National Parks
The American Experience
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Chapter 8:
Schemers and Standard Bearers

Congress (and the public which elects it) can always be expected to hesitate longer over an appropriation to acquire or protect a national park than over one to build a highway into it. Yet there is nothing which so rapidly turns a wilderness into a reserve and a reserve into a resort.

Joseph Wood Krutch, 1957

The attempt to round out the national parks as self-sufficient biological units was to be joined by a struggle of equal, if not greater magnitude. Despite passage of the National Park Service Act of 1916, the lack of principles to govern proper management of the reserves had been only partially overcome. Once challenged by the growing popularity of outdoor recreation, the definition of national parks as both pleasuring grounds and natural reserves seemed a contradiction in terms. Mixed emotions following completion of the Yosemite Valley Railroad in May 1907 served as an early barometer of the coming debate. "They have built a railroad into the Yosemite," declared Edward H. Hamilton, correspondent for Cosmopolitan magazine. And some park enthusiasts, he admitted, had taken the news "very much as if the Black Cavalry of Commerce has been sent out to trample down the fairy rings." Actually the tracks ended just beyond the park, at El Portal, twelve miles west of the gorge proper. Still, Hamilton was reporting a common fear that protection in the parks would be compromised by greater visitation and tourist development. "In California and the far West," he noted, "there are people who insist that hereafter the great valley is to be a mere picnic-ground with dancing platforms, beery choruses, and couples contorting in the two-step." Personally he dismissed such critics as "nature cranks" and "the athletic rich," those "stout pilgrims with long purses and no ailments." But now "there is the railroad into Yosemite," he concluded, "and all the arguments since Adam and Eve will not put it away." [1]

Barely nine years later, however, more people entered Yosemite Park by automobile than by rail, 14,527 as opposed to 14,251. The following season (1917) the ratio was nearly three to one, and by 1918 almost seven to one, 26,669 in contrast to 4,000. [2] On a positive note, the growing availability of cars to middle-class Americans held forth the promise of greater public support for the national park idea. Although the railroads had "gradually lowered the barrier" between the East and the West, as a journalist, Charles J. Belden, admitted, "the subtle influence of the motor-car is bringing them into closer touch than would otherwise be possible." As evidence of the phenomenon, as early as 1918 there were only a "few places" in the West, "no matter how remote from the railroad, where fuel and oil may not readily be obtained." Accordingly, Hamilton's so-called "nature cranks," politely known as "purists," were outvoted by the large majority of preservationists who initially embraced the automobile, as they had earlier the railroad, as another opportunity to bolster the parks' popularity. "Our national parks are far removed from the centres of population," Enos A. Mills of Colorado observed, rejecting purism as impractical. "If visited by people," he stressed, "there must be speedy ways of reaching these places and swift means of covering their long distances, or but a few people will have either time or strength to see the wonders of these parks." In other words, without convenient transportation the public would not support scenic preservation. "The traveler wants the automobile with which to see America." [3]

When put in those terms, as a demand rather than a choice, the decision of preservationists was a foregone conclusion. At first they repeatedly emphasized the advantages of the automobile, especially its reduced cost and greater freedom of mobility. In this vein no less than Arthur Newton Pack, president of the American Nature Association, observed in 1929: "The greatest of all pleasures open to any automobile owner is travel through the wilder sections of our country . . . with comfort and economy." The motorist "will grow to regard railroads as uncomfortable necessities," another enthusiast affirmed. "He will laugh at himself for believing, before he bought his car, that a real pleasure trip could ever be accomplished by rail." Not only was the car "capable of penetrating into the wilds and bringing its owner into speedy touch with Nature," it returned him "before he has dropped any of the necessary threads of civilization." [4] Still another testimonial glorified "this freedom, this independence, this being in the largest possible degree completely master of one's self. . . . That horrible fiend, the railroad time-table, is banished to the far woods." Best of all, auto camps could be made "comfortably at a cost of two dollars a day per passenger," one third the expense of lodging in a luxury hotel, another promoter agreed. There was a similar note of prophecy in a succeeding endorsement: "Until this new travel idea developed, costs of travel precluded the average citizen including the whole family." [5]

Popularly known as "sagebrushing," auto camping swept the national parks throughout the 1920s and 1930s. "The sagebrusher," a Yellowstone enthusiast explained in defining the term, "is so called to distinguish him from a dude. A dude goes pioneering with the aid of Mr. Pullman's upholstered comforts and carries with him only the impediments ordinary to railroad travel." By contrast the sagebrusher "cuts loose from all effeteness," bringing "clothes and furniture and house and food—even the family pup—and lets his adventurous, pioneering spirit riot here in the mountain air." [6] "It was in 1915 that the first automobile, an army machine, entered the Yellowstone National Park," two enthusiasts further reported. Just four years later the park "was invaded by more than ten thousand cars, carrying some forty thousand vacationists." The correspondents noted that the year 1919 marked the parade of "nearly ninety-eight thousand machines" through the national parks, ranking the automobile "as the greatest aid" to their "popularity and usefulness." Rocky Mountain National Park topped the list with 33,638 cars; Yosemite, permanently opened to private motorists since 1913, placed "second with something over twelve thousand." Yellowstone's 10,000 matched the figures for Mount Rainier National Park; as a result, both ran "a close race" for third in the standings. [7]

