Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 2
Codifying Tradition: The National Park Service Act of 1916

Economics and esthetics really go hand in hand.—MARK DANIELS, 1915

Following a few tentative efforts early in the twentieth century, a campaign to establish a national parks bureau began in earnest in 1910 and continued for six years. In June 1916, as the effort neared success, an article entitled "Making a Business of Scenery" appeared in The Nation's Business. Written by Robert Sterling Yard, in charge of the campaign's promotional literature, the article championed the scenery of America's national parks as an "economic asset of incalculable value" if managed in a businesslike way. Yard wrote that, as an example, Switzerland "lives on her scenery," having made it a "great national business" (although diminished by the war ongoing in Europe). The Canadians too had entered "the scenery business" with businessmen in charge of their national parks. It seemed high time that Americans developed such a business. Yard wrote:

We want our national parks developed. We want roads and trails like Switzerland's. We want hotels of all prices from lowest to highest. We want comfortable public camps in sufficient abundance to meet all demands. We want lodges and chalets at convenient intervals commanding the scenic possibilities of all our parks. We want the best and cheapest accommodations for pedestrians and motorists. We want sufficient and convenient transportation at reasonable rates. We want adequate facilities and supplies for camping out at lowest prices. We want good fishing. We want our wild animal life conserved and developed. We want special facilities for nature study. [1]

The rule rather than an exception, "Making a Business of Scenery" reflected the pervasive utilitarian tenor of the drive to establish the National Park Service. Proponents saw the parks as scenic recreation areas that should be vigorously developed for public use and enjoyment to help the national economy and improve the public's mental and physical well-being, thereby enhancing citizenship and patriotism. The various widely scattered parks and monuments had no centralized, coordinated management. National park supervisors officially reported to the secretary of the interior, but in reality to a "chief clerk," who was involved with diverse bureaus in the Department of the Interior and paid scant attention to the parks. To many, it seemed obvious that a new bureau was needed to manage these areas in an efficient, businesslike way.

Concluding a long period of aggressive politicking, Congress created the National Park Service in August 1916. Analysis of the "legislative history" of the National Park Service Act (referred to as the Service's "Organic Act") illuminates the rationale that has ever since underlain national park management. The act established a fundamental dogma for the Park Service-the chief basis for its philosophy, policies, and decisionmaking.

Repeatedly since passage of the National Park Service Act, critics of various management practices in the parks have cited the act's principal mandate: that the parks be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Often they have asserted that the Park Service violates the spirit and letter of the act by not preserving natural conditions. Particularly since the environmental era of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, they have contended that the Service's primary mandate has always been the preservation of nature, and that the Park Service has misunderstood the congressional mandate to leave the national parks unimpaired. [2]

But in fact, the legislative history of the Organic Act provides no evidence that either Congress or those who lobbied for the act sought a mandate for an exacting preservation of natural conditions. An examination of the motivations and perceptions of the Park Service's founders reveals that their principal concerns were the preservation of scenery, the economic benefits of tourism, and efficient management of the parks. Such concerns were stimulated by the boosterism prevalent in early national park history, and they in turn greatly influenced the future orientation of national park management.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap2.htm — 1-Jan-2003