National Parks
The American Experience
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Chapter 11:
Ideals and Controversies of Expansion

The main flaw in the performance of many existing conservation associations is that most concentrate on a chosen holy grail, and too few organizations have entered the fight for the total environment.

Stewart L. Udall, 1963

A park, however splendid, has little appeal to a family that cannot reach it. . . . The new conservation is built on a new promise—to bring parks closer to the people.

Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968

If you keep standing for perfection, you won't get anything.

Phillip Burton, 1979

Initially hailed as a milestone of environmental insight, the Leopold Committee Report of 1963 more accurately reawakened and redirected concerns about the biological health of the national parks evident since the late 1920s. In a similar vein, the rapid expansion of the national park system during the 1960s and 1970s merely intensified the long debate over Congress's responsibility to protect so-called national park standards. Again the issue pitted traditional perceptions of the national parks against the growing determination to protect all kinds of landscapes, not just those blessed with outstanding geological wonders. Monumentalism was so fixed in the American mind, however, that its persuasiveness indicating the establishment of new national parks was not to be easily dislodged. "Our National Parks are much more than recreational resorts and museums of unaltered nature," wrote Robert Sterling Yard in 1923, defending the national park standards of his own generation; "they are also the Exposition of the Scenic Supremacy of the United States." The nation's reputation as the leader in world conservation would only be threatened by expansion of the national park system for expansion's sake. "No other trade-mark," he concluded, "has cost so much to establish and pays such dividends of business, national prestige, and patriotism." Nevertheless, he warned, his concerns now fully obvious, "it is proposed to destroy it." [1]

Especially in the East, calls for "inferior" national parks threatened to distract attention from the world-class landscapes already included in the national park system. Public recreation, Yard charged, not scenic preservation, was the true motivation behind these newer parks. He did not consider recreation unimportant; similarly, he had earlier admitted that a limited number of areas might qualify for national park status on the basis of their plants, animals, or wilderness alone. [2] In the absence of monumental scenery, however, the need to protect nondescript resources in national parks must be indisputable. The protection of pretty, yet uninspiring landscapes was itself secondary to the promotion of scenic wonders whose uniqueness required no further justification for national park status. "When Zion National Park was created in 1919," he wrote, offering a recent example, "the whole world knew from the simple announcement of the fact that another stupendous scenic wonderland had been discovered. But when pleasant wooded summits, limestone caves, pretty local ravines, local mountains and gaps between mountains become National Parks, the name 'Zion National Park' will mean nothing at home or abroad to those who have not already seen it." Demeaning the scenic standards of the national parks merely invited "local competition not only for national parks but for national appropriations. If one Congressional District secures its own National Park, why not every other Congressional District in the State, or in many States? . . . What are Congressmen for if not to look out for their districts?" The "increasing dozens of little parks" would undermine the financial support of the larger, spectacular, and clearly legitimate reserves. "A National Park Pork Barrel," he bitterly concluded, "would be the final degradation!" [3]

For the next half century, Yard and other purists fought against the use of the term "national park" to describe battlefields, historic sites, parkways, recreation areas, and other federal preserves of limited scenic impressiveness. [4] Dr. John C. Merriam, president of the Carnegie Institution, defended Yard's objections to park expansion in this vein, writing in 1926 "the power and order behind nature." National Parks represent opportunities for worship in which one comes to understand more fully certain of the attributes of nature and its Creator, Merriam said, elaborating on his definition. "They are not objects to be worshipped, but they are altars over which we may worship." [5] Reverence for nature, as exemplified by public respect for the sanctity of the existing national parks, would only be eroded by heedless expansion of the system into areas of commonplace topography. At stake, in other words, was the nineteenth century's sense of "pilgrimage," the feeling that only by journeying west did one come face to face with nature in its most majestic, pristine, and symbolic setting. [6]

In contrast to Yard and Merriam, most preservationists of the succeeding generation—grappling with the deterioration of the environment as a whole—simply had far less in common with the image of national park as evidence of the country's spiritual evolution and cultural superiority. Certainly by the 1960s, that image had been tempered by the belief that nature as a whole was important. National parks, in addition to protecting the "museum pieces" of the American landscape, might also afford protection to land threatened by housing developments, shopping centers, expressways, and similar forms of urban encroachment. Stemming the tide of urban development in the future hinged on educating Americans in the cities and suburbs to appreciate the significance of the natural world being sacrificed in their own backyards. Indeed, the loss of more than a million acres of open space annually throughout the United States of the 1960s and 1970s greatly alarmed preservation interests. [7] Increasingly they understood the irony of protecting Yellowstone's two million acres, for example, all the while losing half as much land every year to housing, highways, parking lots, and other types of urban sprawl.

