National Parks
The American Experience
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Chapter 3:
Worthless Lands

Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded.

John Muir, 1910

Yosemite and Yellowstone would be models for the national park idea for all time. But later endorsements of the philosophy were not unqualified, nor did the establishment of either of the two parks themselves set an unconditional precedent for strict preservation. Instead there evolved in Congress a firm (if unwritten) policy that only "worthless" lands might be set aside as national parks. From the very beginning Congress bowed to arguments that commercial resources should either be excluded from the parks at the outset, or be opened to exploitation regardless of their location. John Conness himself opened the Yosemite debates of 1864 with this assurance: "I will state to the Senate," he began, "that this bill proposes to make a grant of certain premises located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the State of California, that are for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world." In closing he returned to the question of their utility rather than beauty for emphasis. "It is a matter involving no appropriation whatever," he stated. "The property is of no value to the Government. I make this explanation that the Senate may understand what the purpose is." [1]

Precisely because the landscapes of the national parks are so impressive, the economic limitations imposed on scenic preservation in the United States have long been minimized. Simply, the grandeur of the national parks has distracted attention from the major precondition behind their establishment. How indeed could anyone refer to such inspiring landscapes as "worthless"? But although Americans as a whole admit to the "beauty" of the national parks, rarely have perceptions based on emotion overcome the urge to acquire wealth. The development of the United States in the midst of abundance could not help but strengthen materialism and the nation's commitment to the sanctity of private property. As a result, while more Americans came to believe that no individual had the right to own a national monument, such as Yosemite Valley, only rarely was the same standard enforced when the scenery in question was both esthetically and economically significant. A surplus of rugged, marginal land enabled the country to "afford" scenic protection; national parks, however spectacular from the standpoint of their topography, actually encompassed only those features considered valueless for lumbering, mining, grazing, or agriculture. Indeed, throughout the history of the national park idea, the concept of useless scenery has virtually determined which landmarks the nation would protect as well as how it would protect them. [2]

In 1864 Congress authorized only Yosemite Valley and four square miles of Sierra redwoods for park status; this was hardly an area large enough to jeopardize the nation's economy. Besides, the park was so high and so rugged it already appeared to be valueless. [3] In short, the Yosemite grant was a clear instance where scenic preservation could be allowed to take precedence over economic goals because the land in question seemed worthless. Efforts to establish parks in the future were not always to be so noncontroversial.

With consideration of the Yellowstone park bill, Congress restated its reluctance to protect the area if it contained anything of appreciable value. Whatever spirit of altruism the debates evoked quickly evaporated in the determination of both the House and Senate to establish the worthlessness of the territory beforehand. The bill came up for final discussion in the Senate on January 30, 1872, and, on February 27, the House debated the measure. Still, while the sessions confirmed that a majority of the Congress sympathized with the intent of the legislation, clearly its approval hinged on whether or not the park would interfere with the future of the West as a storehouse of natural resources.

In the absence of firsthand knowledge about the area proposed for park status, the House and Senate turned to the reports and articles submitted by participants of the Washburn and Hayden expeditions. Of these gentlemen, none was more crucial to the decision of Congress than Hayden himself. While his associates might afford some embellishment of their accounts, as head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, the geologist staked his own reputation on the accuracy of his assessment. His belief that priority should be given to the exploitation of natural resources was also well known on Capitol Hill. [4] Thus confident of his position, those who would have to decide the issue could speak with conviction, ever secure in both the source and accuracy of their information.

