National Parks
The American Experience
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Chapter 9:
Familiar Themes, Traditional Battles, and a New Seriousness

The "romantic movement" of the early 19th century has long worked itself out as a cultural dominant, yet, for many of their keenest supporters, parks are still viewed as the living embodiment of romantic values. . . . Their delicious dream is proving increasingly hard to reconcile not only with an ever less romantic and more crowded world, but with the realistic tasks of park acquisition and park management.

E. Max Nicholson, Convener,
International Biological Program,
British Nature Conservancy, 1972

We can take only momentary pride in the achievements of the national park movement's first 100 years when we realize that in the second 100 years the fate of mankind possibly hangs in the balance.

Nathaniel P. Reed, 1972

Despite rain and near-freezing temperatures, delegates to the Second World Conference on National Parks were enthusiastic. Even though the rain turned to sleet, few abandoned their places beside the Madison Junction in Yellowstone National Park. After all, the main event of the evening was to be of special significance. Exactly 102 years ago to the day, on September 19, 1870, the members of the celebrated Washburn Expedition had encircled their campfire on this very spot, and, according to the diary of Nathaniel Pitt Langford, immediately dedicated themselves to the protection of Yellowstone as a great national park. That professional historians had discredited Langford's account of the trip was immaterial to the moment at hand; like all popular movements the national park idea might also have its heroes and legends. Now the first lady of the United States, Mrs. Richard M. Nixon, accompanied by the secretary of the interior, Rogers C. B. Morton, was about to pay tribute to the Yellowstone Centennial by relighting, symbolically, the beacon of that renowned encampment. "Regardless of whether or not it is raining," she said, aware of the crowd's discomfort, "this has been a wondrous day for me, and I hope it has been for our delegates from abroad." She now turned and held aloft a large flame. "With the lighting of this torch," Secretary Morton remarked, interpreting her gesture, "we hereby rededicate Yellowstone National Park to a second century of service for the peoples of the world." [1]

Few celebrations during the centennial year did more to link both the past and present of the national park idea. As symbolized by the presence of Mrs. Nixon, national parks had become a revered American institution; from the White House down the United States took pride in the knowledge that it was both the inventor and exporter of the national park idea. The inconsistencies of the Washburn Expedition aside, major newspapers, magazines, television networks, and government reports told and retold its story literally in heroic terms. [2] The explorers "could not have anticipated," one said, "that their idea would flower into a new dimension of the American dream and would capture the imagination of men around the world." [3] While Americans must seek the roots of Western civilization abroad, by the same token the world must come to the United States to pay homage to the birthplace of the national park idea. Mrs. Nixon's rededication of Yellowstone to the world thus affirmed that Yellowstone was America's—and America's alone—to so dedicate.

Under the circumstances, Americans might overlook that the national park idea as originally conceived had been a response to romantic emotions rather than ecological needs. Even as the nation celebrated the Yellowstone Centennial, limitations long imposed on the national park system had already sparked more than a decade of discussion and controversy. In 1962 Rachel Carson, a respected naturalist and biologist, gave the so-called environmental decade of the 1960s powerful momentum with the publication of her best-selling book Silent Spring. Originally serialized in The New Yorker magazine, Silent Spring reached millions of Americans with its warning that the continued use of chemical pesticides spelled possible catastrophe for the natural world. For the first time in history, Carson noted, "every human being" was being "subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death." Her most chilling scenarios described the growing concentrations of persistent pesticides found in the bodies of animals higher and higher up the food chain. Already those concentrations had proven lethal to birds and fish, she argued: "Man, however much he may like to pretend to the contrary, is [also] part of nature. Can he escape a pollution that is now so thoroughly distributed throughout our our world?" [4] The startling implications of her question for the national parks sank gradually into the American mind. If no environment was immune from chemical poisoning, it followed that even the most remote corners of the American wilderness had already suffered damage from toxic substances.

