Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 1
Creating Tradition: The Roots of National Park Management

Growth of the National Park Concept

After Yellowstone there was no rush to create additional national parks. Yellowstone came into existence during the Indian wars on the northern plains and in advance of extensive white settlement of the West-not an auspicious time and place for tourism. Created nearly two decades before the 1890 census announced the closing of the frontier, Yellowstone came close to becoming a historical anomaly rather than a trendsetter in public land policy.

In 1875 Congress established Mackinac National Park-the second such park, but one that occupied only about a thousand acres of Mackinac Island, located at the westernmost point of Lake Huron and the site of Fort Mackinac, a small U.S. Army post. Already a federal presence on the island, the army managed the national park until 1895, just after the fort was deactivated. With the army's departure, the State of Michigan was persuaded to operate Mackinac as a state park; thus the park lost its "national" designation. [6] Mackinac seems not to have advanced the national park concept. The park was created in part because the army was conveniently available to manage the area, and it was redesignated after the army departed.

In fact, after Yellowstone nearly two decades passed before the national park idea spread to any significant degree. In 1890 Congress established two large parks in California: Sequoia and Yosemite. (The latter comprised the High Sierra country surrounding the 1864 Yosemite grant to the State of California; the grant remained under state control until 1906, when it was added to the national park.) Also in 1890 came establishment of the relatively small General Grant National Park, four square miles of giant sequoia forest (incorporated into Kings Canyon National Park in 1940).

Following the flurry of new parks in 1890, Congress waited nine years before creating another large natural park-Mount Rainier, in 1899. Thus, by the turn of the century-nearly three decades after Yellowstone-there were in existence no more than four large parks, plus General Grant National Park. (In Arkansas, the "Hot Springs Reservation," established in 1832 as a small, approximately four-square-mile preserve containing thermal springs of medicinal value, was also managed by the Department of the Interior; not until 1921 would this preserve be designated a national park.) In the early twentieth century, prior to establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, the number of parks began to grow steadily: Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903), Sully's Hill (1904), Mesa Verde (1906), Platt (1906), Glacier (1910), Rocky Mountain (1915), Hawaii (1916), and Lassen Volcanic (1916).

Led by the Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Great Northern railroad companies and influenced by the rising concern for conservation, tourism interests exerted a powerful influence in creating new parks. Like Yellowstone, parks such as Sequoia, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Glacier were to a large degree the result of the railroads' political pressure. [7] In addition to the economic potential of tourism in the national parks, other profit-oriented motives arose. For instance, the Northern Pacific promoted the Mount Rainier legislation, which enabled the company to swap its lands in the park for more valuable timberlands elsewhere. And owners of nearby agricultural lands (including railroad companies) urged establishment of Sequoia and Yosemite, in part to protect watersheds through high-country forest conservation, which would benefit their investments in the valleys below. This factor was evidenced in the enabling legislation for each park, which referred to the parks as "reserved forest lands." [8]

Beginning with Ferdinand Hayden's proposal to include all of Yellowstone's major thermal features, the early national parks helped establish the important precedent that immense tracts of land could be put to use as public parks. Both the concern for watershed protection and an emerging interest in preserving wilderness (a consideration in the 1890 Yosemite legislation) seem to have influenced Congress to include in Sequoia and Yosemite much more land than necessary for the protection of key scenic features. Mount Rainier National Park, by comparison, was made sufficiently large to encompass a huge scenic feature-a splendid glacier-capped volcanic mountain-in addition to wilderness and watershed concerns, heroic scenery fostered the creation of some exceedingly large parks. Given the size of many of the parks, the extensive tourism development that would take place would still leave thousands of acres of undeveloped park "backcountry"-a factor that would become increasingly important in national park preservation concerns.

Vast and spectacularly beautiful, Yellowstone provided not only the first but also the most enduring image of a national park: a romantic landscape of mountains, canyons, abundant wildlife, and fantastic natural phenomena. Surely the park's great size and the fame and popularity it achieved by the early twentieth century helped fix the fledgling national park idea in the American mind. Moreover, the spacious, majestic scenery being preserved in such parks as Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite aroused a strong sense of patriotism and a romanticized pride in America's most dramatic landscapes, helping stimulate national tourism and the park movement. [9]

Yet Congress did not define national parks as being solely large natural areas. In addition to General Grant, other small parks were created. Platt National Park, about eight hundred acres of a mineral springs area in south-central Oklahoma, and Sully's Hill National Park, a few hundred acres of low, wooded hills in eastern North Dakota, had more in common with the defunct, diminutive Mackinac National Park-and all three varied substantially from the standards of size and scenery set by Yellowstone and the other large parks. [10]

In another deviation from the large natural park standard, Mesa Verde National Park was created to preserve impressive archeological sites. Moreover, in June 1906, within a few days of Mesa Verde's establishment, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, providing for creation of "national monuments a different kind of federal land reservation, which would in time be added to the national park system. The monuments were to include areas of importance in history, prehistory, or science, and be no larger than necessary to protect the specific cultural or scientific values of concern. The result of political pressure brought mainly by anthropologists seeking to prevent vandalism to the nation's prehistoric treasures, the act authorized the President to establish national monuments by proclamation (the same means by which national forest reserves were then created).

During President Theodore Roosevelt's administration, and as the conservation movement gathered steam, this means of establishing federal reserves without further congressional authorization promptly brought about the creation of numerous monuments, among them Devils Tower (1906), Chaco Canyon (1907), Muir Woods (1908), Mount Olympus (1908), and Grand Canyon (1908). Placed under the administration of the Interior, Agriculture, or War departments, depending on where the monuments were located, almost all of the national monuments would eventually be made part of the national park system and would come under the same management policies, with public use as the principal focus.

The Antiquities Act made illegal the unauthorized taking of antiquities from federal lands and legislated penalties for punishment of violators. It also authorized a permit system, allowing excavation of antiquities within the monuments only for professional research purposes. [11] Other than these stipulations, the act gave no directions for day-to-day management of the monuments. Although the act was passed because of concern for preserving prehistoric sites, it was also used to set aside especially scenic lands, such as the Grand Canyon and Mount Olympus. These two monuments established another significant precedent-that the Antiquities Act could be used to preserve very large tracts of public land, far larger than its supporters (or opponents) had envisioned. [12]

The Antiquities Act was conceived with much less concern for tourism and public use than were the national parks, and many monuments remained neglected and inaccessible for years by other than archeologists (the most striking exception being Grand Canyon National Monument, managed by the U. S. Forest Service until 1919). However, this neglect did not reflect a permanent policy of limited use and strict preservation of the monuments. In time, and under favorable funding and staffing circumstances, they would be targeted for extensive recreational tourism development, similar to that in the national parks. But with majestic scenery that could attract swarms of tourists, and with specific mandates for nature preservation, the national parks themselves-rather than the national monuments-would dominate the formulation of natural resource management policy in the growing park system.

Characteristically, the national parks featured outstanding natural phenomena: Yellowstone's geysers, Sequoia's and General Grant's gigantic trees, and Hot Springs' thermal waters. Such features greatly enhanced the potential of the parks as pleasuring grounds that would attract an increasingly mobile American public interested in the outdoors. Writing about Yellowstone in 1905, more than three decades after its establishment as a park, President Theodore Roosevelt observed that the preservation of nature was "essentially a democratic movement," benefiting rich and poor alike. [13] Even with the prospect of monopolistic control of tourist facilities, the national park idea was a remarkably democratic concept. The parks would be open to all-undivided, majestic landscapes to be shared and enjoyed by the American people.

Moreover, in preventing exploitation of scenic areas in the rapacious manner typical for western lands in the late nineteenth century, the Yellowstone Park Act marked a truly historic step in nature preservation. The act forbade "wanton destruction of the fish and game" within the park, and provided for the

preservation, from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition (emphasis added). [14]

Natural resources in Yellowstone and subsequent national parks were to be protected-by implication, the sharing would extend beyond the human species to the flora and fauna of the area. Indeed, this broad sharing of unique segments of the American landscape came to form the vital core of the national park idea, endowing it with high idealism and moral purpose as it spread to other areas of the country and ultimately around the world.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, an emerging interest in protecting wilderness was apparent in national park affairs. In the mid-1880s, the congressional defeat of proposals by railroad and mining interests to build a railroad through northern Yellowstone and reduce the park in size underscored the importance of both the park's wildlife and its wild lands-thus moving beyond the original, limited concern for specific scenic wonders of Yellowstone. Interest in more general preservation within the parks also was evident with the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890, which included extensive and largely remote lands surrounding the Yosemite Valley. John Muir, a leading spokesman for wilderness, sought to preserve the High Sierra in as natural a state as possible and was especially active in promoting the Yosemite legislation. For the new park, Muir envisioned accommodating tourism in the Merced River drainage (which encompasses the Yosemite Valley), while leaving the Tuolumne River drainage to the north (including the Hetch Hetchy Valley) as wilderness, largely inaccessible except on foot or by horseback. [15]

With the early national park movement so heavily influenced by corporate tourism interests such as the railroad companies, Muir's thinking regarding Yosemite and other parks stands out as the most prominent juncture between the park movement and intellectual concerns for nature's intrinsic values and meanings, as typified by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Moreover, except perhaps for Muir's efforts to understand the natural history of California's High Sierra, the advances in ecological knowledge taking place by the late nineteenth century had little to do with the national park movement. Busy with development, the parks played no role in leading scientific efforts such as the studies of plant succession by Frederic Clements in Nebraska's grasslands, or by Henry C. Cowles along Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline. [16] Once national parks became more numerous and more accessible, an ever-increasing number of scientists would conduct research in them. But within national park management circles, awareness of ecological matters lay in the distant future, and genuine concern in the far-distant future.

In many ways, the national park movement pitted one utilitarian urge-tourism and public recreation-against another-the consumptive use of natural resources, such as logging, mining, and reservoir development. In the early decades of national park history, the most notable illustration of this conflict came with the controversy over the proposed dam and reservoir on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley. The vulnerability of this national park backcountry, which John Muir wanted preserved in its wild condition, was made clear when Congress voted in December 1913 to dam the Tuolumne in order to supply water to San Francisco. Even though located in a national park, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was vulnerable to such a proposal in part because it was indeed wilderness, undeveloped for public use and enjoyment. The absence of significant utilitarian recreational use exposed the valley to reservoir development, a far more destructive utilitarian use.

This relationship Muir recognized; he had already come to accept tourism and limited development as necessary, and far preferable to uses such as dams and reservoirs. Yet the extensive, unregulated use of the statecontrolled Yosemite Valley alerted Muir and his friends in the newly formed Sierra Club to the dangers of too much tourism development (and provided impetus for adding the valley to the surrounding national park in 1906). [17] Still, the national park idea survived and ultimately flourished because it was fundamentally utilitarian. From Yellowstone on, tourism and public enjoyment provided a politically viable rationale for the national park movement; concurrently, development for public use was intended from the very first. Becoming more evident over time, the concept that development for public use and enjoyment could foster nature preservation on large tracts of public lands would form an enduring, paradoxical theme in national park history.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap1a.htm — 1-Jan-2003