Although the surge in auto traffic was briefly interrupted by World War II, afterward it swelled with even greater intensity. By the mid 1950s only 1 to 2 percent of all park visitors entered the reserves by public transportation. [8] Even the most determined proponents of the automobile now faced the sobering realization that cars threatened the national parks as much as they insured their support. Perhaps no one had predicted the agony of the trade-off with greater foresight than the former British ambassador to the United States, James Bryce. In November 1912 he was invited to address the American Civic Association. "What Europe is now," he warned, "is that toward which you in America are tending." Specifically, the nation's population was also rapidly increasing and with it "the number of people who desire to enjoy nature, . . . both absolutely and in proportion." Unfortunately, "the opportunities for enjoying it, except as regards locomotion," were in decline. As for the rest of the "circumscribed" world, scenery in the United States no longer could be considered "inexhaustible." For a specific example Bryce chose the on-going debate "as to whether automobiles should be admitted in the Yosemite." Presently, he noted, "the steam-cars stop some twelve miles away from the entrance of the Yosemite Park." Surely development should come no closer. "There are plenty of roads for the lovers of speed and noise," he maintained, "without intruding on these few places where the wood nymphs and the water nymphs ought to be allowed to have the landscape to themselves." Like E. H. Hamilton he concluded with a Biblical analogy for emphasis: "If Adam had known what harm the serpent was going to work, he would have tried to prevent him from finding lodgement in Eden; and if you were to realize what the result of the automobile will be in that wonderful, that incomparable valley, you will keep it out." [9]

A subsequent exchange between J. Horace McFarland and George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, reveals why Bryce's advice was largely ignored. Throughout the 1920s Lorimer opened the pages of his journal to park defenders of every persuasion, and often spiced their contributions with outspoken editorials of his own. Yet when he wrote to McFarland in November 1934, he admitted the loss of "some of my early enthusiasm for the National Parks." Lorimer's change of heart could be laid to the automobile. "Motor roads and other improvements are coming in them so fast," he complained, "that they are gradually beginning to lose some of their attraction for the out-of-door man and the wilderness lover." In fact, he closed, echoing the ambassador, "if this craze for improvement of the wilderness keeps up, soon there will be little or none of it left." [10]

Lorimer realized that a sense of wilderness, unlike a purely visual experience, presumed the absence of civilization and its artifacts. The preservationists' dilemma, McFarland cautioned him in reply, was that without the automobile there might not be parks containing natural wonders, let alone wilderness. "I am about the last person in this whole wide world to have the nerve to offer you any advice," he began tactfully. "Yet in this matter of the National Park development I am bound to say that we must accept compromises if assaults on the parks from the selfish citizens, of whom we have not a few, are to be repelled." However distasteful, there was no sense decrying what could not be changed. "I didn't want automobiles in the parks before any more than I do now," McFarland himself admitted. Yet what other choice did preservationists have? Specifically, "where would the parks have been without this means of getting the 'dear public' to know what the same dear public owns?" To prove his sincerity he ended on a personal note. Originally "my summer home at Eagles Mere [Pennsylvania] included a little bit of pure primeval forest." But that was "more than thirty years ago," he noted soberly. Since then "I have had to give up much of the primeval relationship in order to have anything at all." [11]

In microcosm, McFarland's sacrifice was not unlike that facing preservationists throughout the national park system. Although the prerequisite for public support of the national park idea was development, it invariably compromised many of the very values they had struggled to save in the first place. As preservationists soon discovered, moreover, park legislation itself offered little ammunition for their defense. As distinct from the detailed language governing administrative procedures in the reserves, to what purpose they should be managed was often couched in generalities or not even included. The closest thing to a working definition was the National Park Service Act of 1916. In each instance, the act specified, the parks were to be protected "in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." [12] At the time preservationists were satisfied, indeed almost elated. Each new controversy, however, revealed the subjectiveness of the clause itself. Exactly what, for example, was meant by "unimpaired"? Who likewise determined whether or not the term made allowance for roads, hotels, parking lots, and similar forms of development? "The law has never clearly defined a national park" Robert Sterling Yard, as president of the National Parks Association, finally concluded in 1923. Neither the National Park Service Act, "nor other laws," he lamented, "specify in set terms that the conservation of these parks shall be complete conservation." [13] Each new objective, including wilderness or wildlife protection, would have to win recognition as a precedent on its own merits.

Much as the automobile speeded the passing of solitude, so it accelerated the confrontation between those who viewed the national parks as playgrounds and those, such as Lorimer and Yard, who now saw them as sanctuaries in the broadest sense. Only while visitation was scattered and sporadic could preservationists avoid deciding how the national parks should be used as well as defended. With the growing visitation brought about by popularity of the automobile, the luxury of postponing the issue of standards was gone.

"It is the will of the nation," Frederick Law Olmsted said in interpreting the Yosemite Park Act of 1864, "that this scenery shall never be private property, but that like certain defensive points upon our coast it shall be held solely for public purposes." With Olmsted's definition began the never-ending debate over what forms of enjoyment were appropriate in the national parks. At present, Olmsted conceded before the Yosemite Park commissioners in August 1865, travelers to the valley and Mariposa redwood grove totaled but several hundred annually. Yet "before many years," he predicted with amazing foresight, "these hundreds will become thousands, and in a century the whole number of visitors will be counted in the millions." Eventually laws to prevent Yosemite's defacement "must be made and rigidly enforced." Construction, for example, should be limited to "the narrowest limits consistent with the necessary accommodation of visitors." The alternative to imposing the standard would be the proliferation of buildings which "would unnecessarily obscure, distort, or detract from the dignity of the scenery." [14]