Equity of access to the national parks was yet another pressing issue for modern preservationists. By virtue of their remoteness, the great western national parks excluded as many Americans as they accommodated. Even in the East, the largest natural areas were too far distant, especially for the urban poor. [8] For Robert Sterling Yard's generation, the quality of park landscapes rather than equity of access to the parks had been preservationists' major concern. Ignoring the fact that states outside the Far West might deserve national parks, few other regions of the country possessed comparable scenic distinctiveness. Whatever course the United States chose to follow in meeting the everyday needs of its citizens for outdoor recreation, the distinction between national parks and purely recreational areas should never be compromised. "None but the noblest" national parks, Yard pleaded again, "painstakingly chosen, must be admitted" to the system. [9]

By the early 1960s, Yard's brand of purism had been questioned by all but the most tradition-bound preservationists. Most still clung to monumentalism emotionally; politically and socially, however, they realized their movement was changing. For example, if preservationists were to acknowledge the legitimacy of civil rights, it seemed advisable to create more national parks closer to where all Americans lived and worked year-round, not merely where only the middle and upper classes could afford to spend their summer vacations. [10] Even more to the point, only the federal government seemed powerful and wealthy enough to forestall the degradation of natural environments across the country. What Yard had labeled "pork barrel politics," in other words, struck preservationists as perhaps their only hope of providing the environment as a whole with at least minimal protection. [11]

Inevitably, Yard's insistence that recreational needs be addressed apart from scenic preservation was tempered by political realities. So, too, did preservationists ignore his warning that bureaucrats and politicians would be tempted to label any area a "national park," thereby diluting the original significance of the term. As opportunities for preservation dwindled with each passing year, these seemed to be the concerns of a previous generation. What mattered most to preservationists of the 1960s and 1970s was not what the parks were called, or even how they might be used, but whether parks—any parks—would be established in the first place.

Across the United States, preservationists championed dozens of new parks under a wide variety of categories, from seashores and lakeshores to urban recreation areas. The impetus for park expansion reached its peak in 1977 with the appointment of Representative Phillip Burton of California to chair the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs. By the end of the following year, Burton, a strong promoter of local, regional, and urban national parks, had pushed through Congress the largest single legislative package in national park history. [12]

Although opponents in Congress, the Park Service, and the media—echoing Robert Sterling Yard—labeled it the "Parks Barrel Bill," its passage was never seriously in doubt. To the contrary, most preservationists endorsed the legislation as an important milestone in making national parks relevant to an urban-based, industrialized society. [13] Granted, the simultaneous campaign for huge wilderness parks in Alaska indicated that traditional values of landscape protection were also very much alive in the United States. Among individuals and organizations equally committed to the establishment of national parks outside the scenic public lands of the West, however, passage of the Omnibus Bill of 1978 heralded a new era of legitimacy—and success—for their cause.

First applied to Yellowstone, the term "national park" inevitably fixed an indelible image of grandeur and mystery in the public mind. It followed that any national park established subsequently would be measured against Yellowstone, not only because it was the first to be called a national park but because the region held such deep significance as a symbol for American culture. In that vein, in 1961 the historian John Ise addressed the issue of national park standards: "There were in 1902 six national parks of superlative magnificence; but between 1902 and 1906 three new parks were set aside—Wind Cave, Sullys Hill, and Platt—which did not measure up to this high standard." Ise concluded the problem was the absence of a "Congressional policy governing the establishment of national parks," coupled with the lack of a "Park Service to screen park proposals." As a result, these three "inferior" national parks "just happened to be established." [14]

In fact, preservation of the three areas marked a subtle rather than accidental shift in national park policy. By the early twentieth century, the perception of national parks as the embodiment of American romanticism and cultural achievement had been joined by the identification of their value for promoting public health and physical fitness. Invariably, interest groups advocating hiking, horseback riding, and other forms of outdoor recreation asked: Why should only states in the Far West have national parks? Wind Cave, Sullys Hill, and Platt were but the first examples of the political response to this latent desire for all states in the union to share in the national park experiment.

The problem of compensating for the geological limitations of park projects outside the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and desert Southwest compounded the dilemma of trying to justify each proposal on traditional grounds. The term "national park," after all, was first applied to the incomparable wonders of Yellowstone. Where equivalent natural features were lacking, other compensatory values had to be found. In this vein, John F. Lacey of Iowa introduced the proposed Wind Cave national park in South Dakota to the House of Representatives as "substantially what the Yellowstone country would be if the geysers should die. It has been excavated by hot water in the same manner that the geyser land is now being excavated in the Yellowstone." Wind Cave's dramatic past, however, was obviously not the geological equal of Yellowstone's exciting present. "The active forces are no longer in operation there," Lacey admitted; "there is no hot water, and the conditions that formerly prevailed there have ceased." Still, he argued, finally abandoning his extravagant comparison, "a series of very wonderful caves remain, and the Land Department has withdrawn this tract from settlement." The "few claims" of settlers in the area amounted to but "a few hundred acres" of the nine thousand proposed for park status; "I think it is a very meritorious proposition," he therefore concluded, "and that this tract of land ought to be reserved to the American people." [15]

Wind Cave's projected territory of only nine thousand acres, in comparison to Yellowstone's 2.2 million, also foreshadowed the fate of most parklands to be created outside the mountain and desert West. With the exception of national parks equally restricted to either rugged or undesirable terrain, new reserves in the East, Middle West, and South would likewise be significantly limited in scope. This factor, too, posed a dilemma for activists seeking to justify the fact that areas outside the West still qualified for national park status. Most simply lacked the diversity of natural features one expected to find as a matter of course in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon. Anticipating the problem, proponents of the so-called lesser parks could not help but inflate their descriptions, arguing in effect that the quantity of one type of feature was enough compensation for the absence of several points of interest. Binger Hermann, the commissioner of the General Land Office, thus quoted extensively from the reports of his surveyor, who found Wind Cave literally filled with "subterranean wonders." Examples included great caverns and grotesque-looking rooms,"large grottoes," and "tons of specimens." "Those who visited the Yellowstone National Park and the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky," the description concluded, "will all accord the Wind Cave only a second place to the Yellowstone Canyon and the geysers of the former and declare the Wind Cave superior, in point of attractiveness, to the Mammoth Cave." [16]

