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

Advocates and Opponents

The drive to establish a national parks bureau was led by four individuals: a horticulturalist, a landscape architect, a borax industry executive, and a young lawyer. The campaign began through the efforts of J. Horace McFarland, a nationally prominent horticulturalist, urban planner, and leader of the "city beautiful" movement to improve the attractiveness of America's growing cities. McFarland's career was built on his passion for landscape aesthetics and the social benefits to be derived from parks and other professionally landscaped areas. From 1904 until 1925 he served as president of the American Civic Association, an organization that promoted intelligent planning and development to make, as McFarland described it, "American cities, towns, villages and rural communities clean, more beautiful and more attractive places in which to live." McFarland and the association had participated in the move to preserve Niagara Falls and had supported shade-tree planting, city parks, and recreation areas, while opposing the growing billboard blight along the nation's roadsides. Under his guidance the American Civic Association became the leading professional organization supporting the national park legislation. The association would be instrumental in drafting the Organic Act's statement of the parks' principal purpose, and, in the winter of 1911-12, would recommend that the proposed new bureau be designated the National Park Service. [3]

McFarland's contacts extended to cabinet officials and to President William Howard Taft, through whom he initiated the legislative campaign. Alarmed about the proposal to create a reservoir in Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley to supply water to San Francisco, McFarland suggested to Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger in May 1910 that the national parks needed a "general, intelligent and logical supervision." McFarland believed that strong, coordinated oversight could best defend the parks against threats such as the damming of Hetch Hetchy, one of Yosemite's outstanding scenic areas. [4]

In December 1910, when Secretary Ballinger formally recommended a national parks bureau to President Taft, he employed a statement prepared by McFarland and reflecting utilitarian goals. Ballinger proposed a bureau of "national parks and resorts," to include a "suitable force of superintendents, supervising engineers, and landscape architects, inspectors, park guards, and other employees." Subsequently, Taft incorporated these views into his message to Congress, advocating that the parks be preserved for the public's "edification and recreation." He called for sufficient funds to "bring all these natural wonders within easy reach of the people"—a means of improving the parks' "accessibility and usefulness." [5]

That same year, at the suggestion of Secretary Ballinger, McFarland recruited the nationally known landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to the campaign. Son of the principal founder of American landscape architecture, Olmsted, on graduating from Harvard, became an apprentice and then a partner in his father's firm. Adding to his credentials, the younger Olmsted had helped found Harvard's academic program in landscape architecture and served as president of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a professional organization he had helped establish. [6] He had, as well, served on the executive board of the American Civic Association. The year 1910 marked the beginning of Olmsted's long association with the national parks, one that would last until the 1950s, when he became involved in the momentous Echo Park controversy in Dinosaur National Monument.

In line with McFarland's views, Olmsted believed that national park management lacked coordinated leadership and was "mixed up and rather inefficient." Consequently, the parks were in poor condition, without an "orderly or efficient means" of being protected. This "chaotic" situation could, however, be addressed through the "proper businesslike machinery" of sound management. Good national park leadership, Olmsted judged, could be found in a "Western man"- one familiar with the country where all of the national parks were then located, and a man "of really large caliber, of executive ability... with the instincts of a gentleman." [7]

Early in 1915 such an individual appeared on the scene when Stephen T. Mather, a Chicago businessman, joined the campaign for a national parks bureau. Mather had political instincts and strategic abilities that complemented those of McFarland and Olmsted. Polished and at ease with the rich, powerful, and famous, he displayed ardent enthusiasm- his biographer referred to him as the "Eternal Freshman," who was "almost pathologically fraternal." [8] In 1917 Mather would be officially appointed as the National Park Service's first director. But beginning in early 1915, after a friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, asked him to serve as his assistant in the national park legislative drive, Mather devoted his impressive talents and much of his own money (he had amassed personal wealth as head of a borax company with mines in the West) to boosting the national parks. As a chief goal, Mather sought public acceptance and political support for the parks through opening them to greater use. Along with his politicking, he helped finance the purchase of the Tioga Pass Road to make Yosemite's high country accessible to the automobile-touring public. For a while he even paid the salary of the national parks' chief publicist, Robert Sterling Yard. [9]

Serving at Mather's side was his assistant, Horace M. Albright, a young graduate of the University of California and the Georgetown University Law School, who shared Mather's enthusiasm for the parks and gave energetic, intelligent support to the legislative campaign. Albright proved highly effective within the Washington political system, and his skills were crucial to the passage of the act. [10] The youngest of the founding fathers, Albright would resolutely proclaim the founders' concepts of national parks to succeeding generations.