Indeed the striking similarity between Hayden's report to the House Committee on the Public Lands and the tone of the congressional debates documents the depth of his influence. Not only did the committee publish Hayden's comments verbatim as its personal endorsement of the park bill, but Senate records also bear testimony to the pervasiveness of his ideas. For example, his observation that Yellowstone was practically worthless for anything but tourism in the first place was constantly paraphrased. "The entire area comprised within the limits of the reservation contemplated in this bill is not susceptible of cultivation with any degree of certainty," he began, "and the winters would be too severe for stock-raising." Yellowstone averaged well above 6,000 feet in altitude; under these conditions settlement would be "problematical unless there are valuable mines to attract the people." Yet even this seemed a remote possibility in light of the region's "volcanic origins"; indeed it was "not probable that any mines or minerals of value will ever be found there." Nor was there much credibility behind the assertion that Yellowstone would prove profitable for agricultural interests. To the contrary, the region suffered "frost every month of the year." [5]

The description would have been convincing regardless of its author. Because Hayden backed it with his own reputation, however, his statement assured supporters of the Yellowstone park bill that most objections might readily, if not completely, be overcome. Taking instruction from Professor Hayden, those who favored the proposal immediately sought to establish the park's uselessness for all but scenic enjoyment. In the Senate, for example, George Edmunds of Vermont opened the brief but spirited debates with a declaration that Yellowstone was "so far elevated above the sea" that it could not "be used for private occupation at all." He therefore assured his colleagues they did "no harm to the material interests of the people in endeavoring to preserve" the region. [6]

The only rebuttal of significance came from Senator Cornelius Cole of California. "I have grave doubts about the propriety of passing this bill," he responded. Although he was convinced of there being "very little timber on this tract of land," surely it was not, as claimed, off limits to grazing and agriculture. The fate awaiting Yellowstone's wonders also seemed to have been overstated. No harm would come to the geysers and other natural curiosities if their environs reverted to private control, he maintained; besides, there was an "abundance of public park ground in the Rocky Mountains" that never would be occupied at all. Perhaps Yellowstone, however, was a place "where persons can and would go and settle and improve and cultivate the grounds, if there be ground fit for cultivation." Further guarantees by Senator Edmunds that Yellowstone was "north of latitude forty" and "over seven thousand feet above the level of the sea" failed in the least to quiet Cole's objections. "Ground of a greater height than that has been cultivated and occupied," he retorted; then he asked: "But if it cannot be occupied and cultivated, why should we make a public park of it? If it cannot be occupied by man, why protect it from occupation? I see no reason in that." [7]

Passage of the bill, of course, confirms that a majority of the Senate felt differently. Still, Cole's intensity alerted supporters of the park to redouble their assurances of its worthlessness, especially in light of the importance of the industries he defended to the emerging economy of the West. Appropriately, the assignment fell to Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. His son, Walter, it will be recalled, had participated in the Washburn Expedition of 1870. Added to Professor Hayden's personal observations of the area in question, Walter's firsthand knowledge convinced his father that Yellowstone's value was negligible. "Here is a region of country away up in the Rocky Mountains," Senator Trumbull said, stressing its isolation as proof of the claim. Clearly Yellowstone was "not likely ever to be inhabited for the purposes of agriculture." Rather it was more probable "that some person may go there and plant himself right across the only path that leads to [its] wonders, and charge every man that passes along between the gorges of these mountains a fee of a dollar or five dollars." [8] Surprisingly, his scenario made no mention of Niagara Falls as the classic example of such avarice. Still, by 1872 the foundation of his analogy was common knowledge. Professor Hayden, in his own report to the House Committee on the Public Lands, left no doubt that the explorers' determination to avoid an other Niagara was indeed a primary incentive for the Yellowstone park campaign.