With the Yosemite Act of 1864 Congress established the precedent that basic accommodations and visitor services in the parks would be provided by private concessioners. [15] Olmsted also did not seek to forbid development outright but merely wished to channel it creatively. For instance, he supported the completion of an "approach road" which would "enable visitors to make a complete circuit of all the broader parts of the valley." Yet while he rejected a rigid, purist philosophy, he left no doubt that his priorities still lay with the environment. "The first point to be kept in mind then is the preservation and maintenance exactly as is possible of the natural scenery." No less than a great work of art, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa redwoods belonged to future generations as well as to living Americans. In fact, he claimed, "the millions who are hereafter to benefit by the Yosemite Act have the largest interest in it, and the largest interest should be first and most strenuously guarded." [16]

In time, the posterity argument became a basic tenet of the preservation movement. Meanwhile the distinctions between recognized public needs, such as defense, and scenic preservation were not as clear-cut as Olmsted wished to imply in his opening analogy. His worst fears were soon confirmed. In November 1865 he resigned from the Yosemite Park commission and returned to New York City to resume work on Central Park. Gradually the commission lost touch with his ideals as individual members served political instead of environmental beliefs. Accordingly, much as he had forewarned, by the 1870s the valley looked more like a run-down farm instead of the well-designed public park he had envisioned only a decade before. [17]

Few better than Olmsted understood that Yosemite's condition stemmed from the common perception of the valley as a wonderland to enthrall rather than instruct the visitor. No less than at Niagara Falls, where curio salesmen, aerialists, and other stuntmen competed for a suitable backdrop, the urge to capitalize on its spectacular qualities was unquenchable. "There are falls of water elsewhere more finer," Olmsted claimed, "there are more stupendous rocks, more beetling cliffs, there are deeper and more awful chasms." [18] Still, there was no escaping that preservation was the by-product of monumentalism, not environmentalism. Thus while enthusiasts hailed the park idea as the nation's answer to the abuse of its natural wonders, the parks themselves could not escape the impulse to costume their features. In 1872, for example, a New York Times columnist, Grace Greenwood, entered Yosemite Valley and immediately protested that "a certain 'cute' Yankee" planned "cutting off the pretty little side cascade of the Nevada [Fall], by means of a dam, and turning all the water into the great cataract. 'Fixing the falls,' he calls this job of tinkering one of God's masterpieces." Like Ferdinand V. Hayden, Josiah Dwight Whitney, and others, she appealed to America's conscience by comparing the scheme to the commercialization of Niagara Falls. "Let it not be said by any visitor," she pleaded, "that [Yosemite Valley] is a new Niagara for extortion and impositions—a rocky pitfall for the unwary, a Slough of Despond for the timid and weak." Left unmarred, Yosemite would pay for itself "a hundred-fold"; surely that statistic, if none other, could be appreciated "even by fools." [19]

Yet even as Miss Greenwood gave credence to Frederick Law Olmsted's predictions, one James McCauley, an early Yosemite pioneer, launched carnivalism in the valley on a grand scale. During the early 1870s he constructed a trail to Glacier Point, where he later perched a rustic hotel. But although the view of the Sierra from the promontory was breathtaking, the drop—a dizzying 3,200 feet to the meadowlands below—fascinated early visitors all the more. Throughout the day it was common to find them on the ledge hefting rocks, boxes, and other objects over the side. "An ordinary stone tossed over remained in sight an incredibly long time," one observer recalled, "but finally vanished somewhere about the middle distance." Further experimentation revealed that a "handkerchief with a stone tied in the corner was visible perhaps a thousand feet deeper." But "even an empty box, watched by a fieldglass, could not be traced to its concussion with the Valley floor." And so the urge to test gravity remained unappeased. Sensing his opportunity, McCauley then "appeared on the scene, carrying an antique hen under his arm. This, in spite of the terrified ejaculations and entreaties of the ladies, he deliberately threw over the cliff's edge." Their outburst only added to the unfolding drama. "With an ear-piercing cackle that gradually grew fainter as it fell," the correspondent noted, "the poor creature shot downward; now beating the air with ineffectual wings, and now frantically clawing at the very wind, . . . thus the hapless fowl shot down, down, down, until it became a mere fluff of feathers no larger than a quail." Next "it dwindled to a wren's size," suddenly "disappeared, then again dotted the sight as a pin's point, and then—it was gone!" [20]

The finale, however, was still to come. As the shock of the moment wore off, the women "pitched into the hen's owner with redoubled zest," only to learn, undoubtedly to their embarrassment, that McCauley's chicken went "over that cliff every day during the season. And, sure enough, on our road back we met the old hen about half up the trail, calmly picking her way home!" [21]

Compared to his invention of the firefall, however, McCauley's chicken-toss ranked as a sideshow. One Fourth of July during the early 1870s valley residents took up a collection for fireworks and approached McCauley to throw them over at Glacier Point. His enchantment with the scheme compelled him to reciprocate with one of his own. He would build a large fire, wait until it had burned down into a pile of smoldering embers, then push them over the cliff. The fire itself was not an original idea; prior to settlement of the valley adventurers reported Indian beacons along Yosemite's rim, for example. In either case, a full 1,500 feet separated McCauley's vantage on Glacier Point from the first outcrop below. "As time passed," his son later testified, "people wanted fires and were willing to pay for them." When alerted, tourists in the valley scrambled for a ringside seat "to view the performance, shrinking under the ear-splitting detonations of the dynamite that accompanied the fire at intervals." [22]