During the legislative drive, from 1910 to 1916, the Department of the Interior sponsored three national park conferences. The first general meetings to be held in the decades since Yellowstone's establishment, these conferences brought together influential people from inside and outside the federal government. Especially because the Organic Act's legislative history includes few official congressional hearings and reports, the conference proceedings provide important evidence of the intentions behind the act. Repeatedly during these conferences, supporters depicted the parks as scenic places for public recreation, enjoyment, and edification-indeed, one participant described the national parks movement as a "campaign for natural scenery." At the first conference (1911, in Yellowstone), Secretary of the Interior Walter L. Fisher's opening remarks drew attention to the crucial need for the parks to attract more visitors; he directed that, in addition to park administration, the meeting should be devoted to concession and transportation matters related to accommodating tourists.

Significantly, the lists of conference participants and agendas reflected what had already become a major factor in national park affairs: the various interest groups that sought to generate business in or near the parks and thus to apply political and economic leverage to shape the character and direction of national park management. The conferences were absorbed with the concerns of these groups. For instance, building on their long involvement with the parks, railroad companies sent numerous spokesmen to the meetings, as did smaller-scale concessionaires who operated facilities in the parks. Representing the industry that would ultimately have the greatest impact on national parks, the fledgling automobile associations were especially prominent at the 1912 conference in Yosemite and the 1915 conference in Berkeley and San Francisco. To one or both of these meetings, officials of the American Automobile Association, the Southern California Automobile Association, and the Automobile Dealers Association of Southern California, among others, came to promote increased public use of the parks. [11]

From within the government came national park superintendents, engineers, landscape architects, and other officials of the Interior Department. Even the secretary attended the 1911 and 1912 conferences, and Mather officially represented the secretary at the Berkeley meeting in 1915. Foresters and entomologists represented the scientific professions. At the 1911 meeting, for example, an "expert lumberman" and an "expert in charge of forest insect investigations" advised how to protect forests from fires and insects. Forests, the participants were told, form the "attractive feature in a landscape," and damage to trees "must be considered... on the basis of the commercial value" as well as the "aesthetic and educational value." [12]

Most prominent among the railroad delegates at the 1911 conference was Louis W. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway Company and enthusiastic promoter of the newly established Glacier National Park. Hill's company already had plans for extensive tourist accommodations in and adjacent to Glacier. His remarks to the conference attested to the railroad industry's clear profit motive in its concern for the national parks: the railroads were "greatly interested in the passenger traffic to the parks" and, with lines already built nearby for "regular traffic," each passenger to the national parks represented "practically a net earning." Because his railroad operated in the northern tier of states, Hill was much aware of Canada's aggressive national park promotion, which he claimed diverted many tourists from United States parks. Echoing a prevailing theme in the conferences, he encouraged more advertising of American parks, arguing that such publicity would divert visitors otherwise bound for Canada or Europe. [13]

Throughout the meetings, proponents urged that the parks no longer be abandoned to the haphazard supervision of an Interior Department clerk burdened by other responsibilities. At Yosemite in 1912, Secretary Fisher acknowledged that the Interior Department had "no machinery whatever" to deal with the national parks. He noted that the department lacked the expertise to handle matters such as engineering, park development, landscape management, forestry, sanitation, and construction. Indeed, his office and that of the chief clerk had "never really been equipped to handle these matters, [even] if it had been possible to give them the necessary time and attention." [14]

At the 1912 conference, Richard Watrous, secretary of the American Civic Association, supported maintenance of the parks as "playgrounds," and introduced a resolution supporting creation of a national parks bureau. He believed the bureau could provide the parks with a "definite, systematic, and continuous policy" to improve efficiency of administration. Watrous stated that concern for efficiency was being brought "very prominently" before business leaders and the people, because the White House was giving more attention to the "general subject of economy and efficiency than ever before." [15]

To accommodate visitors, the scenic parks needed to improve accessibility and facilities- practical requirements that put