With consideration of the park bill by the House, however, once again concern about the region's potential value took precedence. To be sure, remarks supposedly in support of the reserve still seemed distinctly noncommittal. For example, the Yellowstone "is a region of country seven thousand feet above the level of the sea," the bill's sponsor, Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, said; "there is frost every month of the year, and nobody can dwell upon it for the purpose of agriculture." His response to potential opposition was equally familiar. Not only was the entire area "rocky, mountainous, and full of gorges," but even "the Indians," he added for emphasis, "can no more live there than they can upon the precipitous sides of the Yosemite Valley." [9]

Such conviction, however exaggerated, was more than a tactic to persuade Congress to enact the legislation. While Senators Trumbull and Edmunds and Representative Dawes undoubtedly weighed the advantages of their reliance on the worthless-lands argument, even they had already committed themselves to abolishment of the park in light of new evidence. From the outset the enabling act bore no "inalienable" clause, nor was its omission an oversight. In sharp contrast to the Yosemite Act, which contained the commitment to perpetual protection, the generosity of the Yellowstone bill suggested the wisdom of a more conservative approach. Senator Trumbull, for example, assured his colleagues that "at some future time, if we desire to do so, we can repeal this law if it is in anybody's way, but now I think it a very appropriate bill to pass." [10] His qualification, of course, did nothing to dilute the meaning of his preceding statement. Simply, if development of Yellowstone became a real possibility, Congress would have legitimate reason to rescind the park act. The only condition, to paraphrase Trumbull, was that the exploiters then be people who would make a solid contribution to the economy of the West, not just "anybody" out to make a fast buck at the expense of potential tourists.

The distinction made between legitimate and nonlegitimate developers marks the origins of the national park idea's enduring double standard. The sin of exploitation was not the pursuit of personal gain, but personal gain that could not be defended as being in the national interest. The integrity of the national parks might in fact be compromised; restitution to the United States through industrial and technological advances simply had to be insured. That wealth of resources, not wealth of scenery, had become the nation's ultimate measure of achievement was made even more explicit by Representative Henry L. Dawes. "This bill reserves the control over [Yellowstone]," he told the House, "and preserves the control over it to the United States, so that at any time when it shall appear that it will be better to devote it to any other purpose it will be perfectly within the control of the United States to do it." And as if his meaning still were not clear, he reworded the statement time and time again. "If upon a more minute survey," he elaborated, "it shall be found that [Yellowstone] can be made useful for settlers, and not depredators, it will be perfectly proper this bill should [be repealed]." And still his qualifications continued. "We part with no control," he finally concluded, "we put no obstacle in the way of any other disposition of it; we but interfere with what is represented as the exposure of that country to those who are attracted by the wonderful descriptions of it . . . and who are going there to plunder this wonderful manifestation of nature." [11]

Few speeches do more to confirm that the park's great size stemmed from uncertainty rather than from a deliberate attempt to protect the totality of Yellowstone's wilderness and ecological resources. Had more data about the region been available to Congress, especially that its best "wonders," "freaks," and "curiosities" had in fact been located, undoubtedly both the House and Senate would have taken a dim view of the boundaries submitted by Professor Hayden for their approval. Then, too, in keeping with his own perception of the region as a parade of beautiful "decorations," in all probability his own proposal would have been far more conservative if drawn up with the confidence that his information about the territory was complete.

In either case, proof of Yellowstone's vulnerability to development soon appeared. Congress itself literally ignored the park for the next five years. When funding finally was approved in 1877, the amount was still woefully inadequate to manage and protect the reserve. [12] A proposal advanced in 1884 for construction of an access railroad across the northeast corner of the park spelled more problems. For the remainder of the decade promoters defended the line as the only practical method of transporting gold-bearing ores from Cooke City, just east of the park, to the recently completed branch line of the Northern Pacific Railway at Gardiner Gateway, Yellowstone's northern entrance. But although Congress turned down the plan each time it was broached, the project was denied more because of what the mines lacked rather than what the tracks would have threatened. Despite the glowing predictions of their boosters, the Cooke City mines never lived up to expectations; had they done so, Congress would have had stronger reason to side with the miners. [13] In truth, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden had been vindicated; his assessment in 1871 that few of Yellowstone's volcanic formations contained precious metals was correct. But that Congress even considered the so-called Cinnabar and Clark's Fork Railway—and on more than one occasion—confirmed that Yellowstone's integrity still hinged on its worthlessness. Promoters who later eyed the national parks would not always come up empty-handed, nor drop their schemes merely on the threat of bitter controversy.