At the turn of the century McCauley left the hotel business and carried his dynamite with him. From then on the firefall survived as a silent spectacle under the auspices of David A. Curry, founder of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. In 1899 he located his namesake, Camp Curry, in the valley directly below Glacier Point. As was customary, Curry's guests chipped in "to hire one of his porters to go up and gather the necessary fire wood and put the fire over in the evening," E. P. Leavitt, acting park superintendent, recalled in 1928. But gradually, as the event grew in popularity, Camp Curry assumed the entire expense of displaying the firefall nightly during the summer months. It was, after all, a superb drawing card, as testified by the Curry Company's brochures, which featured the firefall brilliantly aflame above the darkened campground. "As the embers fall over the cliff, the rush of air makes them glow very brightly," Leavitt explained. And "because of their light weight they fall slowly, which gives the appearance of a fall of living fire." Curry replaced McCauley's bombs with a violinist who played "softly," another observer reported, as the "fairy stars came drifting downwards, . . . floating from sight into some mighty hollow beneath the cliff that was yet fifteen hundred feet above our heads." And "so, for more than half a century," Collier's magazine concluded in 1952, "this man-made spectacle has rivaled the natural glories of Yosemite." [23]

Such blanket acceptance of the artificial was, in Frederick Law Olmsted's words, "fixing the mind on mere matters of wonder or curiosity." And that was precisely what he had condemned as inappropriate in 1865. [24] Still, attempts to costume the spectacular only multiplied, and as in the case of the firefall, persisted long after their inspiration, often under the auspices of the National Park Service itself. What the firefall was to Yosemite Valley, for example, tunnel trees became for the nearby groves of Sierra redwoods. In June 1878 a British visitor to the Tuolumne Big Trees reported another "novelty such as one does not come across every day. This was a tunnel through the stump of one of the largest Wellingtonia in the grove." He called upon his readers to imagine a tree "through which the road passes and the stagecoach is driven!" At first Yosemite Park did not include the Tuolumne specimen, yet it was not long before the brand of carnivalism he identified infected the reserve proper. Most notably, in 1881 the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company completed a road through the Mariposa Grove. Perhaps to honor the occasion, and certainly to attract publicity, the company commissioned a team of workmen to notch the sprawling base of the Wawona Tree large enough to permit the passage of its carriages. One witness recalled stopping in the center of the cut and standing up to touch the roof of the freshly-hewn opening. "Arriving on the other side, I stepped down and the foreman and each of the workers surprised me by shaking hands with me and congratulating me, saying I had the distinction of being the first one to pass through." Similar testimonials to the enjoyment of the novelty prompted tunneling of the nearby California Tree, in 1895. [25]

By 1900 the tunnel trees received top-billing from a variety of publicists, among them the Southern Pacific Railroad, which featured the Wawona Tree regularly in its new passenger-department publication, Sunset magazine. Meanwhile, the campaign to reduce Yosemite National Park had spawned schemes with a synthetic bent of a decidedly more ominous nature. Chief among them was the so-called "restoration of Yosemite waterfalls," sponsored by the park's leading congressional opponent, Representative Anthony Caminetti of California. "The waterfalls of Yosemite Valley are seen at their best in June, and after that rapidly diminish," argued a state forester, Allen Kelley, in smoke-screening the congressman's real concern. Caminetti proposed to Congress that it "pay for surveys of reservoir sites in the mountains surrounding Yosemite Valley, with a view to storing water in the streams that supply the numerous falls." He failed to stress that the water was to be used for irrigation, not just so-called scenic enhancement. Still, both he and Kelley played upon the nation's pride to advance their case. Just "at the time of year when tourists from abroad find it convenient to visit the valley," Kelley noted, Yosemite Fall in reality was "no waterfall, only a discolored streak on the dry face of the cliff." He therefore proposed that the cataract "be maintained either by damming the creek or turning a portion of the waters of the Tuolumne River into its bed through a flume about twenty miles long." A similar embankment "100 yards in length . . . would store plenty of water for Nevada and Vernal Falls," while Bridal Veil, in autumn "a merely trickling film over the rocks," would best be augmented "by making a reservoir of the meadows along the creek." None other than Harper's Weekly published the argument, on July 16, 1892, replete with before and after woodcuts of the falls and potential dam sites. [26]

Although this particular scheme made little headway, in 1913 Congress sided with Caminetti's philosophy by approving the no-less-objectionable Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Because its supporters also glossed over its damaging features as esthetic improvements, preservationists realized that to accept any kind of development in the national parks, no matter how innocent-looking initially, might in fact set a precedent with unforeseen consequences. So with the automobile, the naturalist, Victor H. Cahalane, justified the suspicions of its early skeptics. "As more and more visitors flood the parks," he noted in 1940, "demands for all kinds of 'improvements' arise. First and most numerous have been requests for elaborate structures and big-city amusements." Yet if secondary, schemes to redress the spectacular were advanced with equal persistence. "What good is a volcano if it erupts only once in a century or so?" inquire the 'efficiency experts.' Since it is futile to ask a mountain to take off its cap and spout lava, they request that tunnels be excavated into Lassen Peak so that they may see how the uneasy giant looks inside." Similarly, in Yosemite talk of reviving the Caminetti-Kelley proposal had literally become an annual event. Indeed "each year," Cahalane scoffed, "the administration is asked to build reservoirs above the valley rim where water could be stored and fed to the falls on the Fourth of July and Labor Day," with "special showings" for "the Elks, Kiwanis, Lions and Women's Clubs." Fortunately the National Park Service seemed determined to resist the "Nature-Aiders," he believed, with their "Turkish baths, tunneled volcanoes," and replumbed "waterfalls and hot springs." [27]