In the final analysis, those and similar linkages to Yellowstone National Park proved decisive in winning park status for Wind Cave. Supporters of the park effectively if excessively argued that Wind Cave, like Yellowstone, was a monumental "wonder." One simply had to go underground to appreciate the resemblance. The names of Wind Cave's features further betokened its uniqueness and worthiness for national park status—"Pearly Gates,"Fair Grounds," "Garden of Eden," "Castle Garden," and "Blue Grotto," to name but a few. [17] Besides, Congress could hardly find economic reasons to object to the protection of only nine thousand acres, but a minute fraction of one of the larger existing parks. Indeed, opposition in both the House and Senate was negligible. On January 8, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Wind Cave National Park Act into law. [18]

In retrospect, if critics of Wind Cave found little to justify its designation as a national park, Congress in 1902 clearly felt otherwise. Right from the outset, Wind Cave was introduced and discussed as a national park project. Sullys Hill National Park, established by presidential proclamation on June 2, 1904, obviously was not intended to be a national park in the traditional sense of the term. In April of 1904, Congress authorized the president to establish "park" at Sullys Hill in North Dakota; the authorization was actually an addition to a bill adjusting a previous agreement with the Indians of the Devils Lake Reservation. Never one to forego an opportunity to exercise his discretion, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside 960 acres embracing Sullys Hill on the edge of Devils Lake as "Sullys Hill Park." [19]

Neither Congress's authorization nor Roosevelt's proclamation established a national park at Sullys Hill; nevertheless, the area was eventually referred to by that term. Lacking any monumental significance and barely one and a half square miles in area, Sullys Hill later struck its critics as a perfect example of the depreciation of national park standards. Not until 1914 did Congress appropriate $5,000 to manage the reserve; even then, the money was not used to operate Sullys Hill as a national park but as a game preserve under the direct supervision of the U.S. Biological Survey. [20]

The establishment in 1906 of Platt National Park in Oklahoma seemed to invite further abuse of national park standards. In 1902 Congress purchased 640 acres of spring-fed, low rolling hills near the town of Sulphur from the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, designating it the Sulphur Springs Reservation. Four years later, its ordinary topography in no way deterred members of the Connecticut delegation in Congress from seeking the preserve as a memorial to the late senator from their state, Orville Hitchcock Platt. A resolution to that effect cleared both the House and Senate in late June of 1906; afterward, the Sulphur Springs Reservation was known officially as "Platt National Park." [21]

Among Platt, Sullys Hill, and Wind Cave only the latter, eventually enlarged to twenty-eight thousand acres, survived as a national park. Yet the precedent of awarding national park status to only the most inspiring western landscapes had clearly been broken. Gradually, proposals for national parks outside the scenic West were introduced into Congress with a frequency their detractors considered alarming. Stephen T. Mather, as first director of the National Park Service, defended the scenic reputation of the existing parks by channeling this enthusiasm for preserves outside the West into the emerging state parks movement. Under Mather's direction, for example, the Park Service was instrumental in the formation of the National Conference on State Parks, which held its first meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1921. Time and again throughout the coming decade, Mather enlisted the support of the organization to disarm proponents of so-called unworthy national park projects. In each instance he suggested that state ownership and control were probably more appropriate for areas whose natural features were renowned only among residents of the neighboring region or locality. [22]

Mather's initial problems with the preservation community were due in large part to his obvious reluctance to apply any such assessment universally. The Hot Springs Reservation, Arkansas, given national park status in 1921, and the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, authorized five years later, were two early examples of his own concession to the fact that not every national park could possess outstanding national significance on a par with Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. [23] Mammoth Cave, like Wind Cave, was a subterranean wonder at the very least; in contrast, the Hot Springs Reservation was clearly a resort and little more. The National Parks Association further objected to the lack of study prior to determining that Mammoth Cave itself deserved national park status. Instead, Robert Sterling Yard charged the Park Service with playing "national politics." "A graver situation cannot be imagined," he concluded, "at a time when a number of southern states are clamoring for National Parks to bring them the tourist business which the fame of the title is supposed to guarantee." [24]

As a purist, Yard would have Americans go west to visit the national parks. As a government official, on the other hand, Mather could not be so politically insensitive to the call for landscape protection in the eastern half of the United States, regardless of its topographical shortcomings. Initially, concessions to monumentalism could be made by supporting parks with at least some semblance of dramatic uplift. Acadia National Park, established in 1919 along the rugged seacoast of Mount Desert Island, Maine, was the first example. The park's highest point is Cadillac Mountain, but 1,530 feet above sea level. Yet the standard description of Mount Desert Island as simply "beautiful," the naturalist Freeman Tilden later wrote, "utterly fails to do justice to this rock-built natural fortress which thrusts forward into the Atlantic and challenges its power." Where else, Tilden asked, "can you find anything in our country to match these mountains that come down to the ocean, . . . altogether such a sweep of rugged coastline as has no parallel from Florida to the Canadian provinces?" Even Robert Sterling Yard, as self-appointed protector of national park standards, defined Acadia in 1923 as "our standard bearer for National Park making in the East." It was "only twenty-seven square miles in area," he conceded; "nevertheless" he agreed, "it includes National Park essentials in full measure." [25]

