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Shaping the System




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The National Parks:

Shaping the System
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Forging a System, 1916 to 1933

By August 1916 the Department of the Interior oversaw 14 national parks, 21 national monuments, and the Hot Springs and Casa Grande Ruin reservations. This collection of areas was not a true park system, however, for it lacked systematic management. Without an organization equipped for the purpose, Interior secretaries had been forced to call on the Army to develop and police Yellowstone and the California parks. The troops protected these areas and served their visitors well for the most part, but their primary mission lay elsewhere, and their continued presence could not be counted on. Civilian appointees of varying capabilities managed the other national parks, while most of the national monuments received minimal attention from part-time custodians. In the absence of an effective central administration, those in charge operated with little coordinated supervision or policy guidance.

Lacking unified leadership, the parks were also vulnerable to competing interests. Conservationists of the utilitarian school, who advocated the regulated use of natural resources to achieve "the greatest good for the greatest number," championed the construction of dams by public authorities for water supply, electric power, and irrigation purposes. When the city of San Francisco sought permission to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for its water supply in the first decade of the 20th century, the utilitarian and preservationist wings of the conservation movement came to blows. Over the passionate opposition of John Muir and other park supporters, Congress in 1913 approved what historian John Ise later called "the worst disaster ever to come to any national park."

"The rape of Hetch Hetchy," as the preservationists termed it, highlighted the institutional weakness of the park movement. While utilitarian conservation had become well represented in government by the U.S. Geological Survey (established 1879), the Forest Service (1905), and the Reclamation Service (1907), no comparable bureau spoke for park preservation in Washington. The need for an organization to operate the parks and advocate their interests was clearer than ever.

Among those recognizing this need was Stephen T. Mather, a wealthy Chicago businessman, vigorous outdoorsman, and born promoter. In 1914 Mather complained to Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, a fellow alumnus of the University of California at Berkeley, about the mismanagement of the parks. Lane invited Mather to come to Washington and do something about it. Mather accepted the challenge, arriving early in 1915 to become assistant to the secretary for park matters. Twenty-five-year-old Horace M. Albright, another Berkeley graduate who had recently joined the Interior Department, became Mather's top aide.

Previous efforts to establish a national parks bureau in Interior had been resisted by the Agriculture Department's Forest Service, which rightly foresaw the creation and removal of more parks from its national forests. Lobbying skillfully to overcome such opposition, Mather and Albright blurred the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation by emphasizing the economic potential of parks as tourist meccas. A vigorous public relations campaign led to supportive articles in National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, and other popular magazines. Mather hired his own publicist and obtained funds from 17 western railroads to produce The National Parks Portfolio, a lavishly illustrated publication sent to congressmen and other civic leaders. Congress responded as desired, and on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson affixed his signature to the bill creating the National Park Service.

The National Park Service Act made the new bureau responsible for the 35 national parks and monuments then under Interior, Hot Springs Reservation, and "such other national parks and reservations of like character as may be hereafter created by Congress." In managing these areas the NPS was directed "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."

Lane appointed Mather the Service's first director. Albright served as assistant director until 1919, then as superintendent of Yellowstone and field assistant director before succeeding Mather in 1929. Mather was initially incapacitated by illness, leaving Albright to organize the bureau in 1917, obtain its first appropriations from Congress, and prepare its first park policies.

The policies, issued in a May 13, 1918, letter from Lane to Mather, elaborated on the Service's dual mission of conserving park resources and providing for their enjoyment by the public. "Every activity of the Service is subordinate to the duties imposed upon it to faithfully preserve the parks for posterity in essentially their natural state," the letter stated. At the same time, it reflected Mather's and Albright's conviction that more visitors must be attracted and accommodated if the parks and the NPS were to prosper. Automobiles, not permitted in Yellowstone until 1915, were to be allowed in all parks. "Low-priced camps . . . as well as comfortable and even luxurious hotels" would be provided by concessioners. Mountain climbing, horseback riding, swimming, boating, fishing, and winter sports would be encouraged, as would natural history museums, exhibits, and other activities furthering the educational value of the parks.

