The Embattled Wilderness
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter Eight:
University of the Wilderness

Predictably, the transition from military to Park Service management had little immediate effect on resource policy in Yosemite. Appearances to the contrary, continuity far outweighed change in the identification and protection of plants and animals. Pressure for redirection came from outside the Park Service. University scientists and educators often pointed the way toward responsible management, especially for natural resources. Otherwise, precedent was still a force too powerful to dislodge. Long before the arrival of the National Park Service, the infrastructure of Yosemite had assumed a life all its own. Even if the option had been seriously considered at the time, relocating buildings, roads, and maintenance facilities outside the park would have aroused a great deal of opposition. Tradition was on the side of visitation and development. It therefore came as no surprise to a small minority of critics that the Park Service itself was strongly committed to those priorities.

Among concerned reformers, few would contribute more than the faculty and graduate students associated with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California at Berkeley. In their estimation, Yosemite National Park provided outstanding opportunities for the study and promotion of the natural sciences. As one result, the relationship between Berkeley and Yosemite gradually transcended the linkage of California's most famous natural landmark with what was to be recognized as the state's leading university. The association further heralded increased emphasis throughout the national park system on the protection and enhancement of biological resources. The key disappointment among university scientists was the reluctance of park officials to acknowledge this responsibility consistently and with conviction. At least new directives seemed in the offing, prompting scientists and park managers alike to proclaim the national parks as America's "outdoor universities." [1]

If the protection of biological resources had been a more prominent factor in the establishment of Yosemite National Park, its identification as an outdoor laboratory for the study of the natural sciences might not have clashed repeatedly with the entrenched preconceptions that visitors were of first importance and resources a distant second. The entire built environment of Yosemite Valley in particular, from roads and bridges to camps and hotels, was structured to accommodate growing numbers of tourists. The completion of the Yosemite Valley Railroad in 1907, coupled with the opening of the valley to automobiles in 1913, guaranteed that greater numbers of visitors would arrive. The railroad itself came only to El Portal, thirteen miles west of Yosemite Valley proper. Yet the distance was easily bridged by stagecoach and later motor coach. Indeed, the completion of the railroad simply exerted pressure on the federal government to improve the existing roadway from El Portal up to the valley through the Merced River Canyon. These improvements, in turn, prompted increased awareness of the ease of admitting automobiles beyond the park entrance. Although that debate was sharp, its resolution was never seriously in doubt. By 1913 the horseless carriage had joined the stagecoach and wagon as another legitimate claimant to the valley floor. [2]

Replacing the military management the following year, civilian administrators simply took up where army superintendents had left off in calling for improved accommodations to keep pace with the growing number of visitors. The new administration was especially sensitive to upper-class patrons, for whom rustic accommodations on the order of Camp Curry seemed entirely inappropriate. Gradually momentum was building for the construction of a true luxury hotel to provide wealthy guests with something more attractive. Since the loss of the Stoneman House to fire in 1896, the supply of hotel rooms in the valley had not kept up with the demand. Justifying the movement of investors away from hotels, concessionaires argued that maintaining larger buildings was becoming too expensive, especially because the Interior Department tended to award mostly short-term leases. The shorter the lease, the less opportunities concessionaires had to recover construction costs. [3] Or so the argument went. In either case, concessionaires could obviously see the advantage of longer leasing arrangements. The point still being ignored was that the urge to accommodate every class of visitor had nothing whatsoever to do with protecting the park. In reality, more development steadily contributed to the erosion of the wilderness base. Especially in the case of park visitors and wildlife, inevitable confrontations led to more calls for extermination of the animals rather than insistence on stricter rules of conduct governing visitor behavior.

Restrictions on visitation in the interest of resource management remained the farthest idea from anyone's mind. To the contrary, even preservationists, ever aware of the loss of Hetch Hetchy to the city of San Francisco, considered greater numbers of tourists to be the salvation of the park. [4] Likewise, the transition from military to civilian authority in the valley did nothing to temper the ambitions of its leading concessionaires, most notably David A. Curry. On February 6, 1915, for example, Curry applied directly to Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane not only for permission to sell fruit, photographic supplies, bread, and pastries but also for "the right to establish pool tables and a bowling alley in Camp Curry during the coming season." As in previous requests, he forcefully argued that simply the size of his camp justified his asking for all of these privileges. "Camp Curry will have more capacity this season than all the other combined hostelries in the Valley," he noted, "and should therefore be complete in itself for taking care of the public." Again he reasoned that whatever the public wanted somehow ought to be provided. "It makes a tired camper angry at the authorities to ask for bread or pastry or kodak supplies," he wrote, returning to that familiar theme. "Besides," he added, "they are angry at the hotel man for not being up-to-date." [5]

The strategy for Curry, like most other concessionaires, was to continue to insist that luxuries were needs. Anything even a few people simply desired suddenly became something no one could live without. Public opinion, Curry shrewdly realized, became that much harder to defy. Every year the objective was the same—to petition government authorities for as many new services as possible. Although some would be denied, others would always be approved. Eventually a concessionaire might wind up with everything he had asked for. Meanwhile, he had increased not only his opportunity for profit but also, and no less important, his overall influence in dealing with park management.