Of course rugged scenery was the most important "essential." Next in consideration came uniqueness. Acadia was one of a kind, the highest and most rugged portion of the Atlantic coast between Maine and Florida. In contrast, the Shenandoah national park project, authorized in 1926, did not win the universal endorsement of preservation interests. Granted, the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park are far higher than Cadillac Mountain in Acadia; they were not recognized in 1926, however, as the highest mountains of their type. Only "the impressive massing of lofty mountains," Yard argued, "still covered with primitive forest, in the Great Smoky Mountains between Tennessee and North Carolina," not "the much lesser Shenandoah location," met every existing national park standard of sublime scenery and "primitive quality." To recognize Shenandoah as a national park, its value for outdoor recreation aside, would be, in effect, to condone "the fatal belief that different standards can be maintained in the same system without the destruction of all standards." [26]

Among preservationists as a whole, growing recognition of the importance of biological conservation steadily undermined support for Yard's rigid point of view. The National Park Service itself had begun to look beyond its traditional role as steward of the great "primeval" parks—where opportunities for further expansion were limited—by actively promoting additions to the system whose significance was distinctly historical or archeological rather than scenic. [27] With the retirement of Stephen Mather as director of the Park Service in January 1929, Horace M. Albright campaigned for recognition of the agency as the appropriate custodian of all federal historic and archeological sites. Among those areas were the great battlefields of the Civil War, established by Congress beginning in 1890 and placed under direction of the War Department. [28] To Albright's good fortune, he met personally in April of 1933 with the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and presented his case for Park Service administration of the historic and archeological properties managed by other federal agencies. Roosevelt's own enthusiasm for the proposal surfaced on June 10, 1933, when he signed an executive order more than doubling the size of the national park system with the transfer of sixty-four national monuments, military parks, battlefield sites, cemeteries, and memorials from the War Department, Forest Service, and District of Columbia to the National Park Service. [29]

Albright hailed the executive order as a personal victory and an agency milestone, noting that the nation's historic as well as scenic heritage was now under the direction of a single government agency. [30] Robert Sterling Yard and his supporters were nonetheless incensed by the transfers, which, in their view, only seemed to demean national park standards even further. "Self-seeking localities," wrote Ovid Butler, editor of American Forests, "whose past attempts to obtain national parks in their own interests have been stopped by public opinion, are unquestionably awake to the confused situation and the opportunities it offers for political park making." [31]

As Albright later confessed, political considerations had in fact influenced his position on the transfers. The survival of the Park Service, not the issue of national park standards, had been uppermost on his mind in 1933. "The order of June 10," he wrote, elaborating on this point, "effectively made the Park Service a very strong agency with such a distinctive and independent field of service as to end its possible eligibility for merger or consolidation with another bureau." That "bureau," he maintained, was none other than the U.S. Forest Service, the Park Service's perennial nemesis since Gifford Pinchot had helped instigate opposition to its formation. "His associates had opposed the creation of the National Park Service in 1915 and 1916," Albright noted, "and there was rumor current in 1933 that Mr. Pinchot sought to use his influence with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to effect such a transfer." The future integrity of the Park Service as an independent agency, in other words, hinged on its gaining exclusive control over the nation's historical, archeological, and geological heritage. [32]

Pinchot's successor, Henry S. Graves, had indeed given the Park Service good reason to be alarmed. Publicly he claimed to support the establishment of the National Park Service; in truth, however, he qualified his endorsement repeatedly by insisting not only that the Park Service, like the Forest Service, should be placed in the Department of Agriculture but that the new agency should have no jurisdiction whatsoever over forested lands. [33]

The sacrifice of the Park Service's autonomy under such an arrangement was not lost on Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, and their friends in Congress. Equally distressing, the emerging debate about national park standards inevitably played directly into the hands of Park Service critics, especially administrators and supporters of the Forest Service. In February 1927, for example, Henry Graves, now dean of forestry at Yale University, wrote menacingly about "the problem of the National Parks." The "problem," he remarked, "arose when with the extension of the system the original standards were departed from when areas of mediocre character were incorporated in the Park system." Specifically, he objected to the apparent inclusion within national parks of commercial stands of timber, not simply geological wonders of "special," "unusual," or "exceptional" interest. In other words, he still opposed the protection of other than worthless lands in the national parks. "There is," he wrote, underscoring this bias, "the serious problem of including in their boundaries natural resources of great economic value." Any deviation from protecting only commercially valueless lands in the parks, he elaborated, only invited threats to their integrity. "The presence of extensive natural resources in the Parks will constitute a standing menace to the system," he warned: "Economic pressure will force the restriction of the boundaries, . . . or will jeopardize the very existence of the Parks." [34]

Graves's ominous assessment, bordering on outright intimidation of preservation interests, was in keeping with the strong convictions of resource managers who believed the national parks should be confined strictly to rugged and inaccessible scenery, areas where their permanence did no possible harm to extractive industries, "If I am right in the views set forth in the first part of this paper," Graves wrote, continuing his argument, "it will be the character of the natural features only [italics added] that should determine the location of National Parks, and there should not be an effort to develop a chain of National Parks primarily to secure a distribution of them in all sections of the country or in the majority of the states." National Parks, he concluded, invoking the familiar argument of Robert Sterling Yard and other purists within the preservation movement itself, "designed to preserve certain extraordinary features of national as distinguished from local interest, regardless of where they may be located." [35]

Unlike Robert Sterling Yard, who seemed willing to accept Graves's assessment as support for his own point of view, Horace Albright shrewdly recognized the forester's appeal for park standards as self-serving. Graves was not in fact committed to the scenic integrity of the parks; rather he was more concerned that they not infringe on stands of commercial timber or mineral deposits. Restricting the parks to rugged scenery, however beautiful or inspiring the landscapes might appear to preservationists, was also the best insurance against losing valuable resources to the nation's economy.

