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Presenting Nature








Design Ethic Origins

Design Policy & Process

Western Field Office

Park Planning

Decade of Expansion

State Parks

Appendix A

Appendix B


Presenting Nature:
The Historic Landscape Design of the National Park Service, 1916-1942
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The modern campground resulted from marked changes in theory and policy that occurred in the early 1930s. The National Park Service, like the U.S. Forest Service and several state park systems, was concerned with the impact of heavy use and trampling on the vegetation of camping areas. After studying the problem in Sequoia National Park, California Redwood State Park, and other places, the eminent plant pathologist E. P. Meinecke identified the destructive effects that the compaction of roots and other injury to natural vegetation were having on campgrounds and other heavily used areas. In response to the problem, he formulated a theory of camp planning and reconstruction that has ever since influenced the design of picnic areas, campgrounds, and waysides in national and state parks and forests.

In the 1920s, campgrounds were located in open meadows or forests where the understory had been cleared to make way for a loop road and areas for parking and camping. Campgrounds provided water, fireplaces, and a comfort station. Campers parked their cars randomly on open meadows or in cleared areas; they hung tents from the sides of vehicles and set up portable tables.

In Sequoia National Park, giant sequoias planted in the 1920s as older ones were lost failed to regenerate. In 1926, Mather called in E. P. Meinecke to study the problem. Human trampling and construction, Meinecke found, had caused the loss of the great trees and other native plants. He urged that a program of reforestation be introduced to restore these species. The shallow roots of the giant sequoias made the trees especially susceptible to soil compaction and damage during construction. Damage had occurred to the trees during the construction of the General's Highway and, in the Giant Forest, through years of heavy occupation and visitation. Immediate efforts were made to limit future construction in the Giant Forest. Discussion about removing development altogether from the Giant Forest began shortly thereafter and has continued for many years. Later in the 1920s, Superintendent John White established a nursery at the Ash Mountain headquarters. [126]

Meinecke's 1928 report on similar problems in the California state parks brought widespread attention to the impact that heavy concentrations of tourists in certain areas had on the surrounding vegetation. Compaction of soil and roots by constant trampling and automobile traffic and was a serious threat to the native ground cover, trees, and shrubs and thus meant "a slow but steady destruction of the very features that make these localities attractive." The problem lay in the constant repetition of the injurious action, day after day and year after year. Nationwide, campgrounds had become unappealing places and were being abandoned. Not only was vegetation dying, but car tracks, the cutting of wood for fuel, and remnant ashes added to the decay. [127]

Meinecke considered foot traffic a minor threat in comparison with the havoc the automobile created. He wrote,

If unregulated foot travel was responsible for noticeable damage, it is not to be wondered at that the machine causes far greater injury. Man, in walking, makes a narrow path and compresses the soil at points a pace apart with about 140 lbs. on the average. The car with its ton and a half of weight makes a continuous wide track on its four tires. Man injures only those smaller plants he actually tramples under foot. The car, much clumsier to handle, crushes shrubs, sideswipes trees, tearing off living bark and severely injuring them. Oil, a deadly poison to plants, drips from the parked automobile. [128]

To remedy the problem, Meinecke urged greater regulation of camping areas and recommended revolutionary changes in campground design and management. In 1932, the Forest Service issued a A Camp Ground Policy, which set forth Meinecke's ideas. Foremost was the selection of sites based on the type of soil. Preference was to be given to areas with light sandy soils and to places such as Longmire at Mount Rainier where the ground was richly strewn with round boulders from an old river bed and whose interstices were filled with rich soil that could support tall trees. Length of seasonal use was another important consideration. At high elevations, where use seldom exceeded three months, the probability of compaction was less than at lower elevations in mild climates, where use was longer and where frost heaving and snow cover to break up the compaction did not occur. Type of vegetation was important for a campground's desirability and usefulness. Designers were to consider the composition and density of the vegetation as well as its distribution to determine which plants and trees were to be saved, which were to be cleared, and which were to be given special protection by stone or log barriers. Some trees, including quaking aspens, lodgepole pines, sugar pines, and thin-barked species, were particularly endangered by campground use. The final consideration was the type of camper. Meinecke described the typical tourist in a park or forest as one having little knowledge about the woods but a willingness "to conform . . . to what he is supposed to do in the forest." Seeking "release from the restrictions of town and city life," this type of camper needed a carefully planned campground and a minimum of signs with prohibitions and demands. [129]

