National Parks
The American Experience
NPS Arrowhead logo

Preface to the Second Edition

In 1978, when I submitted the original manuscript of National Parks: The American Experience to the University of Nebraska Press, I realized the book would require periodic updating and revision. The national park system, after all, was still in the process of change and evolution. In 1978, for example, the battle for national parks in Alaska was just starting to intensify. Nearly three more years were to elapse before Congress and President Jimmy Carter approved the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Similarly, there was serious discussion in 1978 of expanding the national park system to include a whole new assemblage of urban recreation areas, historic sites, and national trails. In the first edition, I discussed the issues of national park expansion only by inference. Now that I have had the time to reflect on the significance of these newer park categories, I consider it appropriate to devote an entire chapter to their rationale and establishment.

The evolution of biological management in the national parks has marked another significant change in the direction of their history. More park administrators during the 1970s learned to respect the importance of natural processes, especially fire. Here again, the interval since my original research was completed has allowed time to consider new management ideologies in national park development. Finally, the administration of President Ronald Reagan has witnessed the rise and fall of undoubtedly the most controversial secretary of the interior in modern times, James Watt. I trust readers will therefore find it appropriate that I conclude this revision with a brief summary of Watt's impact on national park policy.

These additions are themselves still selective. As I mentioned in the original preface, it would be impossible to include every citation, piece of legislation, contributing individual, or administrative detail in a history of the national park system. Some omissions are both necessary and desirable. The second edition, like the first, concentrates on the meaning of the national parks, their place in the origins and evolution of underlying perceptions of the American land.

Meanwhile, I stand by my original interpretations. Among them none has been more debated than my observation that Congress allowed only those lands considered worthless from a natural resources standpoint to be set aside permanently as national parks. (See, for example, Richard W. Sellars, Alfred Runte, et al., "The National Parks: A Forum on the 'Worthless Lands' Thesis," Journal of Forest History 27 (July 1983): 130-45.) Perceptions of what Congress itself considered "worthless" varied with both the time and place, particularly after the turn of the century, when the "See America First" campaign provided the national parks with a unique commercial foundation of their own through tourism. This observation itself is not intended to refute their ecological and scenic significance. More to the point, it merely underscores the persuasiveness of economic arguments in determining precisely which scenery the nation felt it could afford to protect in perpetuity. As I originally explained, the term "worthless" grew out of the congressional debates. The word consistently referred only to the absence of natural resources of known commercial value, not to scenery, watersheds, or wildlife with obvious inspirational or biological—if not direct monetary—worth.

Nor do I deny the value of national park lands purely as real estate. But of course land developers today would snatch at the opportunity to sell home lots and condominium sites along the shores of Yellowstone Lake and the rim of the Grand Canyon. Similarly, the national seashores, lakeshores, and riverways of the nation would be gold mines for such forms of development. The point is that Congress, at least with respect to the western parks, did not use the term "worthless" to describe real estate. Rather it was meant to assure prospective miners, loggers, farmers, and ranchers that national parks to be carved from the public domain were unsuitable for sustaining the traditional economic pursuits of the American frontier.

Congress did, however, reassure the nation that any decision later found undesirable could just as easily be reversed. The uncertainty of preservation is itself a cornerstone of the worthless-lands thesis. As early as the Yosemite Park Act of 1864, preservationists argued that protection without permanence would be ultimately meaningless. If in fact Yosemite was sacred, then the park had to be protected not until Congress found some other use for it but rather as long as the United States existed, "inalienable for all time." The numerous compromises to the pledge of inalienability, either actual or implied, strike to the very heart of the worthless-lands argument. Like Indian reservations, the national parks have been subject to periodic readjustments. The issue, then, is not only how Congress said it would manage the parks but how Congress in fact allowed the parks to be treated. As I noted in the first edition, the "sin" of exploiting the parks has not been exploitation per se but defacement of the parks that cannot simultaneously be defended as being in the national interest.