In the long run, Albright further realized, by restricting the national parks to world-class, monumental scenery, only the Far West would have federal preserves within convenient access of its resident population. The problem with that limitation was its obvious failure to enhance either public or political support for the national park system. However much Robert Sterling Yard and his associates decried the thought, outdoor recreation was not in fact a by-product of the national park experience. All Americans did not, in John C. Merriam's words, seek out the national parks for an opportunity to "worship" nature. Of course, the forms of recreation appropriate to a national park setting were still open to debate. The American political system, however, with its emphasis on the ideal of distributing government services evenly among the states, spelled inevitable changes for the national park idea once other regions of the country voiced strong objections to their own lack of sites for outdoor recreation.

The population growth of the United States alone made the call for new parklands outside the West inevitable. By 1920 the population of the country had surpassed 100 million, two and a half times the figure when Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. Moreover, half the population in 1920 lived in cities and towns with 2,500 or more residents, up from only one in four Americans living in urban areas in 1870. [36]

The formation of the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation, which held its first meeting in Washington, D.C., in May 1924, formally recognized the significance of that trend. The composition of the conference was equally revealing. No fewer than 128 separate organizations with interests in outdoor recreation sent delegates. The influence of the National Parks Association and its executive secretary, Robert Sterling Yard, surfaced in the summary of resolutions, which endorsed the platform that national parks, as distinct from local, state, and city parks, "should represent features of national importance as distinguished from sectional or local significance." [37] Nevertheless, additional reports by the conferees suggested that other regions besides the Far West deserved national parks. Among the natural features recommended to the federal government for study were the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the Appalachian highlands, and the headwaters of the Mississippi River. [38]

Although lack of funding contributed in 1929 to the dissolution of the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation, the needs it had addressed continued to provoke discussion and study throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. In 1936, for example, Congress and the president approved the Park, Parkway, and Recreational Area Study Act, charging the Park Service with planning and coordinating all federal activities in outdoor recreation. The Park Service responded in 1941 with the publication of A Study of the Park and Recreation Problem in the United States, which, among other contributions, contained an extensive inventory of recreation sites throughout the country. [39]

The intervention of World War II, coupled with the determination of other federal agencies to protect their own prerogatives in providing outdoor recreation, effectively undermined Park Service coordination of the movement. By the middle of the 1950s, however, the surge in visitation to the national parks provided an important catalyst for further expansion of the system itself. No less influential was growing pressure on Congress to address, once and for all, the imbalance between federal parks in the West and other regions of the country. As in the case of Everglades National Park, greater concern about the biological resources of the United States also lay behind calls for tipping the scales of preservation farther eastward. Preservationists, increasingly referred to as "environmentalists," annually viewed with alarm the loss of fields, woodlands, and marshes surrounding the burgeoning cities of the nation. Unfortunately, most state and local governments seemed to lack either the will or the money to protect some of those lands on their own. Only the federal government, many preservationists concluded, had both the tax base and expertise to tackle the problem.

The major stumbling block to the purchase of threatened areas by the federal government was its traditional frugality, specifically, its fundamental policy of carving national parks only from western lands already in the public domain, or from properties donated to the government by certain states and individuals. Spurred by mounting losses of open space on the urban fringe, however, preservationists at last became intolerant of that policy. Certainly by the 1960s, their environmental concerns forced Congress to reevaluate the Park Service's customary role as custodian of the masterpieces of nature and, since the 1930s, the country's public monuments and historical shrines.

Much as Everglades National Park symbolized the emergence of the biological perspective in the national park idea, so Cape Cod National Seashore, authorized in 1961, set many of the important precedents for the establishment of nontraditional parks in the 1960s and 1970s. Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was not the first national seashore; that honor went in 1937 to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Yet Cape Hatteras was authorized on the express condition that the state and private donors would actually purchase the land, which only then could be turned over to the National Park Service for administration. [40] At Cape Cod, the federal government recognized, literally for the first time, the importance of not only authorizing parks or providing limited amounts of money for their completion but of actually committing the United States to the purchase of an entire park project from the outset.

In the West, with its broad expanses of public domain, some parks might still be established simply by transferring territory from the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management to the Park Service. Cape Cod foretold the problems of carving larger national parks from any area outside the public domain. Of greatest significance, the national seashore had to be fashioned from lands not only previously owned but actually occupied. Homes, businesses, and cottages dotted the Cape; six separate towns were within or adjacent to the park project. Considering the numbers of people involved, outright condemnation of all the land needed for the seashore was not a viable option, either politically or socially. [41] Outside the public domain, the National Park Service would have to learn new ways of accommodating the concerns of its neighbors and inholders. [42]

The other problem raised by Cape Cod and its counterparts was not administrative but philosophical. Simply, precisely for what reasons did they qualify as national parks, or, conceding the fact that most were not actually referred to by that term, why should they still be managed by the National Park Service? In the Everglades, where similar questions had arisen among preservationists in the 1930s, its unquestionable uniqueness had saved the park project. Even its detractors had to admit that the Everglades was the nation's only subtropical wilderness. Cape Hatteras, Cape Cod, and others to follow clearly were not one-of-a-kind parks; the United States had more than 1,500 miles of coastline along the Atlantic seaboard alone. Besides, Cape Cod National Seashore was not to be carved from pristine lands but from a combination of open spaces and properties already claimed for recreation and development.