The policy letter also sought to guide further expansion of the park system: "In studying new park projects, you should seek to find scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance. . . . The national park system as now constituted should not be lowered in standard, dignity, and prestige by the inclusion of areas which express in less than the highest terms the particular class or kind of exhibit which they represent."

The first national park following establishment of the National Park Service was Mount McKinley in Alaska, reserved in 1917 to protect the mountain sheep, caribou, moose, bears, and other wildlife on and around North America's highest mountain. The incomparable Grand Canyon National Park, incorporating the Forest Service's Grand Canyon National Monument, followed in 1919. Other national parks established through 1933 included Lafayette, Maine, in 1919 (renamed Acadia in 1929); Zion, Utah, in 1919; Utah in that state in 1924 (renamed Bryce Canyon in 1928); Grand Teton, Wyoming, in 1929; and Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, in 1930. Like Grand Canyon, all these except Grand Teton incorporated earlier national monuments.

Casa Grande Ruin Reservation remained under Interior's General Land Office until 1918, when it was proclaimed a national monument and reassigned to the NPS. Two Alaska monuments proclaimed during the period, Katmai and Glacier Bay, were each larger than any national park and until 1978 were the system's largest areas. Katmai, established in 1918, protected the scene of a major volcanic eruption six years before. Glacier Bay, established in 1925, contained numerous tidewater glaciers and their mountain setting. Congress made both of them national parks in 1980. Badlands National Monument, South Dakota, and Arches National Monument, Utah, both established in 1929, became national parks in the 1970s.

Badlands Badlands was the first national monument established directly by an act of Congress rather than by a presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act. By the end of the century Congress had established more than three dozen national monuments, although about a third of them no longer retained that designation.

Through the 1920s the National Park System was really a western park system. Of the Service's holdings, only Lafayette (Acadia) National Park in Maine lay east of the Mississippi. This geographic bias was hardly surprising: the West was home to America's most spectacular natural scenery, and most land there was federally owned and thus subject to park or monument reservation without purchase. If the system were to benefit more people and maximize its support in Congress, however, it would have to expand eastward—a foremost objective of NPS leadership.

In 1926 Congress authorized Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave national parks in the Appalachian region but required that their lands be donated. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who gave more than $3 million for lands and roads for Acadia, contributed more than $5 million for Great Smoky Mountains and a lesser amount for Shenandoah. With such private assistance, the states involved gradually acquired and turned over the lands needed to establish these large natural parks in the following decade.

monument at Gettysburg But the Service's greatest opportunity in the East lay in another realm—that of history and historic sites. The War Department had been involved in preserving a range of historic battlefields, forts, and memorials there since the 1890s. Horace Albright, whose expansionist instincts were accompanied by a personal interest in history, sought the transfer of these areas to the NPS soon after its creation. He argued that the NPS was better equipped to interpret them to the public, but skeptics in the War Department and Congress questioned how the bureau's focus on western wilderness qualified it to run the military parks better than the military.

After succeeding Mather as director in 1929, Albright resumed his efforts. As a first step he got Congress to establish three new historical parks in the East under NPS administration: George Washington Birthplace National Monument at Wakefield, Virginia; Colonial National Monument at Jamestown and Yorktown, Virginia; and Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey, where Washington and the Continental Army spent two winters during the Revolution.

house at Morristown Morristown, authorized March 2, 1933, was the first national historical park, a more descriptive designation that Congress would apply to Colonial in 1936 and three dozen more historical areas thereafter. Of more immediate significance, Colonial's Yorktown Battlefield and Morristown moved the NPS directly into military history, advancing its case for the War Department's areas. They would not be long in coming.

NEXT> The Reorganization of 1933


Last Modified: Wed, Jan 10 2001 07:08:48 am PDT

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