In Curry's case, the Department of the Interior still tried to bridle his ambition by refusing to grant him more than an annual permit. Curry, however, was not that easily intimidated. If a request was denied, he simply renewed it. If the department rejected it a second or third time, he took his complaint directly to the public, bending the ear of sympathetic guests and politicians about the unfairness and duplicity of government policy. In short, whatever the department refused it could expect to see again. Thus Curry kept pressing his case and, on November 20, 1915, again won approval for a majority of his outstanding requests, including many previously denied. The list included the rights to all of the following: a bowling alley; billiard and pool tables; the operation of a motion-picture projector and a stereopticon; the sale of fruit, bread, pastry, and tobacco; permission to charge for dancing; and the sale of music and records published by the company. [6] Once more the lesson of the moment was not quickly forgotten. Whatever the issue, the concessionaire's best weapons for dealing with the government were persistence, perseverance, and determination.

Yosemite, in retrospect, had come to another major crossroads. The question now literally begged to be asked: What potential effect would pandering to tourists have on the long-term integrity of the park and its resources? Obviously concessionaires had no incentive to raise this issue; for them the natural features of the park were just something more to be sold. As a group they had already bitterly complained that the Department of the Interior did little to make Yosemite more enticing year-round. "Yosemite Concessions in general are money makers for about two months in the season," David Curry wrote Secretary Lane in September 1916, "and for the rest of the time, they might as well take money from one pocket and put it in the other and allege that this was a money making process." [7]

Profit stability required a much longer tourist season. "Please allow me to suggest further attractions," Curry remarked, "that would absolutely extend the season to six months." Golf courses headed his list; next in priority was the reestablishment of the firefall, still, in his opinion, the best "advertising stunt" ever conceived for bringing business to the park. Similarly, he endorsed the long-standing proposal that Yosemite Creek above Yosemite Falls be dammed, allowing floodgates to control its volume throughout the dry summer months "in such quantity as to show Yosemite tourists what Yosemite Falls are." His stationery itself was highly revealing of his biases; prominent beside his letterhead was a picture captioned as follows: "Tennis and Croquet at Camp Curry." [8]

Curry wasted no time petitioning the department to adopt his profit-making schemes; even as he wrote Secretary Lane he had submitted a formal request for permission "to establish a nine-hole golf course in the meadow adjacent to Camp Curry." Even more boldly, he further asked "to maintain in connection with its baths a masseur and massage department," whose prices, of course, would be regulated by government authorities. That concession nonetheless rang hollow, for on October 2 he vigorously protested revoking the company's license to take trout from park streams and lakes. Any insinuation that the fish were becoming scarce was simply untrue. "There are many lakes twenty-five to forty miles from the Valley," he wrote, "that are so overstocked that the fish are actually starving to death." If the government would designate Camp Curry a lake all its own, he personally guaranteed that its stock would be maintained "up to the right standard—that is, to the point of efficiency where trout could be produced to as great numbers as the feed provided. Or I could assume artificial feeding," he concluded, finally dropping all semblance of concern for the fish as something worth seeing rather than selling, "for I would be interested in providing trout for a thousand people during about forty days of the season... and for a smaller number during the rest of a five or six month season." [9]

In this instance, at least, he never got the chance to press his point, for on April 30, 1917, he died, a victim of diabetes. Yet his heirs, and especially his wife, proved every bit as forceful in protecting and expanding Camp Curry's interests. So too concessionaires throughout the park continued to benefit from David Curry's formula for success—in all dealings with the government never take "no" for an answer. Dramatic increases in visitation further strengthened every operator's position. At the time of Curry's death, between twenty-five and thirty thousand visitors were entering the park annually, a fivefold increase in only fifteen years. [10]

Invariably, every effort to prepare for growth muted any conviction that preservation for its own sake should be management's top priority. Far more often, public awareness about protection was molded by writers, scholars, and activists outside government ranks. Yosemite's attraction for university scientists in particular was the many opportunities it still provided for field investigation. Scientists, as a result, swiftly moved to the forefront of protection efforts by suggesting various methods for sustaining the park's plant and wildlife populations. A far greater challenge was to convince the Park Service to adopt those suggestions. Thus time and again scientists found themselves repeating the familiar warning that only more sensitive management would ensure the welfare of Yosemite's biological resources.