As in the case of Everglades National Park, a redefinition of the term "significance" proved to be the key to winning passage of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The rarity of Cape Cod lay not in its false identity as the only seashore in the United States but in its threatened status as one of the few remaining seacoasts whose features were yet unspoiled by unrestrained and intensive development. In that vein, Senator Alan Bible of Nevada, as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Public Lands, asked his colleagues to consider the bill authorizing the park as a measure "of tremendous importance." During "the last 15 years," he noted, "there has been a great impetus to buy seashore property for commercial and private uses. Extensive and costly developments now line mile after mile of seashore which before World War II was uninhabited." As a result, more and more Americans, especially in the most populated regions of the country, were being denied unrestricted access to coastal beaches. [43]

Indeed the bill was "unique," Bible remarked, "in that it is the first attempt to develop a unit of the national park system in an area which is highly urbanized, by comparison with other areas of the country in which substantial acreage has been set aside for national park purposes." Truly, Cape Cod would be a park for all Americans, one third of whom lived "within a day's drive of the area." "Cape Cod as a national seashore," Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts agreed, would be "dedicated to the spiritual replenishment of American families increasingly locked in by urbanization and commercialization who seek the refreshing beauty and natural grandeur of the clean, open spaces." In this respect, Cape Cod became a precedent. "Favorable action by Congress on this proposal," Saltonstall said, concluding with this line of reasoning, "would give encouragement to other efforts to preserve our rapidly vanishing natural shoreline in such areas as Padre Island, Texas, the Oregon Dunes, and Point Reyes, California." [44]

Cape Cod National Seashore, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on August 7, 1961, was indeed an important step leading to the establishment of eight additional seashores over the next fifteen years. In another major series of parks, the United States further recognized the desirability of protecting the shorelines of the Great Lakes. The first of four national lakeshores—Pictured Rocks, Michigan, along the southeastern edge of Lake Superior—was authorized on October 15, 1966. Close behind came Indiana Dunes, where the movement for the preservation of the Great Lakes had in fact originated a half century before. [45] As early as 1916, Stephen T. Mather had suggested that "monumental" grandeur of the great dunes between Chicago, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana, warranted their possible inclusion in a dunelands national park. Simultaneously, pioneer ecologists such as John Merle Coulter and Henry Chandler Cowles drew attention to the Indiana Dunes as a heartland of biological uniqueness, one worthy of protection exclusive of its scenic qualities alone. By 1927 a state park of approximately 2,000 acres realized those early ambitions for the region. Finally, following another forty years of intensive industrial development and urban encroachment, on November 5, 1966, the federal government authorized the protection of roughly 6,500 acres of windswept sand, prairie, woodlands, and marsh as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. [46]

Yet another major crusade among preservation groups was the campaign to protect vestiges of America's wild and scenic rivers. Like seacoasts and lakeshores, riverfront parks also might be located close to urban centers. Still another advantage was the self-contained, generally linear nature of river valleys, which required the acquisition of only limited amounts of adjacent lands. For the cost of buying several hundred yards of territory on either side of the streambed, river enthusiasts could enjoy boating, swimming, or walking beside the waterway without being reminded that civilization lay just beyond the park boundary.

Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri, authorized in 1964, disclosed the growing strength of the movement for wild and scenic rivers in the United States. [47] The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, approved by Congress four years later, formally established an entire system of national riverways through the designation of eight additional streams in that category. [48] Management by the National Park Service, however, was at first limited to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Both the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had successfully defended their right to administer major riverways designated from their respective holdings. [49] Future acquisitions consisting largely of private lands, such as the park bordering the St. Croix River, would customarily be deeded to the Park Service for maintenance and protection.

Whatever their lack of monumental significance, national seashores, lakeshores, and riverways could be justified before Congress on the basis of their rarity in a pristine condition. Time and again supporters of those parks noted the loss of coastlines and wild rivers to all forms of commercial, industrial, and residential development. Most of America's great rivers had been dammed; most of its seacoasts and lakeshores forever altered by roads, vacation homesites, diking, and dredging. Unless the federal government intervened to preserve these threatened environments, it seemed reasonable to conclude that few of the nation's free-flowing rivers or unmarred shorelines outside existing parks would survive into the twenty-first century.

The same could be said of the few extensive tracts of open space remaining in the urban centers of the nation, such as New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Here again, the argument that parks must be closer to where people actually lived was crucial to overcoming standard forms of opposition. Opponents nonetheless insisted that urban recreation areas, like other nontraditional parks, would strain Park Service budgets and thus dilute the agency's effectiveness in managing its wilderness preserves. [50] Gateway National Recreation Area, on the outskirts of New York City, and its counterpart across the continent, Golden Gate in San Francisco, proved these objections could be overcome, as their establishment simultaneously on October 27, 1972, demonstrated. [51] National recreation areas previously authorized had been confined almost exclusively to the sites of large reservoirs in the West and South. [52] Accordingly, those parks, too, exacerbated the long-recognized problem of restricting access to the national parks only to more affluent Americans. With the creation of Gateway and Golden Gate national recreation areas, the National Park Service had literally been charged with the responsibility of bringing parks within a bus or subway ride of both the nation's poor and well-to-do.