The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 coincided with the First World Conference on National Parks, convened at the Seattle World's Fair during the first week in July. Sixty-three nations sent delegates; the only countries conspicuously absent were Communist nations, with the exception of Poland. [5] In keeping with Rachel Carson's message, the theme of the conference was distinctly global and ecumenical. Indeed "the problem of conserving nature is not a local matter," the editor of the conference proceedings later wrote, "because nature does not respect political boundaries. The birds winging their way southward over Europe neither know, nor care, whether they are passing above a Common Market or a group of feudal duchies." Nature paid "no heed" to such "political or social agreements, particularly those that seek to divide the world into compartments. It has been—and always will be—all inclusive." [6]

That common perception of the 1960s carried through to the Second World Conference on National Parks, held in 1972 in observance of the Yellowstone Centennial. Among those who addressed the gathering in a somber vein was Nathaniel P. Reed, U.S. assistant secretary of the interior in charge of fish, wildlife, and parks. "We would be deluding ourselves," he remarked, "if we did not recognize that with the joy of this occasion there is also sorrow over man's abuse of this lonely planet—and even well-founded foreboding over the future of man." Reed obviously had been influenced not only by Rachel Carson but by the equally grim warnings of Dr. Paul Ehrlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University. In his own best-selling monograph, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted in 1968 that unchecked population growth would soon engulf the world with hordes of hungry, ignorant, and desperate people. In their urge simply to survive, he maintained, they would destroy not only the environment but practically any hope of international cooperation and world peace. By September 1971, on the eve of the Yellowstone Centennial, The Population Bomb was in its twenty-fifth printing. "Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent society," Ehrlich still argued in his introduction. "They will inherit a totally different world, a world in which the standards, politics, and economics of the past decade are dead." [7]

The impact of expanding human populations on forests, grasslands, and other wildlife habitat testified to the futility of trying to establish national parks with enough territory to protect all of their resident species of flora and fauna. Time and again throughout the 1970s, this consequence of overpopulation became the theme of scientific reports. Even the United States could no longer take refuge in "continental vastness," wrote a panel of scholars working on behalf of the Conservation Foundation. In its own centennial study, National Parks for the Future, the foundation listed many of the problems working against the establishment of national parks with boundaries adequate for the protection of biological resources. Undoubtedly the greatest problem was the failure of the United States to confront the reality of its evolution into "an urban nation." The romance of its frontier origins aside, the United States was "becoming ever more urbanized." The sharpness of that familiar warning, reminiscent of the Census Report of 1890, lay in the realization that overpopulation in the 1970s was no longer a theory but a phenomenon whose pressures could finally be seen and experienced. For the first time, the foundation's panelists agreed, the United States itself had to deal squarely with the same "confinement, lack of opportunity, and environmental insult" that were characteristic of the Industrial Revolution in other countries. Pollution and overcrowding, as the end products "a specialized, technological age," were tangible proof that the United States had also sacrificed its frontier innocence for the problems and complexities of the modern world. [8]

Seen from this perspective, the Yellowstone Conference merely reaffirmed what many people had already argued—the care and management of natural resources could no longer be successful if practiced piecemeal by individual countries. Ecological laws transcended synthetic political boundaries. There was, as a result, at least one reason for optimism; more than eighty nations, including Russia, were represented at the Second World Conference on National Parks, as opposed to only sixty-three countries listing delegates at the original meeting in 1962. It was further noted that the number of national parks and "equivalent reserves" around the globe in 1972 totaled more than 1,200 separate areas, truly an impressive figure. [9] Meanwhile, that each national park in particular could be traced back to the United States only swelled the nation's pride and sense of accomplishment as it celebrated the Yellowstone Centennial year.

Indeed, that many countries still looked to the United States for leadership in preservation was borne out by the First and Second World Conferences on National Parks. Both praised America's invention of the national park idea. Yet whether or not the United States would continue to set high standards for world conservation was a question still open to debate. For example, biologists worldwide had repeatedly stressed the importance of setting aside large tracts of territory if wildlife in particular was to survive.

Still, many members of the world community had simply followed America's nineteenth-century example by preserving only their most marginal tracts of land. Possible exceptions, most notably the African game parks, often owed their establishment and survival to economic ends rather than deep-seated environmental concern. In the pattern of the "See America First" campaign, African governments had also recognized the advantages of attracting wealthy foreign tourists into the reserves. Efforts to protect wildlife for its own sake, especially wildlife whose dependence on remoteness from civilization meant that the animals might never be seen by tourists, was the last thing government officials endorsed. If ever the flow of tourist dollars were to be interrupted for extended periods, it followed that the parks themselves might just as easily be sacrificed, either intentionally or simply through neglect. [10]

Around the world, as in the United States, the least controversial approach to preservation was the protection of monumental scenery. The Second World Conference on National Parks itself conceded that limitation while addressing the establishment of "world parks" to be administered under the auspices of the United Nations. Delegates to the conference frequently stressed the importance of protecting the most productive ecosystems on the planet, especially tropical rain forests rich in countless species of plant, insect, and wild animal life. [11] Recommendations that seemed so obvious intellectually, however, were far more difficult to effect politically. It was one thing to suggest that nation states such as Brazil and the Philippines should protect their rain forests, quite another to imply that neither had the right to dispose of its natural resources as each saw fit.

