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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
National Park Service Arrowhead


By Bernard DeVoto 1953

The chief official of a national park is called the Superintendent. He is a dedicated man. He is also a patient, frustrated, and sorely harassed man. Sit in his office for an hour some morning and listen to what is said to him by the traveling public and by his administrative assistant, the Chief Ranger.

Some of his visitors are polite; some aren't; all have grievances. A middle-aged couple with a Cadillac make a formal protest: it is annoying that they must wait three-quarters of an hour to get a table at Lookout Point Lodge, but when it comes to queuing up in order to use the toilets at the Point—well, really! A woman in travel-stained denim is angry because Indian Creek Camp Ground is intolerably dusty. Clouds of dust hang over it, dust sifts into the sleeping bags at night, dust settles on the food and the children and the foliage, she has breathed dust throughout her two-weeks stay. Another woman reports that the toilet at Inspiration Cliff Camp Ground has been clogged since early last evening and that one of the tables there went to pieces at breakfast time. A man pounds the desk and shouts that he hit a chuck-hole on Rimrock Drive and broke a spring; the Drive, he says, is a car-killer and will soon be a man-killer. Another enraged tourist reports that a guardrail collapsed when his little girl leaned against it and that she nearly fell into the gorge. The representative of a nature society sums up his observations. He has hardly seen a ranger since he reached the park. (One reason is that most of the rangers are up in the high country fighting a forest fire.) Tourists have picked all the bear grass at Eyrie Overlook and the observer doubts if the species will come back there. Fifty-one names have been freshly carved in the vicinity of Cirque Falls, some of them actually on the famous Nine Centuries Tree itself. All but one of the camp grounds look like slums; in the observer's opinion, the reason why they look that way is that they are slums.

Such complaints must be distinguished from the irrational ones voiced to the Superintendent by tourists who are cantankerous, crack-brained, tired, or merely bewildered. They must be so distinguished because they are factual and true. (The Superintendent, not having a plumber, will send a ranger to clean out the toilet but replacing the guard rail will leave him too little money to buy lumber for a new table. He squeezed $1,200 from his budget to enlarge Indian Creek Camp Ground and so reduce the dust there but Brawling River undercut fifty feet of main road and the emergency repairs cost $1350.) He answers all complaints courteously, as a representative of the National Park Service and the United States Government, but he has no effective answer. He is withheld from saying what would count, "Build a fire under your Congressman." He cannot go on and explain that the Service is suffering from financial anemia, that it is the impoverished stepchild of Congress, and that the lack of money has now brought our national park system to the verge of crisis. He cannot say this and neither can his superiors in the Washington office, but it is true.

Between visitors the Chief Ranger has been developing this theme. He got together a crew yesterday and put them to work on the decaying bridge inside the north entrance; it can be shored up for the rest of this season but next year it will be beyond help and the north entrance will have to be closed. He also went over Beaver Creek Trail again yesterday and he is scared; unless some work can be done on it at once it must be closed as unsafe. Costs on last week's rescue job are now in. Fourteen men worked three shifts a day for two days to bring that climber with a broken hip down from Deception Peak. A doctor had to be summoned from eighty miles away and an ambulance from a hundred and seventy-five miles. The episode cost just over a thousand dollars, which will have to come out of the budget, and this means one summer ranger less next year. (In 1936 the park had two more summer rangers than it has this year—and only one-twelfth as many visitors.) Furthermore, Ranger Doakes, an expert alpinist, has demanded overtime pay for that rescue—sacrilege in the Service, but the Chief Ranger cannot blame him. The recent increase in rents hit Ranger Doakes hard. He got only a 137 per cent increase, which was less than some others, but it brought his rent to 23.5 per cent of his annual salary.

Let's leave the Chief Ranger's remaining woes unprinted and look at this latest device for reducing pay by compelling personnel to subsidize the National Park Service budget. The most valuable asset the Service has ever had is the morale of its employees. I have said that the Superintendent is a dedicated man; all his permanent staff and all the temporary rangers and ranger-naturalists are dedicated men, too—they are all lovers and all fanatics or they would have quit long since. Ever since it was organized the Service has been able to do its difficult, complex, and highly expert job with great distinction because it could count on this ardor and devotion. The forty-hour week means nothing in a national park. Personnel have always worked sixteen hours a day and seven days a week whenever such labor was necessary. Superintendent, rangers, engineers, summer staff, fire lookouts—they all drop their specialties to join a garbage disposal crew or a rescue party, to sweep up tourist litter, to clean a defouled spring, to do anything else that has to be done but can't be paid for. They are the most courteous and the most patient men in the United States and maybe once a week several of them get a full night's sleep. If you undermine their morale, you will destroy the Service. Well, the latest increase in rents has begun to undermine it.

