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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
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The National Park System

The national park system of the United States is a complex aggregate of some 370 units falling into 20 separate categories. They represent, in principle, the finest America has to offer in scenery, historical and archaeological relics, and cultural definition. The system attempts to explain America's history, interpret its culture, represent and preserve its varied ecosystems, and provide, incidentally, for the recreation of its 250 million people. The parks have been justifiably called "the crown jewels" of America and "the best idea America ever had."

Officially, the purposes of the park system, and by inference its management policies, are best summed up in the 1916 act that established the National Park Service. In now familiar words to all who have studied the parks and their management, the new agency was charged "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The origin of the movement to create this system is shrouded in the early nineteenth century while the confusion of managing such a system for both preservation and recreation has been a frustrating puzzle since the beginning. An increasing scholarly attention to the history of the agency, its parks, and the culture of conservation has arisen in the past two decades among environmental historians, historical geographers, park scientists, and others interested in these most beloved and enigmatic of American treasures.

Two processes must be concurrently addressed to understand the park system. First, there is the growth of the system itself. Officially it began with the founding of Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872. Another eighteen years passed before a second park that would survive the nineteenth century was established. As the twentieth century approached, Congress begrudgingly took steps to conserve other resources by other means. However, after the creation of the Park Service, the haphazard, individual preservation efforts were paralleled by direct efforts to shape a meaningful system, much of this impetus provided by the initial director, Stephen Mather. The Park Service and the public have continued to shape the contents of the system through varied initiatives and sets of interacting or sometimes opposing beliefs.

A second process is the maturing framework of management policy for the parks. The 1916 Organic Act tersely outlined a seemingly contradictory set of preservation and recreation mandates. In subsequent decades new interpretations, changes in public and government attitudes, and the maturation of ecological science have added to the confusion.

Although both these processes have been linear and evolutionary, distinct periods can be identified. Prior to 1918, the major component categories of the system were created. National parks, monuments, and battlefields were established and historic and prehistoric relics protected. However, there was no "system" per se. Each component was administered separately by the secretaries of War, Agriculture, and the Interior, depending on their location and purpose. The Organic Act brought order to at least the parks and monuments under the control of the Department of the Interior. In 1918, the secretary outlined a code of rules and policies that further defined management of the new park system.

From 1918 to 1932 the system and its parent agency matured, rose in public esteem, and fended off challenges to their existence and policies. A collection of motivated and able men, "Mather men," laid the foundations of National Park Service (NPS) image and operations. Studies of potential new areas coincided with establishment of system-wide policies. Yet these policies were based on relatively simple concepts of object preservation, the protection of individual trees, animals, or at best, scenes, with little knowledge of or attention to ecological complexity. Only at the beginning of the 1930s did concerns for scientific management become manifest in a series of policy statements about the biological resources of the system.

The 1930s brought a radical change and expansion of the national park system and its duties. Sweeping in with Franklin Roosevelt came a variety of government streamlining and public relief initiatives that would benefit and forever alter the parks. Two of the most profound occurred in 1933 with the reorganization of the federal executive branch which lumped all the parks, monuments, battlefields, and memorials under the Park Service's jurisdiction and the act that led to the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works army of unemployed men, many of whom would transform the built environments of the parks. Indeed, while the Park Service wrestled with how and in which directions it should expand the system, some, both inside and outside the government, challenged the developmental mania that flush work budgets had brought.

All this came to a crashing end with the arrival of World War II. It heralded the onset of a grim and financially strapped postwar period. While park popularity and attendance continued to rise rapidly and damage from wartime neglect festered, funding hovered at prewar levels. At the same time, the growth of the system itself slowed and early political checks on hitherto unrestrained expansion appeared. Finally, the crisis of management forced such an outcry that a funding bonanza, Mission 66, ended the drought.

The ensuing decade of development radically transformed, again, the built environment of the park system. Before Mission 66 ended, however, questions of purpose and management priorities would also arise again. Spurred by the focus on construction and development that Mission 66 provided, and by advances in ecological science, many questioned how well the Park Service was doing at "preserving" the park system resources. Prodded by university scientists and conservation groups, the agency undertook a series of studies and policy formulations culminating in the Leopold and Robbins reports which redirected NPS goals to ecosystem preservation and scientific inquiry. Coincident with this redefinition of the traditional parks, attention to expanding the nation's recreation opportunities also rose, culminating in new studies of seashores, recreation areas, and parkways.