Denial of the railroad, to be sure, did not mark a turning point in congressional attitudes toward scenic preservation. When the federal government once more considered the establishment of national parks, in all but name and location the precedents of 1864 and 1872 were little changed. Well into the twentieth century national parks emphasized only the high, rugged, spectacular landforms of the West; invariably park boundaries conformed to economic rather than ecological dictates. Even later awareness about a growing need for wilderness, wildlife, and biological conservation did not change the primary criterion of preservation—national parks must begin worthless and remain worthless to survive.

As if the cultural nationalism of the nation had been assuaged, Congress established no national parks for nearly two decades following Yellowstone. [14] In 1875 a small reserve was set aside on Mackinac Island, in Michigan, yet it hardly qualified as a scenic wonderland and eventually was turned over to the state. [15] When the national park idea enjoyed a true resurgence, the areas set aside were unmistakably in the image of Yellowstone and Yosemite. No less than during the 1850s and 1860s, when concern about the permanence and stability of American culture provided an incentive for scenic preservation, anxiety about the future of the United States played a key role in revival of the park idea. The added catalyst was a disturbing report released in 1890 by the United States Bureau of the Census. For the first time in nearly three hundred years, the document noted, the nation no longer possessed a distinct boundary between the settled and unsettled portions of the West. While large islands of uninhabited land remained, most were in mountainous or desert provinces of marginal economic potential. Knowledgeable Americans found the news upsetting to say the least. Since the first English settlements along the Atlantic coast and the dawn of westward expansion, the frontier had symbolized the essence of personal and economic freedom. It followed that the passing of the frontier had deprived the United States of something truly unique. Like Europe, suddenly the New World itself faced the prospect of growing older and more complacent. And few Americans relished the thought of confinement. [16]

The prospect seemed all the more objectionable when viewed against the rise of urban America. Just when the citizenry at large had begun to seek out open spaces, it realized that cities had even less than before. By 1890 the largest metropolitan areas of the Eastern seaboard were either near or past a million inhabitants; just thirty years later one of every two Americans would live in an urban community of 2,500 or above. [17]

Anxiety among intellectuals about the nation's future was now to be dominated by doubts about the strength, patriotism, and stamina of urban-based Americans. Charles Eliot Norton, for example, the Harvard scholar and former editor of the North American Review, was among those who drew pessimistic conclusions. "Men in cities and towns feel much less relation with their neighbors than of old," he lamented to a close friend in 1882. Urban life threatened instead to sap the nation of its "civic patriotism" and "sense of spiritual and moral community." [18] Thus for those of Norton's persuasion the Census Bureau only confirmed what most of them already feared—the twentieth century would find the United States a very different nation indeed.

Convinced that cities discouraged cultural greatness, Norton reasserted his support of nature as the antithesis of urban stagnation. Similar rejections of urban growth breathed new life into the park idea throughout the United States. In 1885 New York State achieved two breakthroughs with dedication of the Niagara Falls Reservation and establishment of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. At long last the signboards, fences, shops, gatehouses, stables, and hotels which so long had rimmed Niagara Falls were to give way to a free public park. Largely the realization of efforts by Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot Norton, the Niagara Falls Reservation ranks with Central Park, Yosemite, and Yellowstone as a preservation triumph of the nineteenth century. [19] Other park advocates embraced the Adirondack state forest as a milestone, despite their admission that its potential for recreation ranked second behind efforts to protect its watersheds. [20]