By decree of the Bureau of the Budget the rents of government housing must be equalized with those of comparable housing in the same locality. In the end this amounts to some sleight of hand in the bookkeeping of the U.S. Treasury but it is probably sound in theory. Sound, that is, for a lot of government housing—but not for that which, to a varying degree, shields NPS employees from the weather. In the first place, the locality with which rents must be equalized is the nearest resort town outside the park, where rents are two or three times as high as in the nearest non-parasitical town. In the second place, there is practically no comparable housing. These are not the massive dwellings of a military installation, the imposing and luxurious ones that the Bureau of Reclamation erects, or the comfortable cabins of the Forest Service that were built by the CCC. Apart from a few such cabins by the CCC and a few new structures which the Service has been able to pay for from the pin-money that passes as its appropriations, they are either antiques or shacks. The best of them are usually inadequate—one-bedroom houses for couples with two or more small children, two-bedroom houses for couples with two or more adolescent children. Many of the rest of them belong in the Hoovervilles of 1931—CCC barracks built of tar-paper in 1934 and intended to last no more than five years, old warehouses and cook shacks built of slabs, curious structures hammered together from whatever salvaged lumber might be at hand. I have seen adobe huts in damp climate that were melting away from the rain, other quarters that were race-courses for rats, still others that would produce an egg shortage if you kept chickens in them.

Park Service employees are allowed an "isolation deduction" of from five to forty per cent, intended to compensate them for being forced to live at a galling and expensive distance from the service of civilization. Even so, the already high rents have been cruelly increased by the last directive from the Bureau of the Budget. On a list I have at hand of seventeen dwellings in Grand Teton National Park, the lowest increase (after the isolation deduction) is one hundred per cent, the highest two hundred per cent, the average one hundred and fifty-plus.

At this park there is an associated ingenuity. The park pays Teton County, Wyoming, $26,000 a year in lieu of taxes; it produces God knows how much for the state in gasoline and sales taxes: the business brought in by its visitors is all that keeps the town of Jackson solvent or even alive. But a hangover from the controversy over Jackson Hole National Monument, a controversy created for profit by local politicians and the gamblers and land-speculators allied with them, has enabled the town of Jackson to pressure the state administration. By decree of the state Attorney General, park personnel are not residents of Wyoming, though any itinerant Okie who paused there would be, and must therefore pay for their children who attend public schools. They total $158 per pupil. It makes quite an item in the family finance of an underpaid public servant who has now had his rent increased, the rent of a leaky and rat-ridden crate which he cannot select but must take as assigned—and in which he gets no equity though he pays a fifth of his salary or more.

This last summer I visited some fifteen NPS areas. It was a commonplace to meet a park employee who had to bring a son or daughter back from college, as a result of the rent increase. It was even commoner to find one who had decided that the kids could not go to college when they finished high school. In many places, wives of park personnel are working for private firms licensed to operate businesses in the parks, and this is a highly undesirable practice. The chief clerk of one of the most important parks works weekends in a grocery store in order to stay fed while retaining the job he loves. I could add to these specimens indefinitely but let it go with the end-product: the most valuable asset of the National Park Service is beginning to erode away.

So are the parks and national monuments themselves. The deterioration of roads and plants that began with the war years, when proper maintenance was impossible, has been accelerated by the enormous increase in visitors, by the shrinkage of staffs, and by miserly appropriations that have prevented both repair and expansion of facilities. The Service is like a favorite figure of American legendry, the widow who scrapes and patches and ekes out, who by desperate expedients succeeds in bringing up her children to be a credit to our culture. (The boys work the graveyard shift in the mills; the girls' underwear is made of flour sacking.) Its general efficiency, the astonishingly good condition of its areas, its success at improvising and patching up is just short of miraculous. But it stops there, short of the necessary miracle. Congress did not provide money to rehabilitate the parks at the end of the war, it has not provided money to meet the enormously increased demand. So much of the priceless heritage which the Service must safeguard for the United States is beginning to go to hell.