In Joseph Grinnell, the director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California at Berkeley, scientists found an indefatigable champion of park protection and research. The son of a government physician, Grinnell was born on February 27, 1877, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where his father administered to plains Indians living on the reservation. When young Joseph was seven the family moved to California, settling east of Los Angeles in the suburb of Pasadena. Southern California in the 1880s still had much open space, allowing Grinnell to pursue his boyhood interest in the study of birds. Ornithology continued to be his passion while he completed high school and college in Pasadena, then entered Stanford for graduate study in the biological sciences. In 1908, at only thirty-one years of age, he was appointed director of the state university's new Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which was just taking shape across San Francisco Bay in the college town of Berkeley. [11]

Even as Grinnell began his new duties, Yosemite National Park was a major topic of discussion throughout the university. Many prominent leaders of the Sierra Club were Bay Area educators and business associates. As further testimony to Yosemite's popularity, publicity agents for the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Yosemite Valley railroads timed slick promotions of the park to coincide with the opening of each climbing and hiking season. Growing debate about the Hetch Hetchy reservoir only added to the standard fare of articles and advertisements concerning Yosemite travel. If Hetch Hetchy was in fact dammed, the water would flow into the Bay Area's leading city. Accordingly, the controversy inspired scores of articles, with the result that Yosemite National Park as a whole did not escape further revelations about its many attractions.

More than scenery, the lure of Yosemite for Joseph Grinnell was the opportunity it afforded to study plants and animals in their natural surroundings. Even at the turn of the century, California landscapes were fast disappearing, and with them any hope of reconstructing all of their original biological intricacies. Increasingly it appeared that only the larger national parks, among them Yosemite, would provide some semblance of protection for what remained of the state's varied flora and fauna. Elsewhere the future for rare and endangered plants and animals did not seem to be as bright. A few biologists, for example, already suspected that the California condor was in trouble. In fact, as early as 1912 Grinnell was asked whether he believed the great bird would eventually become extinct in the wild. [12]

At the time, he was optimistic the condor would survive. Yet he realized how much that opinion relied on speculation. In truth, scientists still knew very little about the California landscape. In the interest of filling in one of those gaps, on October 7, 1914, he informed Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane of preparations to undertake "a Natural History Survey, under the auspices of the University of California Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, along a line through Yosemite from Merced Falls to Mono Lake." Thus Grinnell formally announced his research interests in Yosemite, little realizing that the endeavor in its many stages would consume much of his time and energy during the next ten years. Indeed, as he further noted in the prospectus accompanying his letter, the objectives of the survey were detailed and comprehensive. He planned to identify all the mammals, birds, and reptiles in the area to be explored and determine their distribution, habits, and ecological relationships, "in other words," as Grinnell concluded, "their natural history." No less important, all of the data was to be compiled in a "permanent published record, in a form to be attractive to the public, both lay and scientific." [13]

His reassurance that the survey's findings would be shared with the general public, and not just with research specialists having a similar back ground and training, was far more than an attempt to court the favor of Secretary Lane. Rather, Grinnell insisted throughout his life that conservation would be advanced only if knowledge about the issues was broadly disseminated. Although peer review was important, knowledge must have a purpose above and beyond the confined intellectual discourse so common among university scholars. "The Yosemite National Park is visited by thousands of people each year," he noted in his prospectus, further justifying the survey and its objectives in this vein. Undoubtedly "a certain proportion" of those visitors "would find an account of its natural history of immediate service as a source of information concerning the animal life encountered." Likewise, a "natural history of so famous a region... would doubtless prove of wide acceptance also among people not privileged to visit this National Park but who have a general interest in the out-of-doors." To date, practically nothing had "appeared in print concerning the birds of the region," and almost nothing regarding "the mammals and reptiles." For this reason alone, "a detailed comparative faunal study of the central Sierra Nevada on both of its slopes would be a highly desirable consummation." Such a study, he concluded with boldness and confidence, "would fill in the gap now existing in our knowledge of the vertebrates of California." [14]