Neither park, to be sure, could be called an unqualified victory for preservation. The Adirondack Forest Preserve was best described as a patchwork quilt instead of an integral unit. Rather than purchase the land outright, the state obtained most of the forest's original 715,000 acres piecemeal, as penalties for unpaid taxes. As a result, few of the properties supported prime woodlands; the common practice was to strip one's holdings and abandon them before the tax collector arrived. The Niagara Falls Reservation likewise came into existence hamstrung by prior development and unsettled claims. Indeed, the cataract remained a classic example of the futility of trying to reverse exploitation once the process was well underway. From the beginning the park was a mere 400 acres, and fully three-fourths of these were below water. Hydroelectric interests, moreover, now denied access to the brink of the cataract proper, simply retaliated with proposals to divert the flow of the Niagara River around the falls to other suitable drops. It followed that long-range improvements to the falls would be mainly cosmetic. After 1885 visitors could expect, at the very least, to view the cataract without enduring the visual pollution, and without paying exorbitant charges for access to the prime observation points. [21]

Niagara Falls, as part of the settled, industrialized Northeast, graphically portrayed the impracticality of campaigning for larger parks in areas already lost to development. Most national parks especially would have to be won from lands west of the Mississippi River, where broad, unclaimed, marginal tracts of the public domain still survived. Yet even in the West protection would not come easily. Here, too, what preservationists wanted to save still had to conform to what the economic biases of the nation allowed them to save. As Congress began to renege on some of the more spectacular portions of existing national parks, preservationists themselves realized how much their movement rested on what scenery lacked as opposed to what it contained.

By 1900 the first glimmerings of a national park system had begun to emerge; still unresolved was how long and how well the nation would be committed to maintaining it. Yosemite Valley and its environs were among the first to provide unsettling clues. The Census Report of 1890 found John Muir himself ready to admit the vulnerability of his beloved High Sierra to defacement. Immediately following his entry into Yosemite Valley in 1868, he showed little anxiety about the future of the region as a whole. Throughout the 1870s the naturalist believed that remoteness would protect the California high country indefinitely. As late as 1875, for example, he described the Sierra Nevada as a "vast wilderness of mountains" remaining "almost wholly unexplored," save for "a few nervous raids . . . from random points adjacent to trails." By 1890, however, reality had sapped his confidence. He now conceded that the Sierra had been transformed from flowered slopes into "rough taluses" totally devoid of flora and fauna. Sheep were primarily responsible for the destruction; in the animals' wake wildflowers had been forced to become "wallflowers," Muir lamented, "not only in Yosemite Valley, but to a great extent throughout the length and breadth of the Sierra." [22]

Yosemite, supposedly protected from defacement as a state park, had also become the victim of its own popularity. Indeed, much as Frederick Law Olmsted had predicted in 1865, tourists in the valley welcomed the proliferation of eyesores which catered to their wants. Over the years the park commissioners, many of whom were political appointees, also ignored the intrusions. The narrowness of the valley, of course, quickly exposed such indifferent management; any development was readily noticeable. Sheds, stables, and fences, for instance, necessitated the clearance of woodlands and underbrush. Similarly, although livestock provided transportation and produce in the valley, their presence sacrificed its wildflowers and other vegetation. Inevitably, preservationists once again compared Yosemite's predicament to that of Niagara Falls. As early as 1868, for instance, Josiah Dwight Whitney, director of the California Geological Survey, warned that Yosemite Valley, rather than being "a joy forever," instead also faced the sadder prospect of turning into a great swindle "like Niagara Falls, a gigantic institution for fleecing the public. The screws will be put on," he predicted, "just as fast as the public can be educated into bearing the pressure." By 1890 Whitney had been more than proven correct. One hotel keeper, for example, actually cut a swath through the trees to provide his barroom with an unobstructed view of Yosemite Falls. [23]

Among those outraged by such callousness was Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of Century Magazine. A resident of New York City, he reflected the continuing fascination in the West and its preservation initially fostered among eastern writers and newspapermen such as Samuel Bowles and Horace Greeley. In 1889 he visited San Francisco and met John Muir, who persuaded him to tour the High Sierra in and about Yosemite Valley. Inevitably their evenings around the campfire and rambles through the back country sparked discussions about the calamity that had befallen the gorge and its environs. At least Yosemite Valley, as a park, had a chance for better protection, but the high country was still totally at the mercy of exploitation. Sheepmen remained among the worst offenders; Muir himself immortalized their flocks by labeling the animals "hoofed locusts." The insinuation was more than justified, especially since it was common practice to allow overgrazing of the grasses, young trees, and underbrush so critical to the stability of the area's watersheds. [24] Thus evolved Muir's lament about the survival of nothing but "wallflowers" in the High Sierra; indeed only the steepest peaks were off limits to the flocks.

