks have turned over to war activities lands and buildings valued at $24,300,000, which represents a saving to the Government, since the alternative would have been to purchase others, probably at greater cost. Dollars cannot be used to evaluate all of what the National Park Service has done in connection with the war program. There is hardly an area in the National Park System that has not made some direct contribution to aid in winning the war.

Despite extensive military use of the parks, there has been little destruction of permanent values. The Service has applied the same criteria to such uses as it has to proposals for lumbering, mining, grazing, or other non-conforming activities within the national parks. Everyone is aware that the cost of victory in this war is going to be high and that the natural resources of the nation will be called upon more and more to meet the shortages in available strategic materials. Inconvenience to park administration and to park visitors or remediable damage to park property have not been considered sufficient reasons for denying the use of park resources for war purposes. Only where uses proposed would do irreparable damage and entail destruction or impairment of distinctive features and qualities in the parks has the Service felt justified in raising these questions: Have all reasonable alternatives been exhausted before invading the national parks areas? Is the demand based upon critical necessity?

A case very much in point at this time is the pressure being brought to bear for the logging of Sitka spruce in Olympic National Park. Sitka spruce furnishes the outstanding wood for aircraft construction and the easily available supply of this species suitable for aircraft material in the commercial forests of Washington and Oregon is rapidly decreasing. There are, however, further stands of limited extent that could be developed by construction of access roads. There is also an abundance of Sitka spruce in the national forests of Alaska, but the shortage of manpower and equipment and the difficulties of transportation in rafts to Puget Sound sawmills have prevented a sufficient output to overcome the reduced production in Washington and Oregon.

There surely is ample justification for the consensus among conservation leaders that the forests in the national parks should not be cut unless the trees are absolutely essential to the prosecution of the war, with no reasonable alternative. Critical necessity rather than convenience should be the governing reason for such a sacrifice of an important part of the federal estate. If Olympic National Park is opened to the logging of spruce to meet war needs for aircraft materials, there will exist great danger that pressure to widen this breach will be injected by local interests to maintain local industries after the war is over. That issue was given consideration by Congress and definitely decided on a basis of national good when the Olympic National Park was established.

If the war lasts several years, all of the readily available airplane spruce, not only in the park, but in Oregon and Washington, will be exhausted. In that event, the transition to the use of substitutes, or the fuller use of Alaska and British Columbia spruce, will have to be made.

It may fairly be asked whether, in view of the national importance of these last remnants of the once vast virgin forests of the Olympic Peninsula, the alternatives should not be exhausted before, rather than after, these forests are destroyed and an outstanding natural spectacle is lost to America forever.

From an economic appraisal of our natural resources, it should be remembered that approximately one-third of the land area of the continental United States, exclusive of Alaska, or 630 million acres is forested. Of this, some six and one-half million acres of forest are contained within the national parks and monuments, and 122 million acres within the national forests. Thus, the national park forests amount to approximately one percent of the total—certainly a very small fraction to be held inviolate in accordance with the national park pattern as established by Congress.

The greater part of the national park forests may be considered as "protection forests" which, because of the high elevations at which they grow, are of great value both scenically and for watershed protection, but are of little value for commercial use. The magnificent park forests at the lower elevations, however, though having potentially a high commercial value, are worthy of permanent preservation as outdoor museums for the benefit of this and future generations. If we should cut these forests, which include outstanding specimens hundreds of years of age, we not only would lose these forest giants forever, but also lose something far more fragile—the delicate ecological balance which exists among all the elements of the forest.

There are those who advocate the utilization of mature trees within the national parks on a selective logging basis. Such persons miss entirely the main point of the national park philosophy for they fail to realize that the removal of any portion of the forest under any system of logging, however restrictive, is contrary to the very principle upon which the national parks and monuments were established. Once logging is introduced into any area, it no longer exists as a superlative virgin forest. Future generations would be the poorer for the loss of the virgin forests in the parks, just as the present generations are poorer because they have no worthwhile illustrations of the magnificent white pine forests which were once a distinctive feature of the eastern portion of this nation.

