National Parks
The American Experience
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Chapter 5:
See America First

See Europe if You Will, but See America First

Soo Railroad Brochure, ca. 1910

War with Switzerland!

Mark Daniels, 1915

The influence of [the national parks] is far beyond what is usually esteemed or usually considered. It has a relation to efficiency—the working efficiency of the people, to their health, and particularly to their patriotism—which would make the parks worth while, if there were not a cent of revenue in it, and if every visitor to the parks meant that the Government would have to pay a tax of $1 simply to get him there.

J. Horace McFarland, 1916

Coming so soon after the reduction of Yosemite National Park, the loss of Hetch Hetchy in December 1913 was a double blow to the defenders of scenic preservation. Then, the following year, John Muir died. His friends sincerely believed that his death had been hastened by his own remorse. Yet Hetch Hetchy was a beginning as well as an end. Indeed, no defeat so forced the issue of how best to guard the national parks in an urban, industrial age. For inspiration, preservationists might still turn to the writings of John Muir. "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people," he had written, "are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wildness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." If most preservationists still did not fully subscribe to the need for wilderness protection, a majority was agreed that the national parks no longer could be defended on scenic merit alone. As a result, by further pirating the slogans of utilitarian conservation, preservationists followed Muir in defending the national parks as a means of preventing "waste" in their own right. As distinct from proper management of the national forests, the stakes were merely in terms of human "efficiency." But if "we must consider [the national parks] from the commercial standpoint," Allen Chamberlain, a New England advocate said, "let it not be forgotten that Switzerland regards its scenery as a money-producing asset to the extent of some two hundred million dollars annually." [1]

When further tied to scenic nationalism, nothing did more for the preservationists' cause. Just when Americans had largely overcome their cultural doubts, the reminder of the amount Americans spent in Europe for scenic travel recalled those doubts to good advantage. Unfortunately for Hetch Hetchy, the money lost to tourism abroad was not popularized until well into the eleventh hour of the battle for the valley; even then its remoteness, and proximity to the better-known Yosemite, were insurmountable factors against Hetch Hetchy's protection. But if ever the cloud over the valley did have a silver lining, it was in teaching preservationists to rely as much on economic rationales for protection as on the standard emotional ones. As far back as the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the railroads of the West promoted scenic protection, not out of altruism, of course, but in appreciation that the attraction of more tourists into the region meant greater revenues. Increasingly cognizant of the significance of this fact, preservationists turned to the railroads for political and financial aid during the Hetch Hetchy campaign. The rewards of this "pragmatic alliance" [2] were soon confirmed by growing public support for a bureau of national parks, an agency fully committed to the principles of esthetic as opposed to utilitarian conservation. Such were the foundations of the National Park Service, approved by Congress in August 1916.

The "Hetch Hetchy Steal," as it would always be known, aroused preservationists to the need for strengthening the position of the national parks in terms of the country's economy. Much as the national park idea evolved in response to concern about the wonders of the West, so now growing confidence in reclamation, forest regeneration, and other utilitarian sciences signaled that the years of peaceful coexistence between the two branches of conservation were fast drawing to a close. [3] Prior to the turn of the century, presupposed similarities between national parks and forest reservations worked against a permanent split between the two philosophies. The confusion of preservationists in particular stemmed from legislation such as the Yosemite Act, which referred to the park as "reserved forest lands." [4] It followed that resource professionals seemed no less in agreement that strict protection of the public domain took precedence over exploitation of any kind. Only as foresters, reclamationists, and civil engineers boldly advocated sustained-yield management for all lands in the West, including the national parks, did preservationists realize their assumptions had been mistaken.

Never before was the necessity of finding ways to exploit the reserves without destroying their basic integrity more apparent. Clearly, protection precluded in-park developments of the scope advocated by resource managers, most notably large dams and reservoirs. Still, without some concessions to the comfort and convenience of tourists, public support for the parks might not be forthcoming at all. Accordingly, preservationists conceded the Hetch Hetchy campaign must be waged on two fronts. Above all, they hoped to win a political victory in Washington. Should their direct approach fail, however, they also worked simultaneously to influence Congress by arousing the public to greater awareness about the national parks through the mass media, the railroads, and promotional literature. Inevitably the need to communicate their philosophy caused preservationists themselves to reevaluate the traditions and reasoning behind their movement. The national park idea, it followed, would never be quite the same again.