The conference instead endorsed Antarctica as the first international reserve. Its uniqueness as an ecosystem aside, the overriding advantage was political. Existing international treaties had agreed that Antarctica was to be shared by the nations of the world in the interest of science. Moreover, many scientists themselves shared the widespread popular belief that most of the territory's natural wealth was locked under thousands of feet of ice. The preservation of Antarctica was less likely to be opposed because the lands in question appeared worthless at the outset and, for all intents and purposes, seemed certain to remain worthless in the future. [12]

Mounting threats to the national parks of the United States again underscored how attitudes toward even Antarctica might change if its resources proved both abundant and accessible. In the two decades preceding the Yellowstone Centennial, debate about the future of the Colorado River basin in the American Southwest especially dramatized the impermanence of national park status. In 1950 the Bureau of Reclamation unveiled a proposal to erect two high dams across the Colorado River as part of a comprehensive plan to manage water resources the length of the basin. The first dam was to be at Split Mountain, in the northeastern corner of Utah, and the second at Echo Park, just upstream in the northwestern corner of Colorado. The source of the controversy was the location of both potential reservoirs within Dinosaur National Monument, straddling the boundary between the two states. [13]

Thoroughly alarmed, preservationists joined forces in Washington, D.C., to protest the inundation of the national monument. Another highpoint of the campaign was the publication in 1955 of This Is Dinosaur. Noted contributors to the book of essays included its editor, the historian and novelist Wallace Stegner, and its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. Stunning illustrations by Philip Hyde, Martin Litton, and other photographers complemented the text of what later came to be recognized as a model for the so-called battle books published throughout the 1960s by organizers of the environmental movement. [14]

In a compromise struck in 1956, Dinosaur National Monument was spared. Not until 1963 did preservationists fully appreciate the price of that agreement with the completion of the Glen Canyon dam, just upstream from Grand Canyon National Park and neighboring Marble Canyon. By the time preservationists came to recognize Glen Canyon's own remarkable qualifications for national park status, its redemption from the dam builders was out of the question. The Bureau of Reclamation merely shifted, but did not abandon, its dam building efforts. The cost of saving Dinosaur National Monument was the sacrifice of much of the rest of the Colorado River basin, including Glen Canyon. Downstream from Glen Canyon only Marble Canyon and the Grand Canyon remained untouched, and by 1963 even those monumental landscapes had been threatened with the construction of large reservoirs. [15]

Unlike Glen Canyon, the Grand Canyon was ostensibly protected, on its upstream or eastern side as a national park, and farther westward as a national monument. The establishment of the national park in 1919, however, had reserved to the federal government the prerogative of later relinquishing portions of the chasm for water-storage projects. That was the option exercised by the Bureau of Reclamation during the early 1960s in calling for the construction of two large reservoirs in the canyon. One of the high dams was planned for Bridge Canyon, downstream from the national monument. The flood pool itself still would back up through the monument and well into the park. The second dam site in Marble Canyon would not affect either the national monument or national park; nevertheless, preservationists argued that Marble Canyon itself was an integral part of the Grand Canyon ecosystem and should therefore be included within the adjoining national park. [16]

The ecological argument against the dams sought to demonstrate the interdependence of the Colorado River, its canyons, and its interlocking tributaries. Upstream, the construction of the Glen Canyon dam had already blocked the normal flow of water and suspended silt into the Grand Canyon; gradually the impact of that blockage could be detected in the erosion of sandbars along the river, as well as in the increasing density of shoreline vegetation no longer subject to removal by periodic flooding. [17] In the heat of battle, however, ecology was a difficult subject to explain to the American public. People at large responded far more emotionally and vociferously to the pending loss of the Grand Canyon as the supreme scenic spectacle of the continent.

In that respect, the defeat of the Grand Canyon dams in 1968 occurred on a note of irony. Confronted with the necessity of arousing public outcry against the dams, preservationists consistently appealed to the nation's historical prejudice for monumental scenery. To save the canyon, in other words, it seemed at times that preservation interests would have to sacrifice everything else. One popular argument, for example, suggested that coal-fired or nuclear power plants would more than compensate for the loss of hydroelectricity from each of the proposed dams. [18] Only when the exploitation of the coal fields in the region began in earnest did the cost of such trade-offs become apparent. Saved from the dam builders below, the Grand Canyon was now threatened by the emissions of the new power plants from above. [19] As a monumental landscape the Grand Canyon had survived; as an ecosystem its future was still seriously in doubt.

