National Parks
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National Parks for the Future: Encirclement and Uncertainty

The results of this study indicate that no parks of the System are immune to external and internal threats, and that these threats are causing significant and demonstrable damage.

State of the Parks Report, 1980

I will err on the side of public use versus preservation.

James Watt, 1981

True to precedent, the jubilation of preservationists following their achievements in Alaska proved to be short lived. On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency won a platform of government austerity and conservative retrenchment. In keeping with his conservative principles, his appointee as secretary of the interior, James Watt, soon made it clear that expansion of the national park system itself had come to an abrupt end. More alarming to preservationists, Watt showed little respect for their conviction that national parks, above all, ought to be managed as sanctuaries for wilderness and wildlife. To Watt, the greatest problem facing the parks was the deterioration of their physical plant, especially roads, parking lots, overnight accommodations, and sewage systems. What funds might be added to the existing park budget obviously would be spent on the access, comfort, and safety of park visitors rather than on the sanctity of park resources. To be sure, that wilderness should be protected for its own sake was the last thing on either the president's or the secretary's agenda. [1]

By itself, Watt's shift in emphasis from the protection of the national parks to recreational development reminiscent of Mission 66 would have been enough to arouse preservationists across the country. Coupled with his outspoken disdain for the environmental movement, however, his obvious indifference to the fate of endangered lands and wildlife assured him a place in history as the most controversial secretary of the interior since Albert B. Fall. In 1922, Fall secretly and improperly leased the nation's petroleum reserve at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to the Sinclair Oil Company. [2] Among preservationists of the 1980s, it seemed as if James Watt had attempted far worse. Most disconcerting was his steadfast refusal to spend appropriations allocated by Congress for national park acquisitions. No act more openly defied preservationists' assessment that the underlying problem of the national parks since their inception had been the government's failure to provide them with enough land for sustained protection in the first place. [3]

As a critic of national park expansion, Watt epitomized the continuing threat to preservation from within the federal bureaucracy itself. Although Congress and the president alone had the power to establish national parks and wilderness areas, by and large their administration fell to government officials. How those officials interpreted their responsibility in the field often determined whether or not the apparent wishes of Congress would in fact be honored. In the person of James Watt, preservationists relearned bitter lessons from national park history, namely, that what the federal government gave it could always take away. Even with Congress firmly behind the national park idea, Watt's broad discretionary powers as secretary of the interior left him with enough authority to promote the maintenance and development of the nation's "crown jewels," as opposed to acquiring new lands for so-called nontraditional park areas.

Watt, in other words, sensed that he might support the national parks without actually supporting preservation. The key to his subterfuge was in the nature of the parks he endorsed. Protection of the original park system required that Watt respect only park tradition; no new lands and few natural resources of great economic value would be affected by his approval of past policies designating the natural "wonders" of the nation as its "crown jewels." By the same token, the policy kept preservationists constantly on the defensive. Once again they were forced to convince the public that the protection of monumental scenery alone no longer met the needs of environmental preservation. As Watt realized, tradition was on the side of monumentalism, Because he did not directly attack the legitimacy of Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and their counterparts, the public was not as likely to oppose his conviction that urban parks especially were frivolous and wasteful. [4]

If preservationists had one argument to discredit James Watt, it was that external threats to the national parks, especially mining, air and water pollution, and land development, jeopardized even the most remote and pristine of the nation's "crown jewels." Maintaining the status quo in land acquisitions, among other policies of retrenchment, merely insured that outside threats to the national parks would continue to escalate. Early publicity describing the scope of the problem understandably concentrated won compromises to the parks' scenic integrity. Particularly in the Southwest, meteorologists and other pollution experts noted the deterioration of visibility over the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, and neighboring national monuments. At stake was the sensation of spaciousness those areas long had evoked. On a clear day, visitors at the most popular scenic overlooks might see mesas and mountain ranges more than one hundred miles distant. Nowhere were the sensations of boundless horizons and personal freedom more pronounced and, accordingly, more in danger of being lost to atmospheric degradation. Indeed, by 1980, due to the spread of coal-fired power plants, smelters, and urbanization throughout the Southwest, scientists had concluded that none of its national parks any longer had "pristine" air quality more than one day out of every three. [5]

The conclusions seemed inescapable. In its own report to the Congress, State of the Parks—1980, the National Park Service agreed that external threats to the national parks posed the gravest danger to their resources throughout the 1980s and beyond. "The 63 National Park natural areas greater than 30,000 acres in size reported an average number of threats nearly double that of the Service-wide norm," the document began on an ominous note. The category, of course, included "Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, and Glacier. Most of these great parks were at one time pristine areas surrounded and protected by vast wilderness regions," the report continued, underscoring the extent of the changes that had taken place in recent decades. "Today, with their surrounding buffer zones gradually disappearing, many of these parks are experiencing significant and widespread adverse effects associated with external encroachment." [6]