Thus Grinnell further reassured his sponsors and colleagues that whatever his commitment to general education, his primary goal was still original research. Although that research had considerable value for the lay public, he fully intended to maintain its scientific credibility. Regrettably, that objective would not be accomplished without having some effect on the park. Scientific accuracy required study in the laboratory as well as in the field. Consequently, Grinnell also asked Secretary Lane for permission to set traps "and use shotguns within the boundaries of the Yosemite National Park, solely for the collecting of specimens of birds, mammals and reptiles, within moderation, as may be required for scientific use." [15]

That request was denied when one of Lane's subordinates refused to grant Grinnell permission to undertake the survey itself. Grinnell therefore appealed directly to the secretary. Once more his letter revealed not only the depth of his commitment to scholarship and public education but also, and equally important, his ties to influential Californians who might offer their support. "The enclosed letter from the Sierra Club shows that this organization is in hearty sympathy with the aims of my proposed work," he noted. "In fact, it has agreed to publish a popular version of the results of the undertaking." In considering that opportunity alone, Grinnell could only repeat his "great disappointment" that an application "for purely scientific purposes has been denied." Perhaps the nature of that objective had not been well defined. "Let it be understood that no game animals whatsoever would be disturbed by myself or any authorized assistant," he wrote by way of clarification. "The greatest interest attaches to the obscure or little known rodents, carnivores, insectivores, small birds and reptiles," all of which required laboratory study and, accordingly, the use of traps and "small-bore shotguns within the Park limits." [16]

Characteristically, Grinnell wasted no time while waiting for Lane's reply. On November 11 he had already informed Gabriel Sovulewski, the park supervisor, that he and his assistants would "at once begin work from El Portal down." In other words, they would concentrate on the territory due west of the park. A month later Grinnell returned to Berkeley to find Secretary Lane's letter of November 25 authorizing, exactly as the professor had requested, a waiver of the restriction against trapping and shooting in Yosemite "so as to permit of one scientific study of life in the park." Grinnell was elated. "I greatly appreciate the attitude you have taken in this matter," he replied on December 14, "and feel assured that you will find no reason to regret the favorable action of your Department." Work within the park itself would start up immediately; "in fact, my address for the coming month will be Yosemite, California," he proudly announced. "I have already visited the Valley twice this fall, and am pleased to report a spirit of cordial cooperation on the part of everyone in the Valley, notably Mr. Gabriel Sovulewski, Supervisor, and Mr. O. R. Prien, Chief Ranger." [17] Thus he subtly but unmistakably reassured Secretary Lane that any further obligations to government authority would also be carefully identified and formally acknowledged.

His authorization finally in hand, Grinnell literally immersed himself in research and fieldwork, returning only briefly to his desk in Berkeley to keep up with correspondence and administrative chores. He enjoyed, in short, all of the advantages of the scholar—time, support, and freedom from bureaucracy. His work habits, in turn, were reflective of that freedom. Day after day in the field afforded numerous opportunities for study and reflection. It was research pure and simple, and research of the type so envied by people forced to answer to authority. Unlike most civil servants, Grinnell had a unique opportunity to cut through the standard prejudices about Yosemite and its resources. And cut through them he did, in the process further educating himself about the kinds of bureaucratic limitations that had solidified prejudice in the first place.

Among those limitations, he came to realize, was a veiled but distinct mistrust of anything authoritative or academic. The scholar's freedom of independent judgment was a bureaucratic nightmare. In his usual cooperative spirit, Grinnell wrote Stephen T. Mather, Franklin Lane's new assistant secretary: "It might give standing [to the Yosemite study] if the Department of the Interior would formally request a report from me bearing on the general problem of the treatment of wild animals in the Yosemite National Park. This I would willingly furnish, and it might prove to contain information of general bearing on Park problems elsewhere." Grinnell had no idea how much government officials feared the term problem. Mather, in either case, did not rise to the bait. With characteristic caution he replied only to acknowledge that "a broad gauge survey like this should develop some very interesting and valuable facts." He asked for a copy of those findings but not, as Grinnell had offered, for a special report regarding the treatment of wildlife in Yosemite. Privately, Mather contributed one hundred dollars to the completion of the park's natural history; publicly, however, he kept official distance. Since 1911, every bill introduced on Capitol Hill for the establishment of a national park service had ended in failure. With that goal still months if not years away from realization, it was no time for Mather even to suggest that the management of the national parks was anything less than ideal. [18]