Emissions from the growing concentration of coal-fired power plants in the Southwest became especially noticeable during the mid-1970s. In February 1975, for example, Philip Fradkin, an environmental writer for the Los Angeles Times, reported reductions in visibility at not only the Grand Canyon but Zion, Bryce, and Cedar Breaks National Monument. "The view from Inspiration Point in Bryce Canyon was hardly inspiring," he wrote. "To the right of Navajo Mountain was the visible plume from the Navajo power plant at Page, Arizona." Two additional stations planned for the region would also soon be covering the parklands with layer upon layer "of gray-blue and yellow-brown smog." [20]

Few revelations demonstrated more pointedly how the situation of the national parks had dramatically changed since the late nineteenth century. Never again could preservationists take comfort in the vision of a boundary separating a park from the impact of civilization. Air pollution alone proved conclusively that whatever boundaries may have existed between the parks and modern America were fast disappearing. Supposedly pollution was a phenomenon of the city. That dirty air now drifted deep into the American wilderness confirmed that the national parks had become as dependent on the lifestyle of their neighbors as on the conscience of their friends.

In the 1970s the problem of educating the American public about the threat of air pollution over the national parks was much like the predicament of trying to defend the Grand Canyon as an ecosystem during the 1960s. The changes to the parks caused by air pollution were basically incremental and therefore difficult to illustrate. Historically, both preservationists and the public responded with far greater intensity to threats against the national parks of a more direct and immediate nature. Monumentalism, however dated, was still far more easily understood than ecology. The announcement in mid-1975 of stepped-up mining operations in Death Valley National Monument, extractions allowed under the monument's enabling legislation of 1933, was another example of a battle cry that aroused Americans because the threat to Death Valley was simultaneously traditional, visible, and immediate. "Thank God these same people weren't guarding Michelangelo's Pieta or Rembrandt's Night Watch," an irate reader of the Los Angeles Times wrote, striking the popular chord. "They would still be engaged in some endless discussion on how to limit the damage. . . . I shudder to think," he concluded, summing up a century of preservationists' fears, "that there may be borax or oil in the Grand Canyon." [21]

Again the strength of the allusion was its simplicity. The pending changes to Death Valley were not incremental and, as a result, could not be as easily discounted in the public mind. Most environmental issues, by way of contrast, invited public apathy. Each had its own complexity and core of special data; just to understand the problem required scientific knowledge beyond the training of the average citizen. Above all, many environmental issues seemed to have no solution in the first place. Pessimism and a sense of helplessness often characterized discussions of overpopulation and pollution. These were not simply threats to a specific place within the United States alone but dilemmas suggesting that both the nation and the world needed to make radical changes in contemporary lifestyles and social values.

The Grand Canyon dams controversy of the 1960s averted public indifference because preservationists appealed directly to the chasm's symbolic importance rather than to its still intangible values as an ecosystem. "If we can't save the Grand Canyon," asked David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, "what the hell can we save?" [22] Here was language any American could well understand. In rebuttal, the Bureau of Reclamation relied on the standard argument that the enjoyment of national parks by a few wilderness enthusiasts at the expense of many people who needed water and power was elitist. The dams would also allow visitors in motorboats, not merely those hardy people who floated the Colorado River in rubber rafts to enjoy the scenic beauty of the inner canyon. The Sierra Club replied in 1966 through the publication of a series of full-page newspaper advertisements, the most famous of which carried the following headline: "SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?" [23] Considered in light of the nation's long-standing insistence that its national parks were a source of cultural identity and pride, no analogy could have been used more effectively. Indeed, its impact was borne out on July 31, 1968, when Congress struck down the bureau's proposal.