To its advantage, scenic preservation was now in fact a movement. Initially only a scattering of individuals and interest groups supported the national parks, most notably the Appalachian Mountain Club (1876), Boone and Crockett Club (1888), and Sierra Club (1892). By 1910, however, nearly twenty distinct organizations directly advocated scenic protection. [5] To these could be added a host of garden clubs, women's clubs, horticultural societies, and other sympathetic coalitions. The accelerating transformation of the United States from a rural to an urban-based nation foretold that the increasing appreciation of nature would continue. For most people, few factors more quickly erased the memories of rural hardships than the confinement of city streets. Those recollections which survived were happy thoughts of changing seasons, holiday gatherings, close friendships, and childhood dreams. Literature further encouraged this method of escape; indeed, during this period writings about nature soared in popularity. Still another means of retreat available to people of modest wealth was a home in the suburbs, or, better yet, farther out in the country, where stables, spacious lawns, and other accessories of rural living could be re-created. Of course what evolved on the urban fringe was a romanticized version of rural America. Still, to those caught between the undeniable economic advantages of city life and its obnoxious side effects, reality was beside the point. Even at the price of one or two hours of commuting, many thought the opportunity to escape the grime, noise, and overcrowding of city life a bargain by comparison. [6]

Among them was still to be found the large majority of national park supporters. Much as Eastern men of urban backgrounds conceived and advanced the national park idea, so modern urbanites and suburbanites now supplemented the thinning ranks of the original enthusiasts. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., for example, a co-author of the National Park Service Act of 1916, thus followed in the footsteps of his illustrious father, who died in 1903. The younger Olmsted was further encouraged by an even more outspoken preservationist, J. Horace McFarland, a successful printer, publisher, and horticulturist from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. McFarland was long the chief proponent of the need to establish a bureau of national parks. Indeed, no lobbyist did more to both strengthen and broaden the national parks platform during the trying years of the Hetch Hetchy debate. Ironically, it was a second campaign to save Niagara Falls that launched his career. In 1904, when the American League for Civic Improvement merged with the American Park and Outdoor Society, McFarland was elected first president of the new organization, the American Civic Association. Immediately he marshalled its forces against the latest scheme to harness the Niagara River for the production of hydroelectric power. The developers, thwarted by protection of the falls proper as a state park in 1885, had since retaliated with plans to construct huge conduits to capture the river and divert its flow around the cataract to powerhouses set elsewhere in the Niagara Gorge. If, as a result, the flow of the falls were substantially reduced, McFarland noted that the prior campaign to save the cataract and its environs from structural blight would be rendered meaningless. [7]

Due largely to McFarland, the diversion controversy attracted notoriety nationwide. From his Harrisburg office, he alerted scores of government, civic, and business leaders to the pending tragedy of a waterless Niagara. Simultaneously, his dedication to horticulture (his specialty was roses) and urban beautification won him the editorship of the "Beautiful America" column in the Ladies' Home Journal, already a leading women's magazine. In October 1906 the column provided a platform for one of the most ringing essays of his career, "Shall We Make a Coal-Pile of Niagara?"Every American—nay, every world citizen," he wrote, "should see Niagara many times, for the welfare of his soul and the perpetual memory of a great work of God..." Yet "the engineers calmly agree that Niagara Falls will, in a very few years, be but a memory. A memory of what? Of grandeur, beauty and natural majesty unexcelled anywhere on earth, sacrificed unnecessarily for the gain of a few!" Before and after illustrations suggested the result: "The words might well be emblazoned," McFarland concluded, "in letters of fire across the shamelessly-uncovered bluff of the American Fall: 'The Monument of America's Shame and Greed.'" [8]

As a businessman himself, McFarland did not oppose appealing to America's pocketbook as well as to its conscience. Based on tourism alone, the destruction of Niagara was truly "folly unbounded. To the railroads of the country and to the town of Niagara Falls visitors from all the world pay upward of twenty million dollars each year—a sure annual dividend upon Nature's freely-bestowed capital of wonders..." Extended to the nation at large the figure "would thus stand at over three hundred million dollars," he estimated. But at Niagara "all this will be wiped out, for who will care to see a bare cliff and a mass of factories, a maze of wires and tunnels and wheels and generators?" [9]

With that question J. Horace McFarland voiced the argument that rallied the entire preservation movement. On the West Coast his denouncement of water-power interests caught the eye of William E. Colby, secretary of the Sierra Club. Faced with a similar struggle to protect the Hetch Hetchy Valley from defacement, the Sierra Club was searching anxiously for allies of its own. Letters from Colby to McFarland confirmed that the American Civic Association would close ranks on the Hetch Hetchy issue in exchange for whatever support the Sierra Club could muster for Niagara. Colby's negotiations with the Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston, then pushing for legislation to protect the forests of the East, likewise guaranteed its aid against the Hetch Hetchy dam permit. From this East-West alliance he formed the Society for the Preservation of National Parks. Its masthead included the slogan: "To preserve from destructive invasion our National Parks—Nature's Wonderlands." John Muir accepted the nomination as president; Allen Chamberlain, director of exploration for the Appalachian Mountain Club, Robert Underwood Johnson of Century Magazine, and J. Horace McFarland, among others, agreed to serve on the Advisory Council. [10]