More to any bureaucrat's liking was Grinnell's preliminary report, filed January 13, 1916, which enumerated the total days spent in the field and listed the items collected. "The first stage in the undertaking has been completed," he proudly declared. Work had been especially intense during the summer and fall of 1915; all told, seven zoologists had spent 770 days in the field, 202 of those spent by Grinnell. Specimens collected totaled 3,539, representing 3 in 5 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. More than 1,600 pages of field notes had been written, "descriptive of habits, appearance in life, voice, and manner of occurrence of the various animals encountered." Another 567 photographs had been taken, "chiefly of birds and mammals"; similarly, reconnaissance maps had been prepared, "showing distribution by life-zones." As planned, everything had been deposited in the University of California Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. He further reported that it was "now, therefore, the property of the State." As a result, compilation of the data could finally begin. But he added, "At least a solid year of work in the Museum yet remains before we can expect to have the reports ready for publication." [19]

Three reports in all were planned, the first "a technical paper on the systematic status and relationship of the lesser known vertebrate species of the region"; the second "a scientific treatise" on research problems regarding animal distribution; and the third "a semi-popular account, in book form, of the natural history of the birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians of the Yosemite region, to be illustrated, and to include a discussion of animal life as an asset of National Parks." [20] This, the field guide, was dearest to Grinnell's heart, not only because he intended it to open the eyes of park visitors but also because, as he now more diplomatically suggested, he hoped it would serve as a philosophical pillar for the protection of wildlife as an asset of the national parks.

The book, Grinnell realized, would take years to complete. In the meantime he was eager to publish his thoughts about park wildlife and its importance to the general public. On September 15, 1916, only three weeks after congressional approval of the National Park Service, he and his assistant, Tracy I. Storer, noted with pride the appearance of their article, "Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks," in Science magazine. Grinnell and Storer argued that national parks had advantages deserving wider notice; among these, "the study of natural history" was listed as high in priority. Broadly defined, nature study was one of the purest forms of outdoor recreation. "In this respect a national and a city park are wholly different," they maintained. "A city park is of necessity artificial, in the beginning at least when the landscape is planned and laid out; but a national park is at its inception entirely natural, and is generally thereafter kept fairly immune from human interference. Herein lies the feature of supreme value in national parks," they concluded. "They furnish samples of the earth as it was before the advent of the white man." [21]

But of course that assertion was only wishful thinking. Yosemite National Park itself had been extensively modified by grazing, logging, hunting, and fire suppression. Nonnative grasses and weeds had been widely introduced; feared animals like the grizzly bear were already extinct. In truth, Grinnell and Storer were simply trying to make a point. Although national park landscapes had been altered, they alone offered some hope for protecting biological diversity, especially given the far greater modification the countryside as a whole had undergone. Simply for that reason, similar attempts "to modify the appearance of a national park by laying out straight roads, constructing artificial lakes, trimming trees, clearing brush, draining marshes, or other such devices," were, in their opinion, "in the worst of bad taste." [22]

The reasons for their outspoken assessment were both biological and esthetic. "Even down timber," they noted, "is an essential factor in upholding the balance of animal life, for fallen and decaying logs provide homes for wild rats and mice of various kinds, and these in their turn support many carnivorous birds and mammals, such as hawks, owls, foxes and martens." Similarly, no undergrowth should be removed other than what was "absolutely necessary," for again many birds and mammals used thickets as "protective havens" from their enemies. The removal of such cover would "inevitably decrease the native animal life." Of related concern, equal "vigilance should be used to exclude all non-native species from the parks, even though they be non-predaceous," for these would only upset "the finely adjusted balance already established between the native animal life and the food supply." [23]

Granted, phrases like finely adjusted balance veiled the uncomfortable reality that so many of those relationships were already out of sync. Grinnell and Storer themselves injected the ominous admission that nowhere was park wildlife receiving the protection it deserved. "It goes almost without saying," they declared, for example, "that the administration should strictly prohibit the hunting and trapping of any wild animals within park limits." Exceptions should be made only for the collection of specimens "for scientific purposes by authorized representatives of public institutions," and this only in recognition of the fact that scientific knowledge might resolve wildlife problems. Otherwise, hunting and trapping in national parks were totally out of place. [24]

Native predators, it followed, were no less worthy of protection. "As a rule predaceous animals should be left unmolested and allowed to retain their primitive relation to the rest of the fauna, even though this may entail a considerable annual levy on the animals forming their prey." No other declaration propelled Grinnell and Storer farther ahead of their time. "The rule that predaceous animals be safeguarded admits of occasional exceptions," the scientists conceded, somewhat softening their earlier statement. "Caution, however, should be exercised in doing so, and no step taken to diminish the number of... predators, except on the best of grounds." [25]