Like similar decisions in the past, however, Congress's rejection of the Grand Canyon dams did not lead to a lasting precedent for the protection of national parks in the future. Barely within the decade, mining activity in Death Valley National Monument served notice that the national park system as a whole was still not safe in perpetuity. In 1971 Tenneco, the largest producer of borates, talc, and other minerals in Death Valley, stepped up operations on its claims just inside the boundaries of the national monument. "The main impact on the monument," Nathaniel P. Reed, assistant secretary of the interior, reported to Congress in 1975, "is the use of open pit methods." The company's Boraxo pit, Reed noted, "now is some 3,000 feet by 600 feet and is 220 feet deep, while its Sigma pit is 500 by 400 feet, and is more than 75 feet deep." Not only were both mines "being enlarged"; more alarmingly, "the spoil or waste dumps" had become "highly visible from the scenic road to the Dante's View overlook." Fortunately, he concluded, the biggest deposits of borates "in the same general area of the monument" had "not been developed for production as yet." [24]

Growing opposition to the mining during the summer and fall of 1975 led to congressional hearings on legislation to prohibit further entry into the six existing national parks and monuments, including Death Valley, where mining claims could still be filed. [25] On all previous claims, however, such as Tenneco's Boraxo and Sigma pits in Death Valley National Monument, operations would still be allowed. Similarly, Reed recommended to Congress that Glacier Bay National Monument in Alaska, with its important stores of nickel and copper, also remain "open" pending a study of the magnitude of those deposits to be completed in 1978 by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. [26]

Predictably, the compromises proved unsatisfactory to preservation interests. Representative John F. Seiberling of Ohio, for example, sponsor of the legislation to curb the mining, noted the paradox of telling the public that Death Valley "is to be preserved and even collecting rocks is not allowed," while, "at the same time," legally permitting "huge economic interests for their own personal profit to go in and rip it off." Charles Clusen, testifying before Congress on behalf of the Sierra Club, wholeheartedly supported Seiberling's indignation. "[Even] if these were the last borates and talc," Clusen said,"even if there was no substitute for their use, we must still ask if this gives us the right to destroy the one and only Death Valley that we have." Eventually the United States would have to "come to grips with the fact that there are finite supplies of minerals, and that we cannot allow the destruction of everything we treasure in the pursuit of those resources." [27]

Representatives of the affected mining companies, supported by their own champions in Congress, proposed the more traditional solution—eliminating the disputed claims from the monument altogether. Toward that end Representative Joe Skubitz of Kansas, for example, asked rhetorically whether cutting "that area completely out of the monument" would "do irreparable damage." Arguing that the excision would not injure the park, Representative Philip E. Ruppe of Michigan observed that the lands currently affected amounted to only four thousand acres, but .2 percent of the entire monument: "Who cares then if they mine 4,000 acres? . . . If one mined the whole 4,000 acres, does one make an appreciable dent in either the geology or ecology of Death Valley?" Concluding his own testimony, Robert E. Kendall, executive vice president of the United States Borax and Chemical Corporation, answered that the impact of the mining was indeed minimal. He nonetheless recommended that Congress consider the obvious solution to the whole problem, namely, "a realignment of monument boundaries to exclude areas of low scenic value and high mineral value." Similar alignments might also "be the most practical approach to easing the adverse reaction to mining within units of the national park system" elsewhere in the country. At least in Death Valley, Kendall argued, outright removal of the affected claims offered "a better solution" by insuring that "this highly valuable borate area [is] out of the park, so it is not in conflict with national park objectives." [28]

Although Kendall reassured Congress that his company's large mine at Boron, 110 miles southwest of Death Valley, would meet current levels of demand for borates well into the future, his concession did nothing to dilute the seriousness of his attack on the principle of park integrity. "Does it not destroy the integrity of our park system," Congressman Seiberling asked, driving home the point, "that every time somebody comes up with a new mineral deposit within the park, to say that we will solve the problem, we will just change the boundary?" "I don't think that," Kendall replied, finding additional support for his point of view by citing the history of Death Valley National Monument. "In 1933 when the park was created, a portion of the eastern border was shifted so as to exclude an existing mining operation." [29]

For preservationists, the issue still was not that Death Valley had already been mined in the past or that its unmined portions might be spared development until sometime in the future—the point was that the national monument should never have been burdened with those compromises in the first place. As a result, there was little for preservationists to applaud in the legislation signed by President Gerald R. Ford on September 28, 1976, which ostensibly had been introduced in Congress to prohibit mining in Death Valley. In fact the law did little more than regulate the miners, who might continue excavation on all claims worked prior to February 29, 1976. The stipulation in effect sanctioned the open-pit mining that had aroused the public the previous year. The secretary of the interior was further required to identify those portions of the monument that might be abolished outright "to exclude significant mineral deposits and to decrease possible acquisition costs." [30] Those portions of Death Valley that survived, in short, apparently would contain nothing of lasting economic value.