Like George Horace Lorimer, however, Cahalane was far less optimistic about the chances of ever curbing the automobile. Initially Stephen T. Mather and the Park Service openly promoted the horseless carriage as the best possible means of increasing park attendance quickly and economically. Most preservationists, still reeling from the loss of Hetch Hetchy, also discounted the warnings of Ambassador Bryce, and, like Enos Mills, welcomed cars to the national parks with the same enthusiasm previously accorded the railroads. Gradually, however, the distinctions between both forms of transportation became more pronounced. Most notably, the railroads went no farther than the fringes of the parks. Within the reserves proper visitors had to rely on public transportation, beginning with the stagecoach. In marked contrast, Victor Cahalane observed, the flood of visitors loosed by the automobile defended personal mobility as a right rather than privilege. "Roads! Roads! Roads! We must have more roads! Bigger and better roads!" he stated, mimicking the "clamor of over-enthusiastic chambers-of-commerce automobile associations and contractors. Faster roads! Roads into this wilderness. Roads into that wilderness." Apparently none of "these besiegers" realized, he concluded, echoing Lorimer's lament "that when processions of automobiles, clumps of filling stations, gasoline smells, restaurants and hot dog stands" invade the parks, "wilderness is gone." [28]

The Park Service itself could be accused of pandering to the public's baser instincts. Often the air of carnivalism was subtle. In Yellowstone, for example, a searchlight mounted on the roof of Old Faithful Inn beamed across the parking lot to illuminate the evening eruption of the fabled geyser. In 1939 a journalist, Martelle Trager, confessed that she and her family "rushed across the road to a place where we could get a better view of the colored lights playing upon the column of water and steam." And, as the Tragers were to discover, the Park Service was not above providing even more elaborate amusements. Indeed "the climax of the trip" was not the Upper Geyser Basin, but the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where "the children heard about the Bear Feeding Show." A Park Service naturalist informed them there would be two performances that particular evening, "one at six and one at seven." They arrived fully an hour before the first, only "to find at least five hundred people already gathered" in the "big amphitheater built on the side of a hill about three miles from the hotel." Still, they found seats in the first row, and in full view of the "fenced-in pit where the garbage is dumped for the bears each evening. On schedule the "truck drove through the gate with a ranger-naturalist at the back, his gun loaded and ready to shoot if a bear attempted to attack the men who were emptying the garbage pails." But that night "the Bear Cafeteria" fed without incident at least 75 of the animals, including blacks, browns, and grizzlies. [29]

Critics charged that enjoyment alone was no measure of the suitability of such events. It followed that any relaxation of the natural for the artificial was an acceptable use of the national parks. Among those who argued against yielding to the temptation of promoting the reserves in this fashion was Henry Baldwin Ward, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. Tourists seeking pure entertainment "might be wisely diverted to areas of less unique and supreme value," he maintained. The bear feedings especially, however popular, had all "the flavor of a gladiatorial spectacle in Ancient Rome." Instead of people, the animals were reduced to "sadly degenerate representatives of the noble ancestors from which they have sprung." Albert W. Atwood, writing for the Saturday Evening Post, further condemned what he termed "the excessive danger of cleaning up, after the manner of city parks; of smoothing, rounding, straightening, manicuring, landscaping. . . . At Grand Canyon," he explained, "roadsides have been graded and the natural growth cut away; walks have been laid out—all with the effect of introducing an element of the artificial, of the smooth and conventional, into what is, perhaps, the supreme primeval landscape of the entire world." Yosemite Valley was the worst example, with "its dance halls, movies, bear pit shows, studios, baseball, golf, swimming pools, wienie roasts, marshmallow roasts and barbecues—all well advertised in bulletins and printed guides." It was not that such diversions were bad in themselves, he asserted, simply that none had "any relation whatever to the purpose for which the national parks were established." [30]

Each time preservationists singled out the agent primarily responsible for overdevelopment of the national parks, they inevitably debated the impact of the automobile. "The majority now come in motors," Robert Sterling Yard wrote, noting the shift from rails to roads as early as 1922. Thus "while we are fighting for the protection of the national park system from its enemies, we may also have to protect it from its friends." No statement was to prove more prophetic or enduring. With the surge in park visitation, suddenly even the grand hotels seemed tainted as "resort and amusement-type" features. "The foreground of a picture is of very great importance," Wallace Atwood, Yard's successor as president of the Nation Parks Association, said in defense of his own reappraisal of the structures in 1931. Initially, of course, preservationists hailed the hotels, like the railroads and the automobile, as the prerequisites for increased patronage and public support. Yet there had been errors in judgment, including the location of the "hotels and other buildings too near the objects of interest. Other mistakes have been made in placing hotels or lodges at the choice observation stations." Perhaps visitors "should be brought within easy walking distance of the best outlook points," Atwood conceded, still, "hotels, lodges or camps should not be allowed to occupy those points." "In addition," no building should be erected in the parks solely for amusement purposes." [31] Although Atwood did not go into specifics, by implication he disapproved of hostelries such as the El Tovar, overlooking the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Old Faithful Inn, adjacent to Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin.

With the conviction that national parks ultimately must be justified in the broadest sense, and not merely as scenic wonderlands, the change of heart regarding the wisdom of encouraging greater visitation was inevitable. In this vein Arno B. Cammerer, director of the National Park Service, wrote in 1938: "Our National Parks are wilderness preserves where true natural conditions are to be found." While the statement was as much sentiment as fact, more park professionals at least were of the opinion that "complete conservation" should be advanced. "When Americans, in years to come," he continued, "wish to seek out extensive virgin forests, mountain solitudes, deep canyons, or sparsely vegetated deserts, they will be able to find them in the National Parks." [32] Once again contradictions could be laid to transportation policies and visitor facilities in sympathy with the automobile. In 1928 alone, 131,689 cars negotiated the narrow confines of Yosemite Valley, an eleven-fold increase in only nine years. [33] Anyone hopeful that the Great Depression of the 1930s would stem the tide must have been equally surprised. In fact just the reverse was true. Visitation to the national parks and monuments climbed steadily from approximately three million in 1929 to more than twelve million immediately prior to World War II. Although several new parks contributed to the increase, the original reserves, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, averaged between 400,000 and 500,000 visitors annually an all-time high. [34]