Ideally, all of these goals would be pursued in the interest of public education. "As the settlement of the country progresses," they remarked, "and the original aspect of nature is altered, the national parks will probably be the only areas remaining unspoiled for scientific study." Indeed, it seemed all the more imperative "that provision be made in every large national park for a trained resident naturalist who, as a member of the park staff, would look after the interests of the animal life of the region and aid in making it known to the public." There it was again—dramatic evidence of Grinnell's twofold commitment to science and public education. Of course science had first priority. The naturalist's "main duty would be to familiarize himself through intensive study with the natural conditions and interrelations of the park fauna, and to make practical recommendations for their maintenance." And maintenance did include predators. "Plans to decrease the number of any of the predatory species would be carried out only with his sanction and under his direction" (italics added). [26]

Those tasks accomplished, the naturalist would devote the remainder of his time to public education, through "popularly styled illustrated leaflets and newspaper articles... and by lectures and demonstrations at central camps." In this manner the naturalist would not only advance conservation but also "help awaken people to a livelier interest in wild life, and to a healthy and intelligent curiosity about things of nature." The scientists concluded from personal observation, "Our experience has persuaded us that the average camper in the mountains is hungry for information about the animal life he encounters." Simply a few suggestions for study were usually "sufficient to make him eager to acquire his natural history at first hand, with the result that the recreative value of his few days or weeks in the open is greatly enhanced." [27]

The origins of park interpretation have so often been credited to others most notably Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service—that interpretation's far greater debt to Joseph Grinnell has been either discounted or forgotten. [28] Literally from the moment of its founding, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology sponsored lectures that were intended for general audiences and that touched on a wide variety of natural history topics. Those lectures were fundamental to Grinnell's evolving campaign to educate the public about wildlife and conservation. Logically, as a result, his work in Yosemite became an extension of that earlier effort, the culmination of which was his article in Science magazine calling for a systematic approach to public education in the largest national parks. His fondest hopes were to be realized in 1920, when Yosemite became the first national park to establish an official program of field interpretation.

To reemphasize, interpretation stood apart by virtue of its attempt to reach the general public. Formalized instruction in the national parks could be traced back as far as August 1870, when the Berkeley geologist Joseph LeConte took a party of his students on a summer field trip through Yosemite. By the turn of the century, other university scholars and teachers were following his lead, involving their classes in a variety of summer courses directly associated with national park areas. [29] But the public was not invited to join these original field studies. Grinnell hoped to reach average park visitors, those individuals, as he noted, who had no interest in formal research but who nonetheless, finding their curiosity aroused, wished to learn something more about the natural history of their surroundings.

Until the appearance of Grinnell and Storer's article in Science, Interior Department officials had expressed little or no interest in a program of that type. Even when Stephen T Mather wrote Grinnell to acknowledge having seen the publication, he said only, "It contains much material which will be valuable to us in our plans for the parks." Mather said nothing specific about public education. More to the point, Grinnell also received a letter of congratulations from C. M. Goethe, a prominant land developer in Sacramento, California. Goethe had first written the professor in January 1909 to inquire about the museum's series of public lectures on local zoology. Over the years their correspondence increased; in the process, each discovered the other's commitment to outdoor education. A devout nationalist and social activist, Goethe saw the back-to-nature movement as a prerequisite for the survival of Western civilization. More modestly and less stridently, Grinnell simply wished to keep the public informed about conservation issues and California ecology. [30]

Beyond that difference in their emphases, Grinnell and Goethe felt much the same about the value of learning in the out-of-doors. "I have never forgotten the talk that we had in our home years ago," Goethe wrote, "when we discussed nature study in general and your remark to the effect that scientific men were so busy with extending the frontiers of their research that they did not always recognize a responsibility to the great mass of the unscientific." Science magazine itself, he complained, had such a limited circulation. "I receive the Scientific Monthly but only seldom see Science." For that reason he would have missed "Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks" had it not been for Grinnell's thoughtfulness in sending him an offprint. "The question arises in my mind," Goethe therefore concluded, "how can we give this wider publicity?" [31]

Grinnell, of course, had already taken the initiative through the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. For years he had encouraged his brightest students to be active in conservation efforts, especially the statewide campaign for the enactment and enforcement of strict game-protection laws. The Extension Department of the University of California provided another avenue for reaching the general public. A course entitled "Birds of California," for example, drew twenty-seven students in September 1916. "Included in the class," reported its instructor, Dr. Harold C. Bryant, "were three well-known physicians of San Francisco, and their wives; two well-known business men, several teachers, and a number of other notables of San Francisco society." This proof of his program's influence was enough to encourage Grinnell to carry on with his plans. "I will be glad to incorporate the main facts into my report to the President for the current year," he replied to Bryant with thanks, then added a note of praise. "There is no one else in the University, or in the state, for that matter, to subserve the function you have chosen." [32]