The grazing interests also have sought entrance into the national parks and monuments in order to aid the war program. They are urged to increase production of food, hides and fiber, and, like the lumberman, are making sincere efforts to meet the nation's war requirements. In response to requests to open the national parks and monuments to grazing, the National Park Service recently undertook a careful analysis of all areas under its jurisdiction wherein grazing might be a possibility. The results of this exhaustive study proved that, within the great National Park System as a whole, the grazing potentiality is comparatively poor and is very limited. The study did reveal, however, that as a wartime emergency to meet the critical need for food and fiber, grazing could be increased on certain historic areas where livestock is not inimical to the preservation of the historical scene, and on recreational areas where it will not result in permanent physical injury.

A small amount of grazing still exists in ten national parks and a considerable amount in thirty-three of the national monuments and other areas. This situation was inherited at the time the areas were acquired, and is gradually being eliminated. Secretary Ickes, in appearing before the House Public Lands Committee on June 1, this year, said that the grazing rights of individuals in Jackson Hole National Monument would be guaranteed, and stated further that "such action in no way nullifies the long-time policy, which I have recently reaffirmed, under which grazing in national parks and monuments will be gradually decreased and ultimately eliminated. This policy is based upon long experience in the protection of scenery, wildlife, vegetation and other unique features in the national parks and monuments."

The damage to primeval areas resulting from grazing of cattle and sheep is extensive. Domestic animals in herds or flocks cause a definite change in the forests. Ecological balances are disrupted. Natural conditions are progressively altered and continued grazing will deteriorate the flowering meadows and grassy hillsides by changing the natural succession of plants. There is ample justification for the policy that grazing should never be allowed in truly superlative areas, and that it should be excluded as soon as possible from all national parks and from national monuments of the "wilderness" type.

Proposals have been made to mine certain critical minerals in national parks and monuments. The Service has taken the position that such invasion of a national park can be justified only when it would furnish strategic or critical minerals indispensable to the war and not obtainable in sufficient quantities elsewhere. In general, studies indicate that strategic minerals in national park areas are not of sufficient quantity or economic value to justify their extraction. There are exceptions, like one case in Yosemite National Park, California, where a valuable deposit of sheelite ore (tungsten) was discovered near the northwest boundary. After investigation by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Mines and the National Park Service, in cooperation with the discoverer, it was decided that because of its scarcity this deposit should be mined. Through the Metals Reserve Corporation, a government agency, the ore is now being extracted under careful supervision with a minimum of damage to the primary park exhibit.

The National Park Service is not classed as a war agency, has made no attempt to be so classified, and has not looked upon the war emergency as an opportunity to expand its functions. Nevertheless, there are many important economic values and strategic facilities within the national parks and monuments. They are protected in harmony with the purposes for which these areas were established. Our program has to do with the interpretation of natural values for the public, with emphasis on their esthetic and cultural significance rather than on their industrial and financial worth. Even so, there exists a strong relationship between the national parks and the economy of the nation. The facts are that the vast mountain and plateau regions throughout the National Park System contribute to the sources of rivers which supply industrial and agricultural areas with water for domestic use, navigation, irrigation, power, and recreation. These watersheds must be protected. The economic stability of communities within a radius of several hundred miles of park areas depends upon water supplies originating in national park and monument areas. Many of these communities are the location of vital war industries. Should the forest cover of these watersheds be destroyed there are likely to occur flash floods, rapid erosion, and stream pollution which would threaten the future of many communities and industries dependent upon a constant supply of good water.

This is an integrated society. The national parks and monuments represent an institution that has its power and proportionate place in our national life. They are a segment of the federal estate that has been chosen for preservation so that this and future generations will see the untamed America that was, and understand the compelling influences that built and strengthened this nation. We cannot lightly abandon them, or the idea that gave them being, although we may have to sacrifice both in part if compelled to do so by the needs of war. Dr. John C. Merriam, in his recent book, "The Garment of God," points out that man cannot live in an isolated present separated from the past and future. The nation which forgets its past will have no future worth remembering.

The wisdom of the nation in preserving areas of the type represented by national parks and monuments is clearly evident on the American continent today as increased demands upon our natural resources are invading and forever changing the native landscape. As long as the basic law that created them endures, we are assured of at least those few places in the world, where forests continue to evolve normally, where animal life remains in harmonious relationship to its environment, and where the ways of nature and its works may still be studied in the original design.

Reprinted from American Forests, August 1943, with permission.

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

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