Inevitably, such rapid expansion of the national park system only begged again the question of national park standards. Already geologically deficient, most of the new parks further suffered from the absence of biological resources of pristine quality. Everglades National Park, a model for biological management since the 1930s, itself was hamstrung with artificial rather than natural boundaries. At least the Everglades appeared to be an integral block of land, a park with a core large enough to provide plants and animals with a semblance of sanctuary. In contrast, most seashores, lakeshores, and riverways were literally pockmarked with residential and industrial developments. And so the question remained. Should parks so remote from the geological uniqueness, territorial integrity, and natural qualities of their predecessors have been authorized by Congress in the first place?

The other major issue was funding. Obviously, the National Park Service alone could not meet the purchasing requirements of so much private land on its own limited budget. Initially, preservationists saw a solution in the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964. The act provided that entrance and user fees from federal recreation sites, coupled with monies obtained from the sale of surplus federal properties and the federal tax on motor fuel, could be applied to the purchase of parklands by agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A later amendment allowed revenues from the sale of oil and gas leases on the continental shelf to be added to the fund. [53]

By the late 1960s, however, even its limitations in dealing with the pace of park expansion were apparent. The hundreds of millions of dollars the Land and Water Conservation Fund eventually generated still could not keep up with the cost of acquiring so many new parks, especially the most fragile and expansive. As purchasing fell farther behind, speculation in many areas already designated for park status but still unacquired steadily mounted. The added emphasis of the fund on recreation, as opposed to the purchase of lands purely biological in character, further compromised the success of the largest and most ambitious park projects. [54]

The problem of funding the expansion of the national park system only seemed to confirm the common charge that the new parks were simply diverting support from the original, clearly legitimate preserves. In either case, preservationists themselves felt bound by precedent to justify their case for expansion by demonstrating that each of the recent parks did, in fact, measure up to the standards of national parks in the past. The result was an unmistakable tendency to inflate both the range and quality of the natural features present in each region. The strategy was not deliberately dishonest; the problem was that preservationists were trying to bring a certain portion of commonplace topography under the umbrella of protection in national parks.

The insistence that the national park system should encompass landscapes at large led to special reliance on the biological perspective. Crucial to expansion was the ability to show that each new park contained a multiplicity of biological resources, especially wildlife and plant life, commingling in combinations found nowhere else in the United States. Thus Stewart Udall, as secretary of the interior, testified in 1961 before Congress that the proposed Cape Cod national seashore contained "not only the most extensive natural seashore area in New England but also one of the finest on the North American coast." In acknowledgment of the standards of the western parks, Udall reassured Congress that the Cape Cod region also possessed evidence of "continental glaciation," "erosion," and "deposition," all providing "important opportunities for geologic study." Still, the biota of the park was unquestionably its greatest natural resource. "The plants and wildlife that mingle on Cape Cod in unusual variety give the area outstanding biological significance," he remarked. Indeed, the features of the proposed seashore should be considered in their totality rather than separately or region by region. "From the highland on Griffin Island," he stated, beginning his elaboration on this point, "one can get magnificent views of scenic upland and marsh typical of the cape." Similarly, scientists had noted that each of the "four general types" of "glacial kettle hole ponds" displayed "a distinct association of plant and animal life." And Morris Island contained not only "a rare white cedar bog and a stand of beech forest, but also, . . . one of the most important bird resting and feeding grounds, acre for acre, in New England—and one of the two or three most important such habitats on the entire Atlantic seaboard." [55]

Supporters of other nontraditional parks throughout the 1960s found similar ammunition for their causes in statements to the effect that each of their own areas was also "biological crossroads," as distinct from a region of purely geological significance. In 1963, for example, Leonard Hall, a self-described "farmer, writer, naturalist," and director of the Ozark National Rivers Association, argued before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands that the proposed national riverway in Missouri possessed "one of the richest floras of any area of its size on this continent. We have Kansas plants there. We have Michigan plants. We have plants from the South and others which have developed there." Later in 1963, James Carver, Jr., assistant secretary of the interior, likewise endorsed the proposed Indiana Dunes national lakeshore on the basis of its "outstanding" flora. Carver's objective, like Hall's, was again to demonstrate both the diversity and commingling of the species present in the Indiana Dunes. "Following the slow retreat of the Wisconsin ice," he wrote, briefly tracing the impact of the Ice Age on the region, "the plants which are now characteristic of the northern forests moved through the dunes area northward." Where soil, moisture, and temperatures were favorable, however, "isolated colonies of northern species held on." For example, cool "moderating breezes" off Lake Michigan allowed both "jack pine and white pine . . . to hang on south of their normal range." In low swamps and bogs, more northern plants lay "cloistered within the larger world of central forest and prairie species. Tamarack, buckthorn, leather leaf, checkerberry, orchids, and other unusual plants characterize these special environments," he added, Elsewhere the botanical mosaic included plants of the "central forests and there are occurrences of flora of both the Prairie Peninsula and the Atlantic Coastal Plain species." "The result," he concluded, "is a natural scientific and scenic asset so diverse that it is difficult to equal anywhere in this country." [56]