Noticeably absent from the roster were the names of respected resource conservationists. Gifford Pinchot's skepticism in particular concerned William Colby and his associates; few government employees, after all, enjoyed greater influence with the president and Congress. Indeed, if past experience were any indication, where Pinchot stood in the Hetch Hetchy controversy might in large part determine its outcome. Accordingly, preservationists considered the lessening of his antagonism to the national parks to be of first priority. "We had counted on you for support in this fight," wrote Colby in reference to Hetch Hetchy. "Does it not give you pause when you stop to consider that such men as John Muir . . . and the leaders of the Appalachian [Club] and the American Civic Association, and other kindred organizations—all of them men who have stood in the fore front of your fight for the preservation of our forests and who helped create public sentiment for you in your noble work, . . . should now be standing shoulder to shoulder in most earnest opposition to this attempt to enter and desecrate one of our most magnificent National Parks? We need you as a friend in this cause," he pleaded in conclusion, "and call upon you to assist us." [11]

Pinchot's refusal came as no real surprise; still, his polite evasion of specifics in the Hetch Hetchy controversy struck Colby and McFarland as condescending and thus unprofessional. Other than remaining persistent, of course, they had few options to force his hand. Yet while their disappointment and irritation grew, the dialogue forced the men to grapple head-on with examples of the rhetoric so convincingly used against them. Soon, for example, they sensed the effectiveness of diluting utilitarian arguments by ascribing human "waste" and "inefficiency" to the lack of scenic rather than material conservation. "I feel that the conservation movement is now weak," J. Horace McFarland wrote Gifford Pinchot in November 1909, for example, "because it has failed to join hands with the preservation of scenery, with the provision of agreeable working conditions, and with that suggestion which is the first thing to produce patriotism." Although he was still groping for the proper formula, McFarland continued. "I want to say that somehow we must get you to see that the man whose efforts we want to conserve produces the best effort and more effort in agreeable surroundings; that the preservation of forests, water powers, minerals and other items of national prosperity in a sane way must be associated with the pleasure to the eye and the mind and the regeneration of the spirit of man." [12] If lacking the eloquence of John Muir's prior rationales for wilderness and parks, this statement went far beyond the position that scenery was merely to be seen. McFarland's equation of preservation with greater productivity, a relationship first implied in his articles about Niagara Falls, especially held untapped possibilities. Until Americans at large accepted preservation for its own sake, economic persuasion was better insurance for the movement than unilateral appeals for a spiritual and emotional understanding of landscapes.

Before the argument could be fully credible, of course, park visitation must be dramatically increased. Nor could wilderness be singled out as a separate inducement for preservation until more people experienced the rewards of solitude firsthand. As late as 1908 barely 13,000 tourists enjoyed Yosemite National Park as a scenic wonderland, let alone as one of Muir's "fountains of life." Of these visitors, only a few hundred shunned the localized points of interest and hiked into the Tuolumne River watershed and Hetch Hetchy Valley. Such figures typified the preservationists' dilemma. While San Francisco officials could demonstrate a current need for fresh water among 500,000 constituents—a demand soon to grow by thousands more—the Sierra Club and its supporters were easily portrayed as selfish "nature cranks" and traveling elitists. [13] Some preservationists, among them John Muir, refuted the charge by agreeing to construction of a road into the valley. Others maintained that a large hotel should also be built. [14] The weakness of each compromise stemmed from preservationists' lack of evidence to justify an immediate need for the projects. Until park visitation actually increased, San Francisco held the upper hand in the numbers argument.

Still, in the long run the association of scenic protection with economic growth was the most innovative approach for defending the national park idea. Taking up where he left off during the Niagara debate, for example, J. Horace McFarland returned to the popular press as a springboard for sparking discussion. "Are we to so proceed with the conservation of all our God-given resources but the beauty which has created our love of country," he questioned in Outlook during March 1909, "that the generation to come will increasingly spend, in beauty travel to wiser Europe, the millions they have accumulated here, being driven away from what was once a very Eden of loveliness by our careless disregard for appearance?" Allen Chamberlain of the Appalachian Mountain Club was first to reply: "Your article on 'Ugly Conservation' in a recent Outlook is the right sort," he wrote. He also underscored the importance of equating preservation with patriotism and economic well-being. "Our friends the conservationists, that is the professionals, are exceedingly loath to recognize this point of view." Chamberlain suggested that the argument be made more specific, however, especially in light of the evolving Hetch Hetchy debate. "It seems to me that we should try in this connection to stimulate public interest in the National Parks by talking more about their possibilities as vacation resorts," he offered as one example. Indeed, only "if the public could be induced to visit these scenic treasurehouses," he concluded, "would they soon come to appreciate their value and stand firmly in their defense." [15]