In Grinnell's estimation, the experience gained at Berkeley begged for swift adoption by the national parks. The challenge was to convince the Park Service of the merits of inaugurating a program of public instruction. Shrewdly, Grinnell furthered that campaign by reporting not only the progress of his research but also how that research might be applied for specific lay audiences. On September 1, 1917, for example, he reassured Stephen T. Mather that with fieldwork on the Yosemite project having been satisfactorily completed, he would now be turning more attention to his "most important" objective—preparing "the 'popular' account of the natural history" of the park. As promised, he and coauthor Tracy Storer intended to provide Yosemite "with a most thorough and ... generally useful handbook of natural history yet put out, either in America or abroad." Although the actual writing would take a good deal of time, the professor remained confident that the final product would be well worth the effort. [33]

In correspondence with Horace M. Albright, Mather's chief assistant, Grinnell continued to press his case for park interpretation. "I feel convinced that the National Park Service has an important function to perform in the spreading of a knowledge of general natural history," he wrote Albright in September 1918. Ideally, the Park Service would come to appreciate its unique position for reaching "an important class of people at a time when they are willing and anxious to get such information." He looked "forward to the time... when each National Park will provide each visitor, gratis, a manual of the local natural history—a good deal more comprehensive than the brief lists now appearing in your 'Circulars of Information'." [34]

Grinnell realized, of course, that America's entry into World War I had upset everyone's plans, including his own. Work on the Yosemite natural history was basically at a standstill while Tracy Storer completed his military obligation. The return of Grinnell's energetic colleague following the war rejuvenated Grinnell and his interest in Yosemite National Park. On March 27, 1919, he wrote Enos Mills, the distinguished Colorado conservationist, that the University of California, "in cooperation with Mr. Albright" of the National Park Service, had "planned for the coming summer an extension lecture course in Yosemite Valley, applying the 'laboratory out-of-doors' idea." In addition, the Park Service intended "to establish at its headquarters in Yosemite a Museum illustrating the local natural history." In that endeavor Grinnell was "most especially interested." The museum would provide "an incentive and guide to visitors to go out of doors and hunt up the animals, alive, in their natural surroundings." Just imagine, he concluded, a museum that "would not be merely a morgue!" [35]

Characteristically, Grinnell took no credit for himself but rather praised Mather and Albright for their support and enthusiasm. The idea was nevertheless Grinnell's. On June 6, 1919, he again wrote to Mather, suggesting that the program in Yosemite was still incomplete. A recent visit to Yosemite had made him even more keenly aware "of the possibilities of making better use of the natural history assets of the Park." Specifically, he still had in mind "a natural history leader or guide," who would "be available for service at the several public camps of the Valley, particularly those with the largest registration, such as Camp Curry." The guide should have "the highest standing as a biologist," be of a "pleasing personality," and be "a facile and polished speaker." It followed that "he should not be a casual pick-up, of unpolished language and manner." The leader or guide would "give twenty minute evening talks on local natural history—birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, forests, flowers—perhaps two or even three such talks could be given at different centers in one evening." It could further be arranged for the guide "to take out 'bird classes' forenoons." [36]

As Grinnell envisioned the position, the "resident Park Naturalist" would be a full-fledged member of the National Park Service "administrative staff, to hold office in the Valley from May 15 to September one." Competition for the appointment would be nationwide, not only to guarantee "the most far-reaching results" but also "to secure the approval of the best educated classes in the country." The professor believed the best candidates would be found in leading universities. "Simply to illustrate the type of man needed," he concluded, "I would name, as eminently qualified, Professor J. O. Synder, of Stanford University; Dr. Loye Holmes Miller, of the State Normal School, Los Angeles; Dr. Harold C. Bryant, of the University of California; and Mr. Tracy I. Storer, of the University of California, and also of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology." [37]

Here again, in Grinnell's letter, may be found the real origins of park interpretation. Although Mather seemed to be more supportive, he remaimed noncommittal. "This will acknowledge your letter of June 6," he wrote, "with the interesting suggestion you have made of having a natural history leader or guide available in Yosemite Park during the summer season." Mather agreed that "it certainly would be a splendid thing" and further conceded "that at the present time much information is only furnished in a more or less haphazard way." Yet he would still have to take the matter up with Assistant Director Albright. Possibly, certain "legal restrictions would be placed on such an appointment." In either case, it was "quite likely that the proposition would have to receive the consent of the Civil Service Commission." [38]