Of course, only those preservationists seeking the protection of the Indiana Dunes could afford to take Carver's closing remarks at face value. For the rest of the movement there remained the problem of linking other nontraditional parks with the unquestionable uniqueness found in the original preserves of the West. Nor were the national recreation areas immune from the requirement that precedent, at the very least, ought to be acknowledged. In 1972, for instance, Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton noted that the proposed Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City "would contain ten miles of ocean beach and natural and historic features of great significance." Granted, portions of the Jamaica Bay Unit, with "14,000 acres of land and water," had been previously developed. "Despite the inroads of civilization," Morton still argued, "Jamaica Bay remains an ecological treasure." Twenty-nine species of waterfowl and seventy of wading, shore, and marsh birds still used the area for nesting, feeding, and refuge. In a similar vein, Representative John F. Seiberling of Ohio defined the proposed Cuyahoga River national recreation area between Cleveland and Akron as "a pastoral wonder, a quiet haven away from the nearby bustling cities." Yet beyond its obvious potential for outdoor recreation, the region had great value as a "unique meeting ground for plant life." A single one-hundred-acre tract in the valley, Seiberling elaborated, had been found to contain "over 400 species of plants, including some usually found only in the far West, some only in the deep South, and some only at higher altitudes or northern latitudes." Surely, he therefore concluded, the Cuyahoga Valley ought to be recognized as a potential park "for the people of the entire country, not just residents of the Cleveland-Akron metropolitan area." [57]

The presence of historic sites and structures, archeological evidence, and other elements of human history comprised the final assemblage of resources offered as justification for awarding seashores, lakeshores, riverways, and open spaces standing as units of the national park system. Like overtures to the parks' biological uniqueness, most of the historic arguments were further listings, each an inventory of the number of pioneer cabins, old farmhouses, and Indian burial sites found in a particular region. Few of the inventories, as a result, did much to dispel the notion that most of the urban-oriented parks, whatever their ecological or historical assets, still were not intended for mass recreation, [58]

The alternative to compromise, preservationists conceded, would be fewer parks. Besides, few supported the viewpoint of Robert Sterling Yard, an opinion more than a half century old, that parks other than primeval wilderness were either pointless or inappropriate. Just as repugnant was the realization that parks in the remote corners of the nation were open only to more affluent Americans. Thus Senator Alan Cranston of California, speaking on behalf of his disadvantaged constituency, noted that "only a relatively small number of Americans have the opportunity to enjoy the wide range of natural wonders [the national park system] protects and preserves. Those fortunate enough to visit distant units of the National Park System," he declared, "are most likely white, educated, relatively well-off economically, young, and suburban. More than 90 percent of the National Park visitors in 1968 were white." "Therefore," he concluded, "I believe that we have a responsibility to 'bring the parks to the people,' especially to the residents of the inner-city who have had virtually no opportunity to enjoy the marvelous and varied recreation benefits of our national parks." [59]

It remained for Phillip Burton, a crusading representative to Congress from San Francisco, California, to orchestrate the grand finale to nearly two decades of park making along the seacoasts, lakeshores, and riverways of urban America. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs, Burton was instrumental in winning passage of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. In essence, the bill combined under one piece of legislation a host of national park projects of special concern to many members of Congress, including increased appropriations and acquisition ceilings for existing parks, boundary changes, wilderness designations, and final authorization for new parks, historic sites, and wild and scenic rivers. Benchmark additions to the national park system included authorization of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area near Los Angeles and the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia. All told, the bill added fifteen units to the national park system, appropriated $725 million over five years to renovate recreational facilities in urban areas, created eight new wild and scenic rivers, and designated seventeen additional rivers for study and possible inclusion in the wild and scenic rivers system. [60]

The bill further established a system of national historic trails, designating four—the Oregon Trail, Mormon Pioneer Trail, Lewis and Clark Trail, and Iditarod Trail (Alaska)—as initial components. Similarly, Congress authorized another addition to the national system of scenic trails already in existence, the Continental Divide Trail, to span the length of the Rocky Mountains between the Canadian border in Montana and the Mexican border in New Mexico. [61] With few exceptions, in other words, the new parks were basically linear preserves, slices of landscape rather than major blocks of territory whose management might come in conflict with neighboring development.

Seen in terms of the number of areas affected, however, the legislation was both impressive and unprecedented. Higher development ceilings were authorized for no fewer than thirty-four existing units of the national park system; similarly, thirty-nine units received boundary adjustments ranging from a few acres to several thousand acres of land. [62] Even supporters of the bill, as a result, occasionally joined its skeptics in labeling it the "parks barrel bill." Critics were in the distinct minority, however, especially in Congress, since the legislation had such a positive financial impact on so many separate states and on more than two hundred congressional districts. [63]

For a different set of reasons, most preservationists themselves hailed rather than questioned the Omnibus Parks Bill of 1978. Over the past two decades they had spoken out against the loss of millions of acres of land to highways, airports, shopping centers, and similar forms of urban encroachment on open space. Land afforded protection under the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, whatever the scenic limitations of those properties, was land at least temporarily saved from the threat of urbanization and industrial development. It remained to be seen whether or not Robert Sterling Yard had been correct. Perhaps national parks largely historic or urban in emphasis would in fact dilute both the financial base as well as the international fame of the original park system. In the meantime, however, preservationists were not willing to risk the alternative, the chance of saving the great parks at the expense of compromising the integrity of the American land as a whole.

Nor did preservationists have any intention of abandoning the tradition of national parks as broad, monumental expanses of pristine territory. The problem in the continental United States was that most opportunities for such parklands had either been lost or already exercised. Only Alaska, with its vast forests, tundra, and mountain ranges, still offered the hope of establishing great national parks with natural as opposed to political boundaries. Indeed, long before the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 itself had been passed by Congress, preservationists had recognized that its provisions would not go far enough. From the environmental as distinct from the recreational perspective, Alaska was the greatest challenge for preservation of them all. How national parks were established in the forty-ninth state might well determine, once and for all, whether or not Americans could truly coexist with their natural surroundings as its custodians rather than as its conquerors.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/chap11.htm — 17-Mar-2004