The threatened realignment of Death Valley National Monument further testified to the unspoken criterion that national parks could not be justified on the basis of ecological principles alone. Indeed, the plea of George Catlin in 1832 for "A nation's Park," replete with Indians and wild animals of the plains, was significant not only as the first recorded statement of the national park idea—it was all the more notable as the exception to the rule in the evolution of parks themselves. The national park idea evolved out of the concern for natural wonders as monuments rather than from an appreciation of the value of landscape in its broadest sense, both animate and inanimate. From the standpoint of both geography and plant life, Catlin's proposal was revolutionary. As late as 1985, the United States had yet to establish a national park devoted exclusively to the protection of America's grasslands and their fauna. [31]

Even where the United States had come closest to the ideal of biological conservation, as in the Florida Everglades, the reluctance of Congress to protect enough territory at the outset threatened the longevity of the respective areas. During the late 1960s the Everglades itself was once more threatened, this time by ground breaking for a huge jetport immediately adjacent to the park's northern perimeter. Before the project was halted in 1970, an entire runway had been cleared and graded. [32] The struggle in part led to passage of the Big Cypress National Preserve four years later. With its approval Congress recognized the legitimacy of fears that Everglades National Park could not survive without protecting its flow of fresh water from the north, particularly from Big Cypress. [33] Yet again, neither Congress's denial of the jetport nor passage of the bill to protect the freshwater preserve had committed the federal government to preserving the integrity of the national park system as a whole. No sooner had the jetport in the Everglades been thwarted than developers advanced a similar scheme in Jackson Hole. [34] Moreover, mining, hunting, grazing, drainage, agriculture, fishing, trapping, and other traditionally unacceptable uses of the national parks were only to be regulated rather than abolished outright in Big Cypress. [35]

Because Big Cypress was not considered a national park in its own right, however, but more accurately a measure of insurance for one, the compromises were overlooked. In either case, the regulation of noncompatible activities in Big Cypress as preferable to no regulation at all. Somewhat the same philosophy lay behind the trend to national recreation areas, scenic rivers, national lakeshores, parkways, and urban preserves. If few were national parks in the traditional sense, they were methods of luring purely recreational interests away from overused areas such as Yosemite and Yellowstone.

The ecological issues raised by the Yellowstone Conference, however, were still far from being resolved. The studies which had grown out of the centennial observance had been uncompromising—there was nothing romantic about survival. The failure of the national parks to preserve representative examples of the earth's life zones conceivably had jeopardized the future of man himself by limiting his field for scientific study and experimentation. In Yellowstone, Mt. McKinley, and Glacier national parks, for example, the pressure of human numbers threatened extinction of the grizzly bear. [36] Belated efforts to expand Redwood National Park by forty-eight thousand acres further demonstrated how often the national parks had been denied from the start enough territory to protect an entire ecosystem. [37]

America's historical preoccupation with monumentalism masked the nation's failure to establish national parks of unquestionable ecological significance. In what was seen as the final opportunity for the United States to protect a complete ecological record, throughout the 1970s preservationists proposed national park status for tens of millions of acres of the public domain in Alaska. Yet even in the forty-ninth state, the Conservation Foundation warned, resource interests were determined to restrict parklands "to lands covered with ice and snow," despite the contention of ecologists that the reserves "should extend to adjacent lowlands as well." [38]

Preservationists still confronted the paradox of their own achievements. For one hundred years the success of the national parks movement lay in its concentration on protecting unique scenery. Now that preservationists understood the necessity of designing the reserves along ecological boundaries as well, they first had to undo the national parks image they themselves had once helped encourage. [39] Because the nation's fascination with rugged scenery had made few demands on the material progress of the United States, however, broadening the concept of the national park would be difficult. The limitation of preservation to rugged terrain assured developers of either the absence of commercially valuable resources in the parks or the impracticality of exploiting them. From the standpoint of natural beauty, of course, spectacular landscapes hardly struck their admirers as "worthless." But although the national parks were inspiring, rarely had value judgments based on emotion overridden the precondition that inspiring scenery must also be valueless for all but outdoor recreation. Not until the substitution of environmentalism for romanticism would the American public be reeducated to understand that the magnificence of the parks physically distracted attention from their ecological shortcomings. Given the sincerity of fears that mankind might perish without the knowledge locked up in wilderness, at least this much seemed certain: The United States could not afford to wait another hundred years to preserve the land for what it was instead of what it was not.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/chap9.htm — 17-Mar-2004