Consider again my original example of that enduring double standard, Niagara Falls. Real estate promotion led to the commercialization of Niagara Falls as early as the 1830s and 1840s. The defacement of the cataract by tourist sharks eroded its credibility as a symbol of national pride and achievement. Accordingly, as Americans entered the West, the lesson of Niagara Falls remained fresh in their minds. The natural wonders of the last frontier must not be lost to a similar fate. Niagara, however, also had great potential as a source of hydroelectric power. In contrast to the crass individualism associated with the tourist trade, the hydroelectric development of Niagara Falls promised to pay clear and unmistakable dividends to the nation's industrial base. Beginning in 1885, New York state pushed the hotels, souvenir stands, and other tourist traps back from the edge of the falls; the engineers, on the other hand, despite the tremendous impact of their own schemes on the very flow of the cataract itself, were allowed to pursue their diversions of the Niagara River well into the twentieth century.

A similar situation evolved during the late 1970s along the southwestern corner of Yellowstone. No, I doubt that Congress would sell the national park itself to real estate promoters. In contrast, a geothermal project on the southwest boundary of Yellowstone has been under serious consideration since 1979 despite the risk of disrupting the underground reservoirs that feed the geyser basins within the park proper. Another example is Redwood National Park, whose expansion in 1978 came only after the logging companies had cut down the great majority of trees on the lands to be added to the existing preserve. The worthless-lands thesis does not deny the great commercial value of the redwood trees that remain; it merely underscores the observation that economic motivations have far outweighed long-range ecological considerations in deter mining how much land gets protected in the first place and, even more importantly, stays protected.

Even as real estate alone, the national parks have not been immune to extensive exploitation by entrenched commercial interests. Granted, Congress has not allowed private condominiums to dot the shores of Yellowstone Lake; however, during the past century, concessionaires in the park have had great influence over the development of all of its primary attractions, including the lake, canyon, and geyser basins. The cabins, hotels, stores, motels, gas stations, and souvenir shops may be controlled by corporations rather than individuals but the proliferation of structures is nonetheless just as real and just as intrusive on the resource. The commercialization of Yellowstone and its counterparts invites historians, both now and in the future, to inquire again whether Americans truly value the protection of wilderness and wildlife, or whether most people simply prefer (or at least accept) that the parks be resorts ensconced in a more pristine setting.

The evidence for this interpretation is abundant; it is simply not always popular to accept. To reemphasize, Americans prefer to think of their national park system as an unqualified example of their statesmanship and philanthropy. Critics of the worthless-lands thesis in particular have resorted to comforting but nonetheless undocumented speculation. Above all, they have argued that the worthless-lands speeches in Congress were nothing more than a "rhetorical ploy" to confuse potential opponents of the parks. Whoever the target of deception was, of course, the very act of deception may be seen as proof of its necessity. It would still follow that opposition to the parks on economic grounds was in fact both serious and legitimate. In either case, critics of the worthless-lands thesis have conveniently ignored how opponents of parks later would have reacted to the discovery of their having been duped by their associates. Afterward, it stands to reason, among the victims of deceit the opposition to further park proposals would have been even more serious, outspoken, and unyielding.

Whatever else may be said in defense of speculation, it is still neither convincing nor definitive history. Granted, a long line of senators and congressional representatives friendly to the parks may have described those parks as "worthless" merely to throw their opponents off balance. Even with documentation to support that argument, however, the fact would remain that Congress, on nearly every occasion when important natural resources were located within major parks, seriously reconsidered the boundaries of those preserves. Most notably, in 1905 Congress reduced Yosemite National Park by 542 square miles to quiet objections raised by mining, logging, and grazing interests. In 1913, Congress further granted the Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite National Park to the city of San Francisco for a municipal water supply reservoir. In other words, confronted with the evidence that it had mis judged the actual worth of those lands in 1890, Congress reneged on its misguided generosity.