Like a number of other small areas in the system, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has no NPS personnel assigned to it. On one rim of this spectacular gorge there are a few inadequate guard rails, on the other and more precipitous rim there are none. When I visited it, one of the two registers for visitors and all the descriptive pamphlets had been stolen. The ranger force at Mesa Verde National Park is the same size it was in 1932; seven times as many people visited it in 1952; the figures for June 1953 were up 38 per cent from last year's. The park can man the entrance station for only one shift: automobiles which arrive in late afternoon cannot be charged the modest entrance fee. It cannot assign a ranger exclusively to fire-duty at headquarters, though it is in an arid region where destructive fire is a constant danger: the headquarters ranger must keep the fire-alert system operating while he attends to a dozen other jobs. All park facilities are strained to the utmost. Stretches of the main road keep sinking and must be repaired at excessive cost because there is not money enough to relocate them where the underlying strata are more stable. There is not even money enough to replace broken guard-rail posts along the edge of the canyon. Colorado and New Mexico are about to construct a new highway past the park to the famous Four Comers. On the day it is completed visitors to Mesa Verde will double in number and the park will be unable to take care of them. It will be paralyzed.

Last year Senator Hunt of Wyoming made a pleasure trip to Yellowstone Park, at least a trip that was intended to be pleasurable. He was so shocked by the condition of the roads that he wrote a letter of protest to President Truman. (It got buried under the election campaign.) And yet, considering the handicaps, Yellowstone has done magnificently with its roads; those of many other parks are in worse condition. (Of the main road system in the park 15 per cent is of pre-1920 standard, 42 per cent is pre-1930 standard, and only 27 percent of 1930-1940 standard. Exactly three miles of new road have been constructed since 1945 and those three complete a project that was begun before the war.) This is the oldest, most popular, and most important national park. In 1932, when 200,000 people visited it, its uniformed staff was large enough to permit just over 6,000 manhours of work per week; last year, with one and one-third million visitors, the shrunken staff performed just over 4,000 man-hours per week. Like nearly every other popular park, it has reached the limit of performance and begun to slide downhill. There are not enough rangers to protect either the scenic areas from the depredations of tourists or the tourists from the consequences of their own carelessness—or to gather up the litter or to collect all the entrance fees that should be paid. Water and garbage and sewage systems are beginning to break down under the load put on them; already some sewage is being discharged in Yellowstone Lake. The park's high plateaus covered with lodgepole pine are natural fire-traps which some day will be burned out because the budget will not permit adequate fire-protection.

I have touched on only a few of Yellowstone's critical problems. What I have said is true also of all the most popular areas administered by the Service and in some degree of almost all the less accessible areas. There are true slum districts in Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, various other parks. The National Park Service does a far better job on its starvation rations than it could reasonably be expected to do, but it falls increasingly short of what it must do. It is charged with the preservation, protection, maintenance, development, and administration of 28 national parks, 5 national historical parks, 85 national monuments, 56 acres of various other classifications, and 785 National Capital parks. Their importance to the American present and future is simply incalculable; they are inestimably valuable. But Congress made no proper provision for rehabilitating the areas at the end of the war or for preparing them for the enormous increase in use—more than thirty million people visited them last year. It could have provided for renovation and expansion at about a fourth or a fifth of what the job would cost now—but it didn't. It requires the Service to operate a big plant on a hot-dog-stand budget.

The crisis is now in sight. Homeopathic measures will no longer suffice; thirty cents here and a dollar-seventy-five there will no longer keep the national park system in operation. I estimate that an appropriation of two hundred and fifty million dollars, backed by another one to provide the enlarged staff of experts required to expend it properly in no more than five years, would restore the parks to what they were in 1940 and provide proper facilities and equipment to take care of the crowds and problems of 1953. After that we could take action on behalf of the expanding future—and save from destruction the most majestic scenery in the United States, and the most important field areas of archeology, history, and biological science.

No such sums will be appropriated. Therefore only one course seems possible. The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened. They have the largest staffs in the system but neither those staffs nor the budgets allotted them are large enough to maintain the areas at a proper level of safety, attractiveness, comfort, or efficiency. They are unable to do the job in full and so it had better not be attempted at all. If these staffs—and their respective budgets—were distributed among other areas, perhaps the Service could meet the demands now put on it. If not, additional areas could be temporarily closed and sealed, held in trust for a more enlightened future—say Zion, Big Bend, Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Everglades, and Gettysburg. Meanwhile letters from constituents unable to visit Old Faithful, Half Dome, the Great White Throne, and Bright Angel Trail would bring a nationally disgraceful situation to the really serious attention of the Congress which is responsible for it.

Copyright ©1953 by Harper's Magazine. All rights reserved. Reprinted from the October issue by special permission (49-52).

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