The postwar travel surge was also unprecedented. By 1955 Frederick Law Olmsted's prediction of annual visitation "by the millions" came true not only in Yosemite (1,060,000), but in Grand Teton (1,063,000), Yellowstone (1,408,000), Rocky Mountain (1,511,000), Shenandoah (1,760,000), and Great Smoky Mountains (2,678,000) national parks. To reemphasize, between 98 and 99 percent of these tourists now were private motorists. Indeed, as if to signal the beginning of the end of public transportation to the parks, in 1944 the Yosemite Valley Railroad, reportedly bankrupt, was auctioned off and torn up for scrap. [35] Quality trains still served most of the other major preserves, benefiting directly, if not proportionally, from the postwar travel revolution. Still, by the 1960s even these were giving way to the automobile and recreational vehicle, which, in contrast to the days of the "sagebrusher," often were as luxurious as the hotel accommodations of old.

"Are the parks doomed in their turn to become mere resorts? Ultimately perhaps." So wondered the respected American naturalist, Joseph Wood Krutch, detecting a growing consensus among preservationists. To their dismay the general public still did not grasp the standards of appreciation defended by Frederick Law Olmsted as early as a century before. Numbers were the key. In June 1955, for example, U.S. News and World Report featured the following headline: "This summer 19 million Americans will visit parks that are equipped to handle only 9 million people. Result: Parks overrun like convention cities. Scenery viewed from bumper-to-bumper traffic tie-ups. Vacationing families sleeping in their cars." Still, the figures by themselves were misleading, Krutch maintained; like Olmsted he doubted the intent of each tourist. In Olmsted's lifetime both the expense of traveling and the absence of internal improvements in the national parks had discouraged the casual visitor. Suddenly the barriers of privilege and discomfort had come down in a flurry of automobile and highway promotion. "It is indeed largely a matter of easy accessibility and 'modern facilities'," Krutch noted. For the first time the survival of the national parks as natural areas lay in excluding that "considerable number" of motorists who desired nothing more on arrival than "what they can do at home or at the country club." Then—and only then—might the natural character of the reserves be even "fairly well preserved." [36]

It was ironic, of course, that a preceding generation of preservationists had often argued as forcefully against stringent protection as Krutch now argued for it. Until the level of visitation appeared adequate to defend the parks against utilitarian interests, preservationists themselves willingly compromised a sense of the primitive to encourage greater public solidarity behind the national park idea. "Even the scenery habit in its most artificial forms," John Muir wrote in 1898, "mixed with spectacles, silliness and kodaks; its devotees arrayed more gorgeously than scarlet tanagers, frightening the wild game with red umbrellas—even this is encouraging, and may well be regarded as a hopeful sign of the times." Muir's rare display of tolerance could be laid to the realization that without tourists there might well be no parks at all. "The problem is not to discourage amiable diversions," the historian, Bernard DeVoto, agreed in 1947, "but to scotch every effort, however slight, to convert the parks into summer resorts." Of course "it would hardly be practicable to examine every visitor . . . to make him prove that he has come for a legitimate purpose," Krutch added. But it would be "perfectly possible to make the test automatically" simply "by having the road ask the question: 'Are you willing to take a little trouble to get there?'" [37]

Simply to ask the question was not to resolve the preservationists' dilemma, however. To exclude people, whatever the means, risked loss of support for the national park idea; to accept more people as the price of support jeopardized the parks themselves. This attempt to strike a balance between preservation and use had been greatly complicated by the popularity of the automobile. Finally strained to the limit by the postwar travel boom, the National Park Service received relief from Congress in the form of Mission 66. The ten-year program was to expand rather than reduce the carrying capacity of the national parks by reconstructing roads, adding visitor centers, and increasing overnight accommodations. Plans called for facilities sufficient to handle the estimated eighty million auto vacationers expected to crowd the reserves during the golden anniversary of the National Park Service, 1966. In February 1955 the American Automobile Association co-sponsored the kick-off dinner in Washington, D.C. Once the program got under way, preservationists were able to substantiate their fears that Mission 66 was indeed road- and big-development oriented. Their list of specifics included the reconstruction of Tioga Road over Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. While "the old road in a sense 'tiptoed' across the terrain," Devereux Butcher described, quoting the veteran nature photographer Ansel Adams, "the new one elbows and shoulders its way through the park—it blasts and gouges the landscape." On completion of the program, F. Fraser Darling and Noel D. Eichhorn reached a similar conclusion for the national parks as a whole. "Mission 66 has done comparatively little for the plants and animals," they charged in their 1967 report to the Conservation Foundation. "The enormous increase in drive-in campsites is an example of the very expensive facilities which do nothing at all for the ecological maintenance of a park." [38]