As a solution, Muir and Johnson proposed a national park surrounding Yosemite Valley. Although the idea was not new, the men added great vitality and prestige to the effort. Muir agreed to write two articles describing the region for Century Magazine; Johnson, upon returning east, promised to lobby for the park both through his journal and in the nation's capital. [25]

That each man sought to protect more than the "wonders" of the High Sierra is unquestionable. Muir especially appreciated the complexity and interdependence of nature. It followed that the future of Yosemite Valley hinged especially on the preservation of its environs. "For the branching canyons and valleys of the basins of the streams that pour into Yosemite are as closely related to it as are the fingers to the palm of the hand," Muir wrote, "as the branches, foliage, and flowers of a tree to the trunk." As a result, he firmly believed "all the fountain region above Yosemite, with its peaks, canyons, snow fields, glaciers, forests and streams, should be included in the park to make it a harmonious unit instead of a fragment, great though the fragment may be." [26] Not only were generous boundaries vital to protect Yosemite's watersheds, but also "the fineness of its wildness." This, too, was a worthy objective, he insisted, especially to the "lover of wilderness pure and simple." [27]

But although more Americans now sympathized with Muir's endorsement of wild country, not until the 1930s would wilderness preservation be recognized as a primary justification for establishing national parks, at least in the eyes of Congress. At the moment a more traditional perspective aided Muir's efforts to arouse public concern about the Sierra Nevada as a whole. The fate of the Sierra redwoods, specifically, was an issue more in keeping with the popular origins of the national park idea. By the 1880s a number of major groves had been discovered along the western face of the mountains. However, it appeared that all but the most inaccessible stands would fall victim to lumbermen and curiosity seekers. Preservationists still considered any logging totally unjustified, since the Sierra redwoods, as distinct from their distant cousins along the California coast, were so brittle they shattered when toppled to the ground. Even trees that withstood the crash were impractical for little more than grape stakes or shingles. In fact, in mixed stands loggers often considered the Sierra redwoods a nuisance because they hindered felling of other conifers, especially sugar pine. To economize, the lumberjacks simply felled both species. [28]

In 1878 several prominent Californians, including George W. Stewart, editor of the Visalia Delta, organized a movement to supplement the holdings of the Mariposa Grove, set aside by the Yosemite Act of 1864. In time both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences also lent their support. By 1885 Stewart and his group were campaigning to protect groves surrounding what is now the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. Among the standouts of the unit was the General Sherman Tree, the largest of all living things. [29]

Several practical considerations also aided Muir, Johnson, Stewart, and their associates in furthering their respective campaigns. California irrigators, for example, recognized the need for setting aside those watersheds vital to the agricultural regions of the state. In addition, the Southern Pacific Railroad—perhaps taking instruction from the Northern Pacific Railway's promotion of Yellowstone National Park—seems to have lent support to the preservationists' cause. [30] Period advertisements, at least, confirm that the Southern Pacific was very committed to boosting tourism throughout the Sierra Nevada.