Instead of waiting for the Park Service to make up its mind, Grinnell, with C. M. Goethe and others interested in the project, worked to place talented interpreters at different locations. That summer, for example, Harold C. Bryant and Loye Holmes Miller gave lectures and nature walks at Lake Tahoe, California, generally under arrangements with Fallen Leaf Lodge. On July 19, Bryant wrote Grinnell to inform him that Mather had stopped by. "He stated the nature guide proposition had gone through," Bryant noted. "He wanted me to go to Yosemite immediately under civil service appointment." But of course Bryant was already committed and had to turn Mather down. "I certainly hope that the matter does not drop there," Grinnell replied, obviously disappointed but fully sympathetic. "The main thing is to get a precedent set." [39]

Fortunately, Grinnell need not have worried. Mather's offer to both Bryant and Miller held until the following year, when they and two other naturalists, Ansel F. Hall and Enid Michael, officially inaugurated park interpretation in Yosemite Valley. "Am getting a fine start," Bryant reported to Grinnell early in June. "There is plenty of interest. Could keep several guides busy. Have great difficulty in limiting the classes. Started with 20 this morning and ended with 27." [40] No words could have been sweeter music to Joseph Grinnell's ears.

Neither he nor Tracy Storer needed further incentive to redouble efforts to complete the Yosemite natural history. Between 1920 and its publication in 1924, the bulk of Grinnell's correspondence once again addressed his fervent hope that the book would reach the widest possible audience. He explored, for example, the possibility that the Park Service might agree to sponsor the volume. The expense, Mather concluded, was simply too prohibitive. With mild reluctance Grinnell settled for the University of California Press, taking some comfort in its promise to push the book "in every way feasible," including extensive advertising and free distribution of two hundred review and complimentary copies. [41]

One of the first books off the press went to Stephen T Mather. "You may have forgotten all about it," Grinnell began his letter introducing the volume, "but way back in 1915 you contributed a sum of money to this Department of the University of California... to defray the expense of a natural history survey of the Yosemite region." The book had just been published, he said, and would arrive under separate cover. "In it we try to set forth our findings in a way that will attract and hold the interest of the ordinary run of intelligent laymen," he wrote, still underscoring its wider purpose and themes. Indeed the book emphasized, "over and over again," how national parks served the public by protecting "original conditions as regards living things." For that reason alone, he and Tracy Storer hoped that Animal Life in the Yosemite would "find wide distribution among the best class of visitors, not only in Yosemite, but in others of our National Parks." He asked, "Whatever you can do, officially or otherwise, toward placing the volume before the public, will help to secure the wide use of the book that we desire." [42]

The key to the future of national parks was public knowledge and awareness. In Grinnell's case, his courage to break the shackles of academic insularity lay precisely in that conviction—the scientist's role was not just to train future scientists but also to make certain that knowledge had direction and purpose. Ultimately, every American, not just park administrators and scientists, would have something to say about the future of national parks. General information, it followed, was more important than specialized data for ensuring that parks and their biological resources would in fact survive. Specialized knowledge could even be a drawback, especially in dealing with decision makers who were somehow threatened by new information. Obviously Grinnell knew far more about the national parks than did the vast majority of government officials. He therefore diligently avoided any hint of seeking praise but rather, in the interest of maintaining his effectiveness, gladly allowed others to take full credit for any of his accomplishments, even for those ideas so clearly his own. [43]

One of those ideas was park interpretation. However, instead of worrying about who received credit for its inception, Grinnell sought to use interpretation as his springboard to a public understanding of the parks. Invariably, the informed park visitor would be more curious and protective, and therefore more likely to insist on sound management practices. In effect, Grinnell had convinced the Park Service to reach and inform its potential critics. Likewise, he continued to seed park interpretation with his most capable colleagues and students, further assuring himself internal access to Park Service management circles. Eventually, he realized, his former pupils and friends themselves would rise up those management ladders, making changes, it stood to reason, where change really counted.

Above all, Grinnell cemented the relationship between national parks and American education. Symbolically, the marriage between Berkeley and Yosemite was but a small indication of the linkages yet to come. Rarely was it said, but already the University of California was part of park tradition. Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, the two names most closely associated with the founding years of the National Park Service, were themselves Berkeley alumni. In instances of strain or disagreement, Grinnell could always count on the fact that pride in their university and its personnel would result, at the very least, in a hearing for his suggestions. And so to Berkeley professors, students, and alumni went the honor of founding Yosemite's "university of the wilderness." From its graduates, Grinnell now looked forward to the evolution of a new public consciousness of the importance of national parks as refuges for biological diversity.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap8.htm — 17-Mar-2004