Preservationists themselves were particularly alarmed by a proposal to lease portions of the Targhee National Forest, bordering the southwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park, for a large geothermal power project. In a direct line, the core of the project would be only fifteen miles west of the Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Geyser. Immediately at issue was whether or not the drilling would be harmful to the intricate geothermal systems underlying both the park and its adjacent forest lands. In 1980 an environmental impact statement released by the U.S. Forest Service admitted the possibility of losing Yellowstone's geysers if the project were built. "The exact boundaries of the Yellowstone geothermal reservoir(s) are uncertain," the Forest Service concluded, "Thus, it is difficult to say how much of a connection—if any—there is between the possible geothermal resource . . . and thermal areas inside the park, or if any adverse effects might result." [7]

Individually, the project stood a good chance of being defeated. Collectively, however, both existing and proposed projects of a similar nature bordering other parks, including Yellowstone, underscored the futility of fighting the national lifestyle indefinitely. In essence, the enemy of preservation was growth. As long as the demands of the economy and a growing population strained the supply of natural resources, the best preservationists could still hope for was not to win environmental battles, but merely to trim their losses.

Toward that end, preservationists and Park Service rangers asked the public to visualize parks in the 1980s in conjunction with their total surroundings. Parks at the center of threatened ecosystems were no more secure than the security of their outlying parts. Yellowstone National Park, for example, depended for its survival won "greater Yellowstone," the territory comprising not only the park proper but the millions of acres of national forest lands, wilderness areas, and private property surrounding it, As a concept, "greater Yellowstone" was especially relevant to wildlife protection. Of all park management goals, wildlife preservation still had the least to do with the placement of national park boundaries. If the grizzly bear in particular were to survive in the continental United States, both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks—either through expansion or strict regulations controlling land use outside their perimeters—would have to accommodate the bears' need to wander freely beyond the national parks themselves. [8]

Symbolically, the administration of James Watt suggested that Americans as a whole still refused to accept the legitimacy of such lines of argument. Respect for grizzly bears and other potentially dangerous animals called for levels of understanding and tolerance usually discernible only among preservationists themselves. To be sure, when Watt himself was forced to resign in 1983, a prejudicial joke reflecting on disabled Americans and minorities, not his disdain for the environment, was the actual basis for his fall from grace. His successor, William Clark, generally followed Watt's direction more quietly and diplomatically. At least with respect to national park policy, little at Interior had changed. [9]

In the final analysis, it seemed as if only a dramatic change in the nation's lifestyle itself could save the national parks from continuing deterioration, During the nineteenth century, the relative isolation of parklands in the West had allowed Americans the luxury of simply stating that their commitment to protection was—as vowed in the Yosemite Park Act of 1864—"inalienable for all time." The promise in 1864 was uncomplicated by immediate threats to the integrity of Yosemite and its successors. Perhaps the nation was sincere, but Americans had not yet been challenged to prove that sincerity by sacrificing any substantive economic goals.

In the absence of national sacrifice, threats to the national parks observable in the 1980s loomed as a potential fact of life well into the twenty-first century. Past the midpoint of the decade, air and water pollution, energy development, and urban encroachment outside the national parks still underscored the significance of economic motives in shaping American values. Writing for an earlier generation, Aldo Leopold, the distinguished wildlife biologist, saw materialism as the basic threat to the integrity of anything wild. Before wilderness could be saved in perpetuity, Americans as a whole would have to reject their destructive perceptions of the natural world as simply a commodity of exchange. "Obligations have no meaning without conscience," he wrote, "and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land." More than anything else, the United States needed a responsible, sustainable, and sincere land ethic, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community," he concluded. "It is wrong when it tends otherwise." [10]

It followed that the national parks themselves no longer could accommodate every public whim. If their biological resources were in fact important, then the protection of park environments must take precedence over all forms of consumptive recreation. The Reagan administration's own emphasis on park maintenance aside, such development could only postpone but not suppress further questioning regarding the legitimacy of roads, hotels, campgrounds, and automobiles in the midst of fragile environments. Eventually, the American people would have to choose preservation over development, or accept development and fewer parks. As monuments to American culture, the largest national parks were perhaps nominally secure. But if monumentalism in fact no longer met the nation's environmental needs, then the time for acting decisively was indeed running out.


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