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

The Management of Nature

With park development simulating resort development elsewhere in the country, perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the parks was their extensive, protected backcountry. The location of roads, trails, hotels, and other recreational tourism facilities only in selected areas meant that much of the vast park terrain escaped the impact of intensive development and use. Offering the only real possibility for preservation of some semblance of natural conditions, these relatively remote areas would constitute the best hope of later generations seeking to preserve national park ecological systems and biological diversity.

In contrast to tourism development, no precedent existed for intentionally and perpetually maintaining large tracts of land in their "natural condition," as stipulated in the legislation creating Yellowstone and numerous subsequent parks. [33] (The 1916 act creating the National Park Service would require that the parks be left "unimpaired"-essentially synonymous with maintaining "natural conditions.") Moreover, the early mandates for individual parks were not so much the ideas of biologists and other natural scientists, but of politicians and park promoters. There seems to have been no serious attempt to define what it meant to maintain natural conditions. This key mandate for national park management began (and long remained) an ambiguous concept related to protecting natural scenery and the more desirable flora and fauna.

Management of the parks under the mandate to preserve natural conditions took two basic approaches: to ignore, or to manipulate. Many inconspicuous species (for example, small mammals) were either little known or of little concern. Not intentionally manipulated, they carried on their struggle for existence without intentional managerial interference. The second approach, however, involved extensive interference. Managers sought to enhance the parks' appeal by manipulating the more conspicuous resources that contributed to public enjoyment, such as large mammals, entire forests, and fish populations. Although this manipulation sometimes brought about considerable alteration of nature (impacting even those species of little concern), park proponents did not see it that way. Instead, they seem to have taken for granted that manipulative management did not seriously modify natural conditions-in effect, they defined natural conditions to include the changes in nature that they deemed appropriate. Thus, the proponents habitually assumed (and claimed) that the parks were fully preserved.

Most national parks came into existence already altered by intensive human activity, Yellowstone being the least affected. All had experienced some impact from use by Native Americans, whose prior exclusion from lands they had long utilized was, in effect, reinforced by the establishment of national parks as protected natural areas to be enjoyed by tourists. (Attempts to understand Indian influences on prepark conditions would not begin until the final decades of the twentieth century.) Before their designation as parks in 1890, both Sequoia and Yosemite had been subjected to mining, lumbering, and widespread grazing, with summer herds of sheep and cattle thoroughly cropping some areas. Prospectors had worked on the slopes of Mount Rainier before it became a park, and the initial legislation allowed their activity to continue. In addition to the construction of homes, lodges, and camps, the area to become Glacier National Park had been subjected to mining activity and even oil exploration. [34]

Going well beyond mere protection of flora and fauna, early park managers manipulated natural resources at will. In order to increase sportfishing opportunities, for example, fish populations were extensively manipulated through stocking, which became a common practice in the early national parks. Stocking at Yellowstone began in 1881, less than a decade after the park's establishment, when native cutthroat trout were moved to fishless waters from other areas of the park. Eight years later, nonnative brook trout and rainbow trout were placed in park waters, the army captain in charge of the park at the time stating his hope that stocking would enable the "pleasure-seeker" to "enjoy fine fishing within a few rods of any hotel or camp." These initial efforts soon led to widespread stocking programs, supported by hatchery operations both inside and outside Yellowstone's boundaries.

At Oregon's Crater Lake, William Gladstone Steel, the chief advocate for national park designation, initiated fish stocking in 1888, fourteen years before the park was established. Steel placed rainbow trout in the previously fishless, nearly two-thousand-foot-deep lake. Stocking was uninterrupted by establishment of the park in 1902. Similarly, beginning in the 1890s, native and nonnative fish were stocked throughout Yosemite. Other parks, among them Sequoia and Glacier, developed stocking programs, establishing an early and explicit precedent for extensive manipulation of national park fish populations. [35]

Although the early national parks were set aside principally for the enjoyment of special scenery rather than for wildlife preservation, wildlife quickly became recognized as a significant feature of the parks. Game species, highly prized by hunters, also proved to be the most popular for public viewing. Spokesmen for sporting organizations, particularly the Boone and Crockett Club, and George Bird Grinnell, the editor of the outdoor magazine Forest and Stream, encouraged public interest in national park wildlife, and in the 1880s began promoting Yellowstone as a refuge wherein bison and other large mammals should be protected. [36] Such factors helped crystalize early national park wildlife policy, as managers focused on protecting populations of bear and ungulates (the hoofed grazing animals such as elk, moose, bison, deer, and bighorn sheep). Yellowstone, with its impressive variety of large, spectacular mammals (today caricatured as "charismatic megafauna" or "glamour species") would remain the most notable wildlife park in the contiguous states, dominating the formulation of wildlife policy in the national parks.