McFarland's encouragement speeded an article of Chamberlain's own. Appropriately titled "Scenery as a National Asset," it, too, was published in Outlook, on May 28, 1910. In keeping with his title and suggestions to McFarland, Chamberlain focused on the problems of the national parks and national monuments. "Here are some of the world's sublimest scenes,' he noted, not to mention "many wonderful records of past ages" and "relics of the prehistoric occupants of portions of our land." Unfortunately, many of the parks were "so remote from railways" the public was "only just beginning to realize" they existed. Within the reserves proper, the lack of visitor facilities hampered greater awareness. "Take the Yosemite Park as an example," Chamberlain observed. "Everyone is herded into the great valley, and little is done to encourage people to go into the magnificent country farther back in the mountains." As a result, two equally beautiful attractions, the Hetch Hetchy Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, were effectively off-limits to park visitors. "The extension of the present road for nine miles will open the former," he said, alluding to the compromise suggested by preservationists to thwart the dam, "and the latter can be reached by repairing the old Tioga road." Following the improvements, "hotels, or boarding camps at the very least, would undoubtedly be established at both of these points." [16]

The widespread belief that some development must be allowed in the parks may explain why most preservationists, including Chamberlain, did not make direct reference to Hetch Hetchy's wilderness attributes. [17] To save the valley, indeed the entire park system, seemed to hinge on the encouragement of much greater visitation, not less. By definition today, the policy is inconsistent with wilderness preservation. Yet, given a choice in 1910, preservationists clearly preferred roads, trails, hotels, and crowds to dams, reservoirs, powerlines, and conduits. "In short," Chamberlain concluded, "the nation has in these parks a natural resource of enormous value to its people, but it is not being developed and utilized as it might be." Instead, as dramatized by the Hetch Hetchy affair, "selfish interests" likely would "steal an important part of our birth right." [18]

The argument that one day national parks, if properly managed, would stimulate the economy in their own right certainly enhanced their defenders' position. The problem for the moment was the need to rely on the future tense; immediate gains from promoting the reserves must be realized as well. Fortunately, the railroads of the West, beginning with the Northern Pacific, had endorsed scenic protection as far back as agitation for the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872. Granted, the railroads did not back the national park idea out of altruism or environmental concern; rather the lines promoted tourism in their quest for greater profits. Still, preservationists recognized the value of forming an alliance with a powerful corporate group committed to similar goals, if not from similar motivation. Tourism, however encouraged, was the prerequisite for providing the national parks with a solid economic justification for their existence. Equally important, boosting travel in no way endangered the basic integrity of the scenic reserves, as was true of most utilitarian projects. [19]

No one better voiced these arguments than Richard B. Watrous, secretary of the American Civic Association. Taking up where J. Horace McFarland and Allen Chamberlain left off, during the summer of 1911 he defined travel promotion as the only "dignified exploitation of our national parks." He therefore urged preservationists nationwide to join the association in publicizing "the direct material returns that will accrue to the railroads, to the concessionaires, and to the various sections of the country that will benefit by increased travel." Specifically, the cooperation of the railroads, as feeders to the parks, was especially "essential" as "one of those practical phases of making the aesthetic possible." [20]

It remained for Secretary of the Interior Walter L. Fisher (1911-13) to give these views the sanction of the government. In September 1911, at Yellowstone, he convened the first national parks conference, largely to air problems common to the reserves. Yet it soon became apparent that the gathering also marked a turnabout in support of the park idea by both government and industry. The large delegation of officials from the railroads was one indication of coming changes; Fisher's opening remarks before the conferees were equally revealing. The "enlightened selfishness" of the railroads, he declared, entitled them to the "grateful recognition" of all park advocates. [21] Immediately company executives returned the compliment with promises to assist the government in upgrading park hotels, roads, and trails. [22] Without doubt, preservationists rejoiced, the railroads were firmly committed to national park improvements and publicity efforts.

Over the next several years the railroads affirmed their dedication in a flurry of national park promotion. As a group the lines spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising brochures, complimentary park guidebooks, and full-page magazine spreads, some in luxurious color. Their unspoken purpose to swell the coffers of the lines did nothing to discredit their effectiveness in also heightening public awareness about the parks. Congress as well, it followed, could no longer be indifferent to the parks' rising popularity.

The first debates to dwell at length on the need to market American scenery were those leading to the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910. "Two hundred million dollars of the good money of the people of the United States are paid out annually by Americans who visit the mountains of Switzerland and other parts of Europe," asserted Senator Thomas H. Carter in defense of the bill. "I would say that our own people might direct their course to our own grand mountains, where scenery equal to that to be found anywhere on this globe may be seen and enjoyed." Just five years later, with consideration of the Rocky Mountain national park bill, the amount Americans spent overseas on scenic travel supposedly had soared to an estimated $500 million yearly, a "considerable portion" of which, agreed Representative Edward T. Taylor of Colorado, "goes to see scenery that in no way compares with our own." Indeed, he continued, "the American people have never yet capitalized our scenery and climate, as we should. It is one of our most valuable assets, and these great assets should be realized upon to the fullest extent." [23]