Equally important was the campground plan. Meinecke wrote,

Camp planning does not end with the setting aside of a campground. Instead of permitting the campers to do their own haphazard planning, the ground must be gone over and divided up into individual campsites of legitimate sizes, each one offering approximately as much privacy, shade, and other advantages as the other, based on the vegetation on the ground and on the preservation of its essential features throughout the life of the camp site. [130]

Meinecke's plan minimized the chances that cars would leave the road and damage vegetation. The campground was reached by a well-planned system of one-way roads from which "garage" spurs extended at angles. One-way roads worked best because new roads could be added as the demand for more spaces increased; they were narrower, requiring less space, and they encouraged a smooth flow of traffic. Individual campsites were delineated, each consisting of a parking space and a clearing equipped with a fireplace and a camp table fixed in place and a tent site. Logs, stones, or vegetation defined each camping site, while large logs or boulders marked roadways, road spurs, and parking areas. Vegetation interfering with or unlikely to survive under camp use was cleared. Remaining trees and shrubs, however, were protected from the automobile by placing large boulders at the corners of intersecting roads and where parking spurs branched off the main road. Trees and shrubs between campsites were to be retained. As screens, they enclosed each campsite and afforded campers privacy; they also provided the natural setting that visitors had come to experience. [131]

The garage spur was Meinecke's most important innovation. Cleared of vegetation and clearly marked by heavy rocks or posts imitating boulders at strategic points, the spur offered several benefits, which Meinecke described:

Since the moving automobile, winding in and out among the trees, is by far the most destructive element, it must be fixed at the entrance to the camp site and not be permitted to enter the latter at all. This is easily accomplished by providing for each site a definite garage in the shape of a short spur leading off at a suitable angle from the one- way road. The car easily moves off the road into the spur and backs out again without turning. [132]

Meinecke viewed the campsite as the visitor's "temporary home," but a permanent feature of the campground. As long as the fireplace, table, and tent site were logically and permanently placed, visitors would have no desire to rearrange them. Natural and permanent trails could then be developed between car, table, tent, and fireplace, thereby eliminating any destructive trampling of vegetation within and around the campsite. [133]

Restoring old campgrounds, a problem the park service had been working on in Yellowstone for many years, was a far more difficult task. Meinecke reiterated his recommendations to introduce one-way roads, garage spurs, and fixed fireplaces and to protect key trees by placing boulders along roadways, at corners, and around garage spurs. In 1932, Meinecke encouraged planting trees in campgrounds temporarily withdrawn from use to restore vegetation. He wrote, "By the planting of native trees at strategic points in close imitation of the natural type the site can slowly be brought back again for future use. Landscaping in the usual sense of the word has no place in the mountain camp where the visitor seeks the illusion of wilderness." By 1932, the overall condition of existing camping areas in public forests and parks was dismal. Meinecke recommended a system of camp rotation, whereby new grounds were opened and older ones closed until the vegetation could recover by natural processes or planting. [134]

Meinecke also recognized the effects of climate on camp planning and restoration. Semiarid regions, such as Southern California, were especially problematic. Meinecke suggested artificially creating a naturalistic setting for such campgrounds by systematically planting on suitable sites long before actually using them. In the West, cottonwoods could be planted in land irrigated by nearby streams or springs. Cottonwoods grew quickly and provided a thick canopy for shade. Meinecke wrote,

The success of such planting depends on the judicious selection of sites, on the choice of suitable native species, on the amount of care that can be given the young plants until they become self-supporting and last, but not least, on a clear and sympathetic understanding of the ultimate objective, namely the creation of green and shady camps where the American lover of the out-doors can feel happy and at home. [135]