The worthless-lands speeches were not "rhetorical ploys." They were, in fact, serious assessments of national park lands based substantially on the findings of government resource scientists. I have not, as a result, found it necessary to change either the prologue or the original eight chapters of the book. If I were writing them today, I would add only a few more examples and quotations to support my initial discussions of monumentalism and the worthless-lands thesis. For instance, I would include additional evidence indicating that monumentalism was more than a metaphor, a simple effort to help the average American more easily visualize the natural wonders of the West. It is true that the landmarks of the region invited general comparisons to castles, cathedrals, and ruins. My point is that the imagery still had important cultural significance as well. In as many instances such comparisons were not general but rather site specific in nature. Observers of the West frequently depreciated the best of Europe's architectural attractions by describing them as inferior to the natural wonders of the region. On such occasions, when description turned into a strident defense of American landscapes over European art, cultural anxiety was clearly an important provocation.

Lingering perceptions of the national parks as monuments of nature in large part explain why the American public is still distracted from perceiving current ecological problems. Indeed, were I attempting a complete revision of the book at this time, the one topic I would examine more closely would be wildlife conservation. The dilemma of protection is nonetheless obvious: protecting wildlife relies heavily on habitat preservation both outside and inside the parks. By the middle of the 1890s, government scientists, military park superintendents, and other observers had recognized the importance of expanding Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia national parks to include neighboring wildlife range and breeding grounds. That those parks, and others established later were only rarely enlarged to include other than rugged terrain explains why park scientists today still face an uncertain future in efforts to protect wildlife through the remainder of the century and beyond.

Here again, I have not read recent struggles between environmentalists and developers back into park history. The concept of sanctuary is as old as the national park idea itself. Monumentalism inspired the national park idea among Americans and early preservationists at large. Defenders of the parks, however, especially those with an intimate knowledge of their plants, animals, and natural environments, spoke in terms of managing the national parks as sanctuaries from the very beginning. Frederick Law Olmsted, John Muir, and George Bird Grinnell, to mention only a few of those prophets, did not consistently advocate expansion of the parks simply to include only scenery within their borders.

I begin my revision with an expanded version of the original epilogue, noting the importance of the environmental bat tles of the 1960s and 1970s in shaping the development of the national park system during those decades. Chapter 10, "Management in Transition," concentrates on fire ecology as an example of new trends in biological awareness. Chapter 11, "Ideals and Controversies of Expansion," traces the development of the so-called nontraditional parks, including seashores, lakeshores, wild and scenic riverways, and urban recreation areas. Chapter 12, "Decision in Alaska," further notes the influence of national park history on the great ecological preserves of the forty-ninth state. Even in Alaska, with its abundance of territory, Congress was careful to include only more marginal lands in national park areas. As a result, the book once more concludes on a note of uncertainty, emphasizing that the national parks throughout the continental United States in particular have finally arrived at their moment of truth. If the parks are to survive as ecosystems, not just as natural monuments, the time of decision is clearly at hand.

If my fascination with the national parks initially inspired this book, then my concern about their future has certainly heightened my interest in their history. Although I am confident my interpretations will stand the test of time, I am obligated, as a professional historian, to remind the reader that I have lived through the period the revised chapters now address in the past tense. My perceptions of the national parks have been further shaped through several recent seasons as a ranger-naturalist and historian in Yosemite National Park. Again, it is only fair to acknowledge that any interpretation, however honestly conceived, can be subtly influenced by such personal experiences.

My summers in Yosemite Valley educating the general public have been among the most challenging and rewarding of my entire career. I am especially grateful to all of my friends and colleagues in the Park Service who have shared with me their own observations and thoughts about the significance of national parks. I am also indebted to Frank Freidel, Frank Conlon, Robert Burke, Carlos Schwantes, Lewis Saum, and Arthur D. Martinson for their encouragement, interest, and support. Similarly, Richard A. Bartlett, Mott Greene, Lisa Mighetto, and Michael Frome offered me sound advice following close, critical readings of the entire revision. I also thank Thomas A. DuRant, Librarian, Branch of Graphics Research, National Park Service, Springfield, Virginia, for locating the additional illustrations. Finally, I thank my wife, Christine, for her patience and understanding while I clacked away on my typewriter instead of spending more of our first year of marriage with her. At the very least, I owe her a second honeymoon at Zion, Bryce, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/preface2.htm — 17-Mar-2004