George A. Grant Collection, courtesy Park Service Cecil W. Stoughton, courtesy of the National Park Service When Everglades National Park was proposed, many partisans of the national park movement argued that it did not rank with such monumental wonders as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Monumental or not, the Everglades environment is threatened on all sides—by roads, canals, urban development, and the Everglades Jetport, shown below in December 1969. George A. Grant Collection, courtesy of the National Park Service Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, was established in 1902 only after businessmen were assured that mineral exploration could continue. Joseph Le Conte photograph courtesy Co. the National Park Service Ralph H. Anderson photograph, courtesy of the National Park Service Imposing scenery usually does not invite economic development. Exceptions like Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, which was flooded by a reservoir of the city of San Francisco, have been the subjects of heated debate. Here the lower meadow of Hetch Hetchy is shown before and after being flooded. James E. Thompson photograph, courtesy of the Thompson family James E. Thompson photograph, courtesy of the National Park Service Death Valley National Monument, proclaimed in 1933, was to be compromised by extensive inholdings and mineral claims. Legislation passed in 1976 regulated, but did not abolish outright, such operations as the stripmine shown below. The ruggedness of places like Huggins Hell, pictured above, was the main argument leading to the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1920s, but within a decade visitors were also drawn to the park for its wildlife and its virgin forests, dominated by giant tulip-poplars like the one shown below. Courtesy of the National Park Service George A. Grant Collection, courtesy of the National Pack Service Horace M. Albright, as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s, above, led the campaign to establish Grand Teton National Park and to protect Jackson Hole. (Later, Albright became the second director of the National Park Service.) When a Reclamation Service dam at the outlet of Jackson Lake was raised in 1916, thousands of trees were killed. Purists therefore objected to including Jackson Lake in the park, saying it was no longer a natural lake but an artificial reservoir. The Civilian Conservation Corps removed much of the debris along the lakeshore in the 1930s, below. Photograph by Dave Van de Mark, courtesy of the Save-the-Redwoods League When Redwood National Park was established in October 1968, the slopes above the Tall Trees Grove, although outside the park, were also forested. In this photograph, taken in June 1976, only the narrow strip of parkland fronting Redwood Creek has not been cut. The fate of the "worm," as this section of the park came to be known, prompted Congress in 1978 to expand Redwood National Park by 48,000 acres. Still, only 9,000 acres is virgin forest. The remainder, much of it recently logged, will have to be replanted. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, benefitted from a broadening of national park standards to value distinctive flora and fauna as well at monumental scenery. Jack E. Boucher photograph courtesy of the National Park Service Only a few national parks, most notably Isle Royale in Lake Superior, can be considered integral biological units. Isle Royale, because it is a remote island, preserves not only a fine example of Great Lakes spruce-fir forest, but also the only known pack of timber wolves within a national park outside of Alaska.

By enabling more tourists to visit the parks, they inevitably came. Between 1955 and 1974 visitation more than tripled, from approximately fourteen million to forty-six million in the national parks alone. Use of the national monuments rose proportionally, from roughly five million to more than seventeen. [39] To Edward Abbey the figures bore witness to the age of "Industrial Tourism." Wherever "trails or primitive dirt roads already exist," he remarked in his popular book Desert Solitaire, "the Industry expects—it hardly needs to ask—that these be developed into modern paved highways." However unpopular, there could be only one solution. "No more cars in the national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs—anything—but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out." In anticipation of the charge that preservationists thus defended elitism, Abbey concluded on an even more controversial note. "What about children? What about the aged and infirm?" he asked rhetorically. "Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups." Children, with their entire lives ahead of them, could afford to be patient for their chance to experience nature untrammeled. The elderly merited "even less sympathy; after all they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled." [40]

Never before had preservationists voiced their opposition to the automobile so openly and defiantly. Their new militancy, however, rather than being the outgrowth of greater assurance that the national parks could now survive without pandering to development, could be traced to fear of the consequences in either case. Yet few echoed Abbey as convincingly as Garrett Hardin, professor of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Partially crippled by polio since the age of four, "I am not fit for the wilderness I praise," he wrote, in defense of his sincerity; "I cannot pass the test I propose or enter the area I would restrict." Claiming, therefore, to "speak with objectivity," Hardin rejected all methods of park allocation except physical merit. Distribution "by the marketplace," for example, favored the wealthy. Similarly, a "first-come, first-served basis" multiplied waste and fatigue by sacrificing the talent and energies of the many who lined up outside the park for the sake of the few allowed in. In contrast, restricting access to the "physically vigorous" protected both wilderness and the joy of earning it. In this vein Yosemite Valley, for instance, might "be assigned a carrying capacity of about one per acre, which might mean that it could be opened to anyone who could walk ten miles." If "more and more people would be willing to walk such a distance, then the standard should be made more rigorous." Granted the valley would "be forever closed to people on crutches, to small children, to fat people, to people with heart conditions, and to old people in the usual state of physical disrepair." But "remember, I am a member of this deprived group," Hardin concluded, and also must "give up all claim of right to the wilderness experience." [41]

To effect such a radical change in policy, of course, preservationists must not only win but hold a majority of the American electorate. But that possibility still seemed very remote. "Ours is so much the age of technology and the machine," Joseph Wood Krutch noted as early as 1957, "that machines come to be loved for their own sake rather than used for other ends." For example, instead "of valuing the automobile because it may take one to a national park, the park comes to be valued because it is a place the automobile may be used to reach." [42] Beyond the entrenchment of auto culture lay the problem of rewording park legislation itself. The phraseology common to each act, "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," clearly implied that every citizen, not just the educated, robust, or physically endowed, might freely enter the reserves. "Certainly," Arno B. Cammerer, director of the National Park Service, maintained as early as 1938, "no wilderness lover could selfishly demand that the National Parks be kept only for those who are physically able to travel them on foot or on horseback, for they were definitely set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of all." But "are not the intellectual, aesthetic and emotional rights of a minority just as sacred?" Joseph Wood Krutch asked, thereby anticipating Edward Abbey and Garrett Hardin. "Does democracy demand that they be disregarded?" [43] So the difficulty of striking a balance between minority rights and majority demands still haunted the national parks movement. "What of the too-old, the too-young, the timid, the inexperienced, the frail, the hurried, the out-of-shape or just plain lazy?" a Los Angeles lawyer, Eric Julber, wrote while appointing himself spokesman of these minorities. They, too, were perennial friends of the national parks and paid taxes for their maintenance; by what right, then, did the "purist-conservationist" seek to exclude them? Only because "his philosophy is unfair and undemocratic," he concluded, with a taunt at Garrett Hardin and Edward Abbey. "His chief characteristic is that he is against everything." [44]