As Mission 66 wound down and long-term NPS employees tried to accommodate the concepts of the Leopold report, both the national park system and its managing agency continued to expand and diversify. Ecological preservation became the entrenched policy focus while new initiatives in both recreation and preservation led to exciting new categories in the park system. Among them were wild and scenic rivers and national trails. New recreation areas and seashore parks also appeared. The public itself developed an environmental consciousness and an intense interest in both using and saving the nation's parklands. By 1968, management had become so complex that three separate systems of administration seemed to be needed—one set each for historical, natural, and recreational areas. A web of environmental legislation culminating in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) further protected the parks and constrained their planning and development.

The 1970s, if anything, seemed to intensify and accelerate both the processes of system expansion and management redefinition. Both the public and Congress seemed to take a heightened interest in shaping the system. The decade saw new charges to preserve archaeological and historic sites, novel urban recreation areas, expansion of a park purely for ecological integrity, and the doubling of the system size by the addition of huge units in Alaska. Despite these successes, the decade ended on an ominous note as a survey disclosed that the system, while ever larger and more popular, faced serious threats in nearly every unit.

Unfortunately, the decade of the 1980s heralded the onset of recession and government spending cuts even as threats to the parks multiplied. External development, issues of serious overcrowding, deterioration of infrastructure, and decay of Park Service morale rose nearly as quickly as did the popularity of and visitation to the parks. The 1980s saw less expansion and fewer changes in the system, but a flurry of reports at the end of the decade and the start of the 1990s demonstrated heightened public interest ignited by the Yellowstone fire of 1988 and the swollen ranks of conservation groups frustrated by administration challenges to existing environmental laws.

Today the national park system continues to face new threats and old problems. It has a hierarchy of policy controls that begin with the government-wide controls such as NEPA, then descends to the Organic Act, individual park founding legislation, NPS management policies which reflect and elaborate the above legislation, and finally individual park policies. The latter often reflect unwritten agency tradition of what a national park should be and how it should be run.

The purpose of this volume is to help explain this complex system and its ill-defined management culture by reproducing, in their original texts, the key documents that have shaped them. Laws that established and molded the system, policy statements, explanations of policy in action, self-evaluations, scientific studies, and the comments of outside observers from the scientific and conservation communities have all contributed to the composition of the park system and its current administration. Sixty-seven documents are presented in their entirety if possible or abbreviated to include only pertinent abstracts and recommendations if necessary. Six more exceptionally long but fundamental laws are summarized in the final section of the book. Most of the documents led directly to policy formulation or additions to the park system. A few are contemporary efforts to justify what policies were already in place or at least demonstrate the minds of park administrators of the time. Taken in total, these documents show most directly, in the original language, the evolution of the national park system, the National Park Service, and conservation in America through the early 1990s. It is hoped that this volume will assist park officers, scholars, and the interested general reader to understand how the parks and their problems of today have arisen from the policies and acts of the past.

Most of my thanks for the completion of this volume go to the National Park Service for giving me the opportunity to search its files and for its support during the research process. Many knowledgeable and enthusiastic NPS people helped in the identification and acquisition of these documents. Among the most important were Carol Aten, Larry Bancroft, Ed Bearss, Harry Butowsky, Gordon Chappell, John Dennis, Dennis Fenn, Dave Graber, William Gregg, David Jervis, Roger Kelly, J. Mike Lambe, Thomas Mulhern, Dave Nathanson, Tom Nichols, David Parsons, Tom Ritter, Jerry Rogers, and James Stewart. For his exceptional assistance in the complex procedure of identifying which documents to include, my thanks go to Richard Sellars. And for his consistent encouragement, ready assistance, and leadership by example I particularly wish to note and thank NPS Bureau Historian Barry Mackintosh.

For their monumental help in retyping all the documents I thank Debra Moberg, Jerry Dixon, and Deanna Bowers. I also wish especially to thank Patricia Janssen for organizing the manuscript and preparing it for submission to press, and for the careful editing she so expertly provided. Finally I thank Dean Lawrence Alien and the University of South Alabama for their financial and research time support, Jonathan Sisk and Rowman & Littlefield Publishers for their faith in the project, and my wife, Robin, for her love and confidence.

NEXT>Chapter 1: The Early Years, 1864 - 1918


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

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