None of these considerations, of course, overrode the criterion that no material interests should suffer because of park development. For example, the brittleness and inaccessibility of the Sierra redwoods were preconditions for their preservation. Similarly, John Muir himself stressed the importance of deflecting potential challenges to Yosemite Park by assuring opponents of its worthlessness. "As I have urged over and over again," he began in a letter to Robert Underwood Johnson in May 1890, "the Yosemite Reservation ought to include all the Yosemite fountains." For although they "are glorious scenery," none "are valuable for any other use than the use of beauty." Only the summits of the mountains "are possibly gold bearing," he continued—in language highly reminiscent of F. V. Hayden's Yellowstone report of 1872—"and not a single valuable mine has yet been discovered in them." Rather the watershed was best described as "a mass of solid granite that will never be valuable for agriculture," although "its forests ought to be preserved." [31] Irrigators and farmers downslope strongly agreed with this point; perhaps their support offset what must have been strong opposition from grazing interests intent on maintaining their hold in the high country.

Such details of the campaign have been lost because of incomplete records. As a result, clues to explain why preservationists were successful must be sought from the legislation itself. During late August and September of 1890, bills providing for what were to become Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks slipped through Congress with little fanfare. [32] The apparent lack of opposition can be laid to the language of each bill. Yosemite, for example, was not introduced as a national park, but as "reserved forest lands." This wording, while not in conflict with preservationists' immediate goals, was still far closer to the utilitarian aims of California's agricultural interests. Perhaps the emphasis placed on protecting the watersheds of the Yosemite high country, rather than its scenery, also explains why Congress allowed the reserve to encompass more than 1,500 square miles. Sequoia, by comparison, authorized as "a public park," was much smaller, only 250 square miles in area. And its neighbor to the north, General Grant, barely included four square miles of government land surrounding the great redwood bearing its name. [33] The restriction of Sequoia and General Grant to the territory in and about their focal "wonders" was in keeping with their introduction as "parks" rather than "forest" reservations. The decision that Yosemite should also be managed as a park was made by Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble, to whom was entrusted the care of all three areas. [34] Following the turn of the century, when "national forests" became synonymous with the controlled exploitation of natural resources (as opposed to strict preservation), the significance of his interpretation stood out.

Even as authorized, Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks were not immune from assault. Not only did sheepmen continually invade the reserves, but portions of all three were pockmarked with numerous private inholdings. Yosemite, in addition, suffered from the absence of centralized, unified management; not until 1905 did California cede the valley proper, and the Mariposa Grove of Sierra redwoods, back to the federal government. The perennial efforts of congressmen in the region to abolish large portions of Yosemite Park and return them to the public domain were equally threatening. Although the park today is nearly circular, when it was originally surveyed, in 1890, it was almost square but for extensions along its eastern side. The vulnerability of these protrusions lay in their real or imagined wealth. On the western flank timber and grasslands had been taken into the park; to the south and southeast timber and mineral claims had been included. Finally, in 1904, a special government commission recommended that these portions be deleted from the reserve. The following year, in accordance with that endorsement, Congress removed the sections and reopened them to exploitation. All told the area deleted comprised 542 square miles, fully one-third of the original reservation. In a gesture of compensation, Congress extended the boundary northward to encompass an additional 113 square miles of territory. Prior surveys of the addition, however, coupled with knowledge of its ruggedness and high altitudes, had already established its worthlessness beyond any reasonable doubt. [35]

The reduction of Yosemite National Park confirmed that Congress was in fact willing to reverse its prior endorsements of scenic preservation where expedient. Granted, at the time few but John Muir strongly opposed the realignment of Yosemite National Park. [36] After all, little had been done to interfere with the standard perception of national parks as a unique visual experience. Much of the territory deleted consisted of foothills and similar topography; although such features had scenic merit in their own right, they were not yet prized for inclusion in national parks. Only later would esthetic conservationists themselves fully subscribe to John Muir's appreciation of wildness and scenic beauty exclusive of the grandiose in nature. His was a perception for a later age, one that grasped the appeal of ordinary as well as extraordinary ecosystems. Molded in the worship of the great or near-great in landscapes, the national park idea moved into the twentieth century little changed from the standards and limitations of 1864 and 1872. The issue of worthless lands, it followed, must also be dealt with again.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/chap3.htm — 17-Mar-2004