Of all the parks, Yosemite, especially the valley floor, remained a classic battleground of the debate. The narrowness and steepness of the gorge inevitably dramatized the smog, noise, congestion, and vandalism which followed in the wake of its popularity. By 1961, the number of visitors crowding the park regularly exceeded 70,000 daily. [45] Spread over Yosemite as a whole, 70,000 people would hardly have been noticed. Yet the valley, as the park's major attraction, was where practically everyone wanted to stay. Thus friends of the park, such as Devereux Butcher, continued to question the wisdom of providing "dancing, pool swimming, golfing," and, in season, "skating on a man-made lake and skiing" in the mountains. Following World War II the bear feedings, at least, had been discontinued. But "there is the firefall," he added, "which also draws crowds, and which, like the other artificial amusements, has nothing to do with the beauty and wonders of the park." [46] In 1968 the Park Service finally agreed and abolished the firefall, only to find the problems of overcrowding, crime, and congestion still on the rise. With the celebration of the Fourth of July weekend in 1970, matters came to a head. It was not a particularly happy season in the first place for park administrators and patrons. Drug use, anti-establishment sentiments, and visitor unrest were high after years of bitter controversy over the Vietnamese War. The confinement of Yosemite Valley exacerbated these tensions in addition to the crush of people. Finally, when a crowd of young people gathered in Stoneman Meadow to vent their emotions, National Park Service personnel lost their patience and drove the youths off by force. [47]

Although the ugliest incident to date, the confrontation was only the latest example of the conflicting demands imposed upon the national parks by an urban-based society. Whatever their legitimacy elsewhere, the purely recreational aims of many park visitors clashed with the preferences of those who now wished to see the parks kept as close to their original conditions as possible. In Yosemite, closure of the eastern third of the valley to vehicular traffic was among the first measures taken by the National Park Service to restore a sense of balance. During 1970 private transportation other than walking or riding bicycles was prohibited and replaced with a shuttle-bus system available free to the public. Similarly, in the wake of strong opposition to a master plan favoring greater development of Yosemite National Park, the Park Service opened the planning process to public input through a series of special hearings and the mailing of personal planning "kits" to all concerned citizens. Following tabulation of the results and final approval by the public, a revised master plan would be put into effect. [48]

Meanwhile the issue of Yosemite Valley had been joined on another front. In 1974 the Music Corporation of America, successor to the Curry Company, unveiled plans for expansion which included not only a new hotel on Glacier Point, but a tramway connecting it to the valley floor. The filming of the short-lived television series "Sierra" lent an immediate air of carnivalism to the gorge as production crews dyed rocks and other natural formations for the sake of the color cameras. [49] Once again preservationists found themselves rehashing a familiar argument. At what point did such activities compound the very problems the Park Service supposedly should be seeking to avoid? Temporarily, at least, the round went to the side of strict conservation.

Yet other park visitors just as readily endorsed the proposal of Eric Julber. "I would install an aerial tramway from the valley floor to Nevada Fall, thence up the backside to the top of Half Dome," he said in resurrecting another scheme prominent since the days of McCauley's chicken and the firefall "The restaurant at the top would be one of the great tourist attractions of the world." [50] Julber's instant notoriety in the pages of Reader's Digest substantiated that such beliefs still could not be taken lightly by their opponents. As in the past, nothing guaranteed the continuity of park policies, whether the issue be standards of enjoying the parks or opening them to uses of a strictly utilitarian persuasion.

As distinct from outright threats to the parks, of course, codes of appreciation were more prone to being weighed by subjective criteria. Thus Joseph Wood Krutch observed in obvious frustration: "It is only hit or miss that these questions are being answered." [51] Granted, by and large the image of national parks as unmodified areas had become fixed in the American mind. And yet, as demonstrated by the continuing popularity of "developed" natural wonders, particularly Niagara Falls, preservationists had every reason to conclude that a majority of Americans would accept significant compromises even to the naturalness of major attractions, provided some semblance of the originals remained.

For example, in a 1974 survey conducted by the United States Travel Service, an agency of the Department of Commerce, Niagara Falls ranked third only behind the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in public appeal. [52] Unlike its western counterparts, however, Niagara Falls represents the epitome of the "engineered" landmark. To accommodate power generation, up to one half of the flow of the Niagara River is diverted around the falls during daylight viewing hours. Between midnight and sunrise, when visitation is minimal, three-fourths of the river bypasses the cataract through conduits leading to huge turbines set in the Niagara Gorge. In effect, therefore, Niagara Falls is literally "turned on" and "turned off" to conform to both peak sightseeing and power demands. Similarly, although treaties between the United States and Canada limit the diversions, these have still necessitated stream-channel modifications, including a large jetty immediately above the cataract to preserve the falls "spectacle" by spreading the remainder of the flow evenly as it approaches the brink. [53]

Over the long term, perhaps the attempt to accommodate both industry and scenic preservation at Niagara Falls is an indication of the fate awaiting Yellowstone Falls, the Grand Canyon, and other natural wonders with hydroelectric potential. Widespread acceptance of such compromises, in either case, bears out that one man's civilization can just as easily be another's wilderness. Indeed, among the competing factions of park users consensus is still elusive. More than a century after inspiration of the national park idea the issue remains: at what point is conservation in fact sacrificed for the sake of novelty and convenient access? Conceivably, a definitive answer may never be possible.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/chap8.htm — 17-Mar-2004