The National Park Service shared the forest service's concern for deteriorating campgrounds. The loss of trees was a foremost concern, and in addition to efforts to close the Giant Forest campground in Sequoia, planting projects had been attempted at several campgrounds in Yellowstone in the 1920s. About 1928, the park service began urging the construction of fixed fireplaces. At this time at Grand Canyon a model stove was devised; it was only 10 to 14 inches in height and fashioned in local stone to give the camper the effect of being around an open camp fire. [136]

Meinecke's policy on campgrounds was circulated among park designers in the National Park Service and major changes began to appear in the campgrounds. As a result, park campgrounds began to incorporate defined roads, paths, and campsites and provided barriers of stone and log to control traffic and parking so that heavy use of the grounds would not damage the root systems of surrounding shrubbery and trees. Meinecke's advice on using irrigation and spring sites to plant cottonwoods to prepare shady campgrounds was followed at Zion and other places in the Southwest. The term "meineckizing" campgrounds became a common term among landscape designers and CCC supervisors in the 1930s and continued to be used into the 1950s.

Meinecke's theory applied to the development of picnic grounds as well. He urged that picnic areas be separated from campgrounds and recommended a similar one-way road system leading to a number of parking spurs arranged in a herringbone fashion to alleviate traffic problems and use the space most economically. Fixed fireplaces, either individual or community, were also essential to regulating picnic area use. [137]

The Paradise Camp Grounds at Mount Rainier were reconstructed in the early 1930s according to E. P Meinecke's principles of camp planning and landscape protection. Parking spurs were laid out on one-way roads and marked with boulders and log barriers. Each campsite was equipped with a table, fireplace, and tent clearing. (National Archives, Record Group 79)

In 1934 Meinecke expanded his theory in Camp Planning and Camp Reconstruction. Here the campground was viewed as a community of roofless cabins. The grounds were subdivided into individual sites, or "lots," off of permanent one-way service roads. As before, the essential components of each site were the garage spur and the permanent hearth or fireplace, table, and tent site. The 1934 manual was a more comprehensive guide to planning campgrounds, treating vegetation in greater detail and offering a flexible system that could be adapted to different conditions and enlarged over time. [138]

Camp planning combined two objectives—the "fullest utilization of the limited space compatible with increased convenience and comfort of the camper" and "the permanent protection of the woodland character of the camp ground." The type and distribution of natural vegetation therefore governed the arrangement of campsites. Meinecke wrote,

The natural, untouched vegetation in the forest is irregularly and unevenly distributed so that no two camping areas are alike. Each one has to be planned and arranged on its own merits. A similar variety exists with regard to the composition of the forest cover. At lower elevations wide-spreading oaks, with shrubs, make excellent camps. Higher up there are pines, firs and cedars, with scattered broad-leaf trees in the openings, and at still greater elevations the camp grounds may be located in aspen groves and among subalpine pines. The varying sizes of the trees and shrubs, their mass effects, and even color and different shades of green, have a strong bearing on the character of pleasantness and power of attraction. [139]

Meinecke's idea of laying out service roads to create tiers of varying shapes had great applicability for the National Park Service, whose campgrounds demanded an increasing number of campsites within a compressed space and whose role of stewardship called for minimum disturbance of the landscape. His advice on creating barriers to guide traffic by using rocks was now extended to the use of substantially sized logs. Unlike in other park structures, rocks were to be selected for their ability to contrast with the surroundings rather than their ability to blend and then were to be embedded in the ground. Barriers were intended to replace signs as forms of communication. Meinecke described the ideal configuration of roads and movement of automobile traffic:

The best utilization of the whole camp ground is secured by a one-way road which is lined on both sides by campsites. In the simplest case, that of a relatively narrow strip, the road leads through its middle serving lots on either side. On larger grounds the road may swing back at the end to serve another single or double tier, parallel to the first. In broader camp grounds of rectangular or square outline connecting roads break up the area into smaller units, each laid out in individual lots. These connecting roads run back into the main road at such an angle that the driver is forced to continue in the one direction, and large rocks or other obstacles are placed so that he will not attempt to turn against the one-way travel. The distance between two paralleling connecting roads is determined by the size, and more particularly by the depth, of the lots making up the two tiers lying back to back between the roads. [140]