Here was cultural nationalism with a new twist. Now the United States would not be satisfied until its landmarks measured up to Europe's monetarily as well as symbolically. "We receive comparatively nothing for [our scenery]," Congressman Taylor elaborated, "while Switzerland derives from $10,000 to $40,000 per square mile per year from scenery that is not equal to ours. But Switzerland knows that the public is ready and willing to pay for scenery, and they have developed it for selling purposes." Not to profit from the prudence of the Swiss he concluded, especially since World War I was "closing European resorts to American travel this year," would cost the United States a golden opportunity to teach its "citizens to visit and appreciate our own parks." [24]

Although tinged with the self-doubts about the quality of native scenery that still lingered in the American mind, Carter's and Taylor's sentiments reassured preservationists that they were making progress toward new rationales for scenic protection. Still, just as for Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and earlier nationalists, there remained the problem of how to turn American eyes from foreign to native scenery. One prerequisite, park advocates and rail executives agreed, was the construction of "proper" tourist accommodations. Grand, rustic lodges were of particular importance, since the wealthy, after all, still comprised the majority of travelers. Luxury hotels also proved that civilization had in fact edged into the American wilderness and softened its discomforting rawness. [25] With these ends in mind, in 1904 the Santa Fe Railroad, for example, completed the majestic El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. (This was just three years after the Santa Fe extended a branch line to the chasm; four more years elapsed, however, before the canyon became a national monument.) Similarly, in Yellowstone the Northern Pacific underwrote a string of hostelries as early as 1886. Yet no structures were more elegant or varied than those provided visitors to Glacier National Park by Louis W. Hill and the Great Northern Railway. Between 1911 and 1915 Hill personally supervised the construction of two sprawling lodges and a series of Swiss-style chalets within and immediately adjacent to the reserve. Mary Roberts Rinehart, the novelist, was among those so impressed by the buildings that she concluded in 1916: "Were it not for the Great Northern Railway, travel through Glacier Park would be practically impossible." [26]

Yet despite the cooperation of the railroads, preservationists still could not escape the certainty of head-on confrontations with the advocates of utilitarian conservation. The promise of immediate returns to the national economy, as opposed to what the national parks might contribute to the gross national product, demanded constant rebuttal. Nor were preservationists unaware that Congress, despite an occasional burst of eloquence in defense of the national park idea, was no less committed to the standards of the past. However impressive were the Rocky Mountains, the Cascades, and Sierra Nevada, the remnants of their beauty that Congress saw fit to protect were still the easiest to protect. In describing Glacier National Park as "the wildest part of America," for example, Mary Roberts Rinehart was nonetheless moved to admit: "If the Government had not preserved it, it would have preserved itself. No homesteader would ever have invaded its rugged magnificence and dared its winter snows. But you and I would not have seen it," she added, although "so far most niggardly provision has been made" for park management. [27]

The admission that the national parks were still the step children of federal conservation policy, coupled with the controversy over Hetch Hetchy and its eventual loss, spurred preservationists' efforts to create a separate government agency committed solely to park management and protection. This campaign would lead to the National Park Service, approved by Congress in 1916. In the interim, preservationists redoubled their search for new ways to justify the national park idea. The combination of mounting world tensions and urban expansion, for example, provided another creative, if somewhat improbable platform—military preparedness. One of the more outspoken testimonials to link scenery with defense was that of Robert Bradford Marshall, chief topographer of the U.S. Geological Survey. "I come now to a hobby of mine—our national parks," he said in a March 1911 speech before the Canadian Campers Club in New York City. "Now, you may think I am a national park crank, but I am going to prove to you that a fine, generous national park system is absolutely essential to the proper handling of an American war Fleet in case of a great war, or to the establishment and maintenance of an army which, in the event of such a catastrophe shall be invincible against the armed hosts of the world." The rapid development of cities and the increasing proportion of urban inhabitants had been unforeseen, he continued. Thus while "city soldiers in the past have made good," as urban areas became "more and more congested" the "physical status" of boys and men "deteriorated" and would "continue to deteriorate." Hanging "from the straps of crowded [street] cars" working men "forget they have legs." What was the prescription for restoring their physical vitality? "Give them national parks," places "where they can go every year or so and forget something of the rush and jam and scramble of the modern life . . . and build up their bodies by being next to nature. Then, should there be a call to arms, the dwellers of the city canyons will be able to meet the physical needs of a strenuous field service." [28]

George Otis Smith, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, had already endorsed Marshall's appraisal. "The nation that leads the world in feverish business activity requires playgrounds as well as workshops," he agreed in 1909. For the maintenance of "industrial supremacy" presupposed "conserving not only minerals but men." Thus "arguments for scenic preservation need not be limited to aesthetic or sentimental postulates"; to the contrary, the "playgrounds of the nation are essential to its very life." The statement was not original; indeed, perhaps John Muir had said it best, Smith admitted, when he defined mountain parks as "fountains of life," for only there "can be had the recreation that makes for increased and maintained efficiency." Still, "the materialist" as well must not "turn aside from this demand of the times," Smith added, "for no greater value can be won from mountain slopes and rushing rivers than through the utilization of natural scenery in the development of [our] citizens." R. B. Marshall's speech also lent itself to a reminder about the economic advantages of scenic protection: "Manage the national parks on a business basis and work for good transportation facilities to and from them," Marshall directed, "so that the multitude may visit them." [29] Like Smith, he hoped to thwart the rigid interpretation of resource conservationists that the national parks must, above all, be exploited for their material wealth to benefit the American people.