As they did with fish populations, early national park managers manipulated the populations of large mammals. They sought, for example, to protect favored wildlife species from predators. Native park fauna such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions (cougars) were perceived as threats to the popular ungulates and were hunted-the parks were not to be "shared" with such predators. Park rangers and army personnel trapped or shot these animals, or permitted others to do so. Yellowstone's predator control program began very early, accelerated when the army arrived, and continued for decades. Other parks, such as Mount Rainier, Yosemite, and Sequoia, followed suit. Well before the Park Service came into being, predator control had become an established management practice. This effort would ultimately reduce wolves and mountain lions to extinction in most parks. [37]

Park managers also sought to protect favored wildlife species from poachers, who ignored boundaries and hunted the big-game species inside the new preserves-a problem from earliest times in most national parks. The park with the greatest wildlife populations, Yellowstone suffered serious poaching problems, with large numbers of elk, bison, and other mammals taken during the early years. Having virtually no staff, the park could not effectively combat poaching, a situation that changed substantially after the army's arrival in 1886. The military would soon increase attempts to control poaching in Sequoia and Yosemite, while civilian staffs contended with the problem in other parks. In the 1890s poaching threats to bison sparked a campaign led by George Grinnell to strengthen protection of Yellowstone's wildlife. Grinnell helped bring about passage in 1894 of the Act to Protect the Birds and Animals in Yellowstone National Park, establishing penalties and law-enforcement authority to protect animals and other natural resources-measures that had not been provided by the legislation creating the park. This important act set a precedent for similar protection to be extended to other parks. [38]

Although protection of popular large mammals from poachers and predators gradually became more effective, several of the popular species were themselves directly manipulated. Early park managers in Yellowstone employed methods akin to ranching. Fearing the extinction of bison in the United States, the park initiated a program in 1902 that included roundups, winter feeding, and culling of aged animals. To prevent starvation when heavy snows made foraging difficult, winter feeding was extended in 1904 to elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and other ungulates. [39] Bear feeding in Yellowstone began almost spontaneously, along roadsides and at hotel garbage dumps, where the public soon realized that bears could be viewed close up. Feeding at the dumps evolved into a more formalized evening program (soon known as "bear shows") with bleachers for visitors, who were protected by armed rangers. Elsewhere in the parks, bears that threatened the public were often shot or shipped to zoos around the country. [40]

In the early decades of the national parks, forests and grasslands both became special management concerns. In line with accepted policies on other public lands (and on private lands), suppression of forest fires in the parks quickly emerged as a primary objective. As with efforts to prevent poaching, army manpower in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia ensured some success with the suppression policy. Disagreement with this policy was occasionally voiced by a few who believed that continuous suppression would allow too much dead, fallen debris to accumulate on the forest floor and eventually fuel unnaturally large, destructive fires. However, because this idea was expressed only intermittently and there was no sustained attempt to put it into practice, it had no real impact. Fire suppression became a deeply entrenched policy in the national parks. [41]

Like fighting poachers and fires, protecting the parks from grazing by domestic livestock was challenging and dangerous. Local ranchers, taking advantage of the remoteness of many park lands, drove their livestock to summer grasslands in the High Sierra Nevada-a practice begun before parks in that area were created and continued after they came into being.John Muir's famous denunciation of sheep as "hoofed locusts" reflected the anger he felt about the threats to native flora and fauna from grazing and trampling. As with its attempts to curtail poaching and fires, the army made a special effort to prevent encroachment of both sheep and cattle in the parks it oversaw. Usually a formidable presence in the parks only during the summer months (which coincided with the grazing season), the troops detained livestock drovers, confiscated their weapons, and sometimes herded their cattle out of the parks at an inconvenient distance from where the drovers were forced to exit. [42 This firm antigrazing policy would at times be compromised by the political influence of western stockmen, who angrily objected to restrictions on grazing public lands and who would form a hard core of resistance, even to the very concept of national parks.

The treatment of nature in the early national parks set precedents that would influence management for decades. Later referred to as "protection" work, activities such as combating poaching and grazing, fighting forest fires, killing predators, and manipulating fish and ungulate populations constituted the backbone of natural resource management. These duties fell to army personnel in parks where the military was present and ultimately, in all parks, to the field employees who were becoming known as "park rangers." As their efforts to curtail poaching and livestock grazing required armed patrol, the rangers rather naturally assumed additional law-enforcement responsibilities. In addition, they assisted the park superintendents by performing myriad other tasks necessary for daily operation of national parks, such as dealing with park visitors and with concessionaires. Deeply involved in such activities, the park rangers were destined to play a central role in the evolution of national park management. [43

That the national park idea embraced the concept of mostly nonconsumptive land use did not mean that the parks were nonutilitarian. On the contrary, the history of the early national park era suggests that a practical interest in recreational tourism in America's grand scenic areas triggered the park movement and perpetuated it. With Northern Pacific and other corporate influence so pervasive, it is clear that the early parks were not intended to be giant nature preserves with little or no development for tourism. Products of their times, the 1872 Yellowstone Act and subsequent legislation establishing national parks could not be expected to be so radical. Only with the 1964 Wilderness Act would Congress truly authorize such preserves-three-quarters of a century after John Muir had advocated a similar, but not statutory, designation for portions of Yosemite.

Still, it is important to recognize that, although extensive manipulation and intrusion took place in the parks, fundamentally the national park idea embraced the concept of nurturing and protecting nature-a remarkable reversal from the treatment of natural resources typical of the times. Yet with the parks viewed mainly as scenic pleasuring grounds, the treatment of fish, large mammals, forests, and other natural resources reflected the urge to ensure public enjoyment of the national parks by protecting scenery and making nature pleasing and appealing; and it was development that made the parks accessible and usable. Even with legislation calling for preservation of natural conditions, park management was highly manipulative and invasive. "Preservation" amounted mainly to protection work, backed by little, if any, scientific inquiry.

The National Park Service would inherit a system of parks operated under policies already in place and designed to enhance public enjoyment. The commitment to accommodating the public through resort-style development would mean increasing involvement with the tourism industry, a persistently influential force in national park affairs as the twentieth century progressed. Management of the parks in the decades before the advent of the National Park Service had created a momentum that the fledgling bureau would not-and could not-withstand.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap1c.htm — 1-Jan-2003