The community of the campground was expanded to include natural areas and features that should be shared by all. The 1934 manual reflected a greater awareness of landscape and ecological concerns, the treatment of vegetation, and the possibility of reintroducing vegetation through transplanting (perhaps based on Waugh's guidance or Meinecke's knowledge of the park service's experience). It expanded upon the environmental hazards faced by certain trees and plants that were susceptible and sensitive to invasion by man. Meinecke wrote,

The large old oaks of the lower country, with the broad open stretches of grass under and between them, are less endangered by public use than are the dense groves of short as pens and high-altitude pines of the mountains. Even a road slashed through the aspen and pine thickets upsets the natural balance of life on their borders, and when openings for campsites are cut into the groves the entire physiological setup under which the trees with all the many associated plants, have grown into a natural association is profoundly disturbed. The sudden letting in of strong sunlight and of winds in itself effects changes from which trees suffer and to which they have difficulty in adjusting themselves. [141]

Greater attention was given to the arrangement of campsites in relation to sunlight, privacy, and prevailing winds. The screening and shade provided by existing trees and shrubs were important in the arrangement of each site. Meinecke wrote of "neutral zones" between adjoining sites to afford campers privacy and between campsites and the road to protect the camp from the dust and noise. Ideally, these zones were to consist of a strip of green shrubs or young trees or a correspondingly broader belt of open land if no such vegetation was present. [142]

The clearing of plant growth and timber to make way for the campsites required care and selectivity. Sites were to be carefully fireproofed so that overhanging limbs and shrubbery would be clear of the fireplaces, particularly highly flammable plants such as sage. The best boundaries between campsites were natural ones afforded by stands of tall trees or thick shrubbery. Meinecke urged that the greatest care be exercised in the choice of trees and shrubs to be removed and that the work be done only by trained men. This kind of work required in his opinion "careful weighing and a good deal of creative imagination." He wrote, "Each tree or shrub to be cut should be designated, and the cutting should be strictly confined to just these plants. No greater mistake can be made than to cut out all lower growth indiscriminately. A screen of shrubs or young reproduction between camps is a valuable asset, and its preservation must be made an integral part of any subdivision plan." [143]

Planting was expensive, and it took several years for its effects to become visible. The planting of exotics was discouraged on the grounds that "even if they adapt themselves to their new site they will always be felt as strangers in the native plant community and will detract from the natural beauty of the landscape." Meinecke now found it often necessary to help out the natural vegetation in these beauty spots as well as for fillings gaps in screening from camp to camp and for raising barriers against the highway." He recommended transplanting:

With careful balling and the usual precautions in transfer and planting, these native young trees and shrubs grown under the same climatic conditions, will have the best chance to survive. As for their placing, the same rule should be followed that governs the distribution of obstacles. They should be planted only where needed. . . . Intelligent planting, therefore, makes high demands on imagination. The landscape gardener must visualize the ultimate effect of his planting as it will appear in the future. The final proof of good planting comes to light only after ten or twenty years have elapsed. [144]

Meinecke encouraged the inclusion of picturesque details: "An old log overgrown with green moss is an asset in the landscape, a thing of beauty, and therefore to be protected." In addition, particularly beautiful spots along a creek, small waterfalls and islands, rocks, and vegetation were to be reserved in the camp plan for common enjoyment. [145]

Although park designers followed Meinecke's manual, campgrounds continued to be one of the service's most serious problems. The National Park Service secured Meinecke's services as a consultant in the 1930s to advise on problems in Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, and other parks. Improvements continued to be made in the design and standardization of the designs for campground layouts, camp tables, and fireplaces. Meinecke's recommendations revolutionized camping in the national parks and forests in the 1930s and also determined the design of campgrounds in state parks and forests by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In addition, his findings shed greater light on the damage caused by automobiles and pedestrians on the natural vegetation of national parks, causing park designers and managers to reassess the accessibility of automobiles to forested areas and consider the need for defined footpaths across fragile areas of vegetation, such as the alpine meadows at Yakima Park. His ideas also fueled the Landscape Division's request for funding for improvements such as sturdy curbs, graded paths, and delineated parking areas.

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Last Modified: Mon, Oct 31, 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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