A respected landscape engineer, Mark R. Daniels of the Interior Department, was another who challenged the viewpoint as "due principally to the popular misconception of the value of idealism as a factor in our economic development. The capitalist has been prone to call the idealist an impractical crank," he stated in an address before the American Civic Association on December 3, 1914. Similarly, "idealists . . . have called the capitalists, or accused them, rather, of being utterly devoid of any sense of the ideal." The only solution was for both to appreciate that what "is fundamentally idealistic cannot fail to be eventually economic," that "idealism and economics are inalienably related" by virtue of the former's "tremendous commercial value." Seen in this light national park advocates and planners did not compromise their beliefs by considering "the economic phase" of their calling; instead they added "a new dignity to it." Indeed, he concluded, "the problem which confronts us is a systematic and organized effort to administer these national parks." Thus "any plan" which was "to be successful" must also "be functional." [30]

Daniels' conclusion alluded to what preservationists now perceived as the major threat to the future of the national parks—the absence of a separate government bureau committed solely to their welfare and management. Without permanent administrative safeguards for the reserves, all efforts to broaden the role of the parks to include fostering patriotism, worker efficiency, and commercial success seemed pointless. Past legislation offered little reassurance. Although each national park was the responsibility of the secretary of the interior, the Hetch Hetchy affair underscored the lack of continuity in decision-making. In 1903, for example, Secretary Ethan Allen Hitchcock disallowed the dam permit, but his decision was overturned five years later by his successor, James A. Garfield. Another serious discrepancy was the absence of uniformity among the park acts themselves. As a primary illustration, J. Horace McFarland contrasted "the Yellowstone—having a satisfactory, definite, enabling act," with "the Yosemite—being no park at all but actually a forest reserve." The nonexistence of "national legislation referring to the federal parks in general terms" also dismayed preservationists, as did what McFarland called "confused and indefinite" management procedures. [31]

Passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906 further complicated the problem of controlling the parks systematically. Rather than entrust the national monuments to a single, centralized agency, Congress left each under the care of the bureau holding original administration of the land. As a result, "of the twenty-eight national monuments created by executive action," McFarland noted in 1911, "thirteen are under the Forest Service and fifteen under the Interior Department." Inevitably "none were being adequately controlled or logically handled." [32] Preservationists found special cause for alarm at the Grand Canyon and Mount Olympus, the two largest monuments. Since both were carved from property managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and thus had remained with that agency, it seemed reasonable to conclude that utilitarian biases would prevail in the parks. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson confirmed preservationists' worst fears when, partly in response to pressure from the Forest Service, he reduced the size of Mount Olympus National Monument by more than half to allow lumbering operations. [33]

The War Department made up the final but no less significant layer of confusion in park management. In 1883 Congress finally authorized protection for Yellowstone under the direction of the United States Army. Three years later the cavalry entered the park, and, after 1890, provided similar enforcement against vandalism, illegal grazing, and poaching at Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks. But although the troopers did a superb job (one historian contends they actually "saved" the reserves), they, too, testified to the absence of unified management. [34] The same might be said of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which primarily planned and built roads in the parks, most notably in Yellowstone. [35]

The first serious attempt to redress the problem came in 1900, when Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa, later chief proponent of the Antiquities Act, introduced legislation "to establish and administer national parks." [36] The proposal got no further, however, until 1910, when Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger bowed to pressure from J. Horace McFarland to draft a bill providing for a "Bureau of National Parks." Following suggestions and rewrites by other members of the American Civic Association, most notably Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., in 1911 the document was presented on Capitol Hill by its sponsor, Senator Reed Smoot of Utah. [37]

Opposition to the measure was strong. The Forest Service—now among the federal government's principal landholding agencies—was especially aroused because it suspected that any new parks would be carved primarily from its tracts in the West. [38] Gifford Pinchot also remained strongly opposed to increasing the prestige of the national parks, despite his removal as chief forester in 1910 following a rupture between him and Theodore Roosevelt's successor, President William Howard Taft. [39] Finally, some members of Congress were antagonistic to the formation of still another full-fledged bureaucracy. Accordingly, in January 1912 preservationists renamed their proposed organization the National Park Service. As distinct from the word "bureau," "service" implied that the new agency would not have as much political power. Others noted the significance of changing the title to suggest that the National Park Service, rather than starting off as superior to its existing rivals—especially the Forest Service—in reality must compete with them directly for its own federal funding and support. [40]

Even with these compromises, however, the campaign to pass the Park Service bill remained difficult. For example, the Forest Service fought to retain not only its existing national monuments, but all future national parks carved from its holdings. Congress's concession to the former request temporarily undermined any hope of managing the national parks and monuments as an integral system. The views of Gifford Pinchot were no less divisive; throughout the contest he spoke out against any attempt to coordinate scenic protection unless the program were handled "efficiently, economically, and satisfactorily by the Forest Service." [41]

Preservationists' ability to thwart an unworkable compromise stemmed in large part from their evolving alliance with the western railroads. Encouraged by J. Horace McFarland, Richard B. Watrous, and others close to the American Civic Association, advocates of the Park Service bill carefully nurtured the spirit of cooperation aroused during the Yellowstone conference of 1911. Over the next five years their homework paid off handsomely as the campaign to establish the Park Service moved through the maze of congressional hearings and similar legislative roadblocks. On occasion, the railroads themselves sent prominent officials to testify on behalf of the agency and to elaborate on what the lines were doing to promote travel in the meantime. [42] Again there was little altruism involved; rather "these men have reached that degree of enlightenment in their selfishness," Secretary of the Interior Walter L. Fisher reasserted in 1912, "that they have come to the conclusion that it is for their own best interest to have a national park bureau established." [43]

It followed that as preservationists played their hand before Congress, the monetary appeal of scenic protection was still trump. "For instance," Secretary Fisher said in leading off testimony on the Park Service bill before the House Public Lands Committee, "we should try to make our people spend their money in this country instead of abroad, and certainly as far as spending it abroad for the scenic effect." With respect to landscape the United States did "not have to ask any odds of any other country on earth." [44] Examples of the value of national parks to worker productivity strengthened the argument. In this vein J. Horace McFarland seconded the pronouncements of George Otis Smith and Robert Bradford Marshall, then added a variation uniquely his own. "I think sometimes we fall into a misapprehension," he stated at the congressional hearings in 1916, "because the word 'park' in the minds of most of us suggests a place where there are flower beds . . . and things of that kind." Congress should be aware "that the park has passed out of this category in the United States." Beyond esthetics the parks met a very practical need. The "park is the direct competitor . . . of the courts, of the jail, of the cemetery, and a very efficient competitor with all of them," McFarland elaborated. By providing rest and relaxation, parks alone kept "at work men who otherwise would be away from work. That is the park idea in America," he concluded—with a final challenge to the utilitarian persuasion—"as it has come to be the idea of service and efficiency, and not an idea of pleasure and ornamentation at all." [45]

McFarland's dismissal of scenic protection for its own sake was a sincere attempt to link the national park idea to the tenets of utilitarian conservation. Indeed, while the statement seems out of character at first glance, more accurately it reflected the quiet desperation among preservationists that followed in the wake of their losing Hetch Hetchy. Privately, preservationists took comfort from the support of the railroads, whose promotion of the national parks confirmed that the park idea was in fact coming into its own. The efforts of Senator Reed Smoot on Capitol Hill to win passage of the Park Service bill added to the growing prestige of esthetic conservation. [46] Thus heartened, interested members of the American Civic Association used their office in Washington, D.C., to rally their own campaign on behalf of the National Park Service.

By 1915 campaign headquarters had also been established at the Interior Department. Two men in particular, Stephen T. Mather and Horace M. Albright, worked to enlist the backing of political and industrial leaders. Mather, a skilled promoter, member of the Sierra Club, and self-made millionaire in the mining and distribution of borax, had been attracted to Washington the previous December by Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, who, like Mather, was an alumnus of the University of California. Following his graduation in 1887, Mather became a reporter for the New York Sun, stayed five years, then turned his energies to the borax industry, in which he eventually made his fortune. By 1914 he was restless and ready for a different challenge. Quite by accident, an opportunity presented itself following a summer sojourn into the High Sierra. Angered by the poor management of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, Mather penned a letter to Secretary Lane in protest. Coincidentally, someone of Mather's wealth, dedication, and business experience was precisely the man Lane was looking for to put the national parks in order. Thus his reply: "Dear Steve, If you don't like the way the national parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself." Mather wavered, then accepted the challenge, provided that Secretary Lane found someone to shield him from the inevitable red tape and legal hassles. Lane gladly complied by introducing Mather to a young, energetic lawyer in the Interior Department, Horace M. Albright, who agreed to become Mather's assistant. [47]

Mather stayed fourteen years, the first two as assistant to Secretary Lane, the remainder as director of the National Park Service. Several months before his death (in January 1930), Horace Albright took over as director and preserved the Mather tradition until 1933, when he, too, resigned to become president of the American Potash Company. With good reason no names are more closely linked with the success of the National Park Service than those of Mather and Albright. The business acumen of both men was of inestimable value in the day-to-day meetings, speech-making, and promotional campaigns that characterized the Park Service in its opening decades. At times the railroads themselves needed a little arm-twisting, as in 1915, when Mather asked them to provide excursion tickets which would be honored on any line serving the major parks. [48] In other instances the problem might be a balky politician opposed to increased appropriations, or a reporter whose ignorance of the parks jeopardized what the Park Service was trying to accomplish. Against such hurdles Mather and Albright were at their best. Whether as writers, public speakers, or out-and-out lobbyists, none better understood the fickleness of human nature and the art of overcoming it.

Indeed the effectiveness of their promotion was not due to new ideas per se; John Muir, J. Horace McFarland, R. B. Marshall, Mark Daniels, and others had long since laid the rhetorical basis for justifying the national parks in an urban, industrial society. Mather's and Albright's original contribution was the institutionalization of the national park idea within the political and legal framework of the federal government. Henceforth an attack on a reserve would not be an affront to it alone, but to the very fabric of American society.

It followed that the struggle to associate scenic preservation with long-ingrained American values had been a success. As early as 1915 Stephen Mather confirmed the potential of the relationship by joining preservationists in equating the national parks with the country's economic health. "Secretary Lane has asked me for a business administration," he wrote just four months after taking office. "This I understand to mean an administration which shall develop to the highest possible degree of efficiency the resources of the national parks both for the pleasure and the profit of their owners, the people." With that statement Mather gave credence to the theme developed by J. Horace McFarland and his contemporaries during more than a decade. "A hundred thousand people used the national parks last year," Mather continued. "A million Americans should play in them every summer." To emphasize his reasoning, he again invoked the profit motive: "Our national parks are practically lying fallow, and only await proper development to bring them into their own." [49]

The National Park Service bill had long been seen as the best hope of guarding the parks against the changing whims and uncertainties of the political climate. Success finally was achieved on August 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson affixed his signature to the National Park Service Act. Here at last, preservationists congratulated themselves, was a clearcut blueprint of what the national parks stood for and how they should be administered. Section 1, for example, provided for a director, assistant director, chief clerk, draftsman, and messenger, in addition to "such other employees as the Secretary of the Interior may deem necessary." Title to all existing and future national parks passed to the new agency; similarly, the Park Service took over each of the national monuments directly controlled by the Interior Department. Not until 1933 were the Forest Service and War Department also forced to give up the monuments under their jurisdiction. For this reason management of the parks and monuments as a whole was still temporarily frustrated. [50]

The setback, nonetheless, was incidental to the integration of park goals under a single statement of purpose, the clause originally drafted by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. From these words preservationists gained confidence for an end to any uncertainty about the "fundamental purpose" of the national parks. That "purpose," the clause clarified, "is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." [51] In time preservationists discovered that the paragraph itself was subject to broad differences of opinion. Precisely what, for example, was meant by "unimpaired"? Did the word make allowances for roads, trails, hotels, and parking lots? One day the potential for such debates would seem endless. Still, at the very least the clause provided a basis for consensus; indeed, given the circumstances behind its passage, especially the recent loss of Hetch Hetchy, it was more than preservationists reasonably could have expected.

The defense of the parks, in any event, had been elevated from the throes of indifferent management to the full responsibility of the federal government. At last esthetic conservationists had an agency of their own to counter the ambitions of those who considered Hetch Hetchy merely the opening wedge in gaining access to all of the public domain, including the national parks and monuments. Nor did Stephen T. Mather and Horace Albright have any intention of waiting for the inevitable confrontations. Instead they worked to dilute utilitarian rhetoric by playing upon the value of the national parks as an economic resource. The first national parks conference called by Mather as director of the Park Service underscored the timelessness of this approach. In January 1917 delegates from Congress, the parks, the railroads, and many civic groups gathered at the National Museum in Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of the Park Service and its charges. The list of opening speakers was impressive. It included, for example, Senator Reed Smoot of Utah, who related to the audience his role in introducing the Park Service bill. Preservationists found additional cause for optimism in the speech of Scott Ferris of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Committee on the Public Lands. "The amount of money that goes abroad every year by tourists is no less than alarming," he said, endorsing the "See America First" campaign. "The best estimate available is that more than $500,000,000 is expended by our American people every year abroad vainly hunting for wonders and beauties only half as grand as nature has generously provided for them at home." Surely, he concluded, such overseas spending demanded "that we of the Congress and you members of the conference" find some way "to keep at least a part of that money at home where it belongs." [52]

Especially from someone as powerful as Congressman Ferris, the statement bore testimony to the persuasiveness of the "See America First" ideology. By channeling cultural nationalism into both an esthetic and economic defense of the national parks, preservationists considerably strengthened the park idea in the United States. Similarly, their association of human "efficiency" and productivity with outdoor recreation turned the rhetoric of resource conservationists into an asset for preservation rather than a total liability. The National Park Service provided the foundation on which to build the popularity of these themes within the government. Confronted with evidence that the national parks were capable of paying economic as well as emotional dividends, for the first time Congress had good reason to add to the system rather than dismantle it.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/chap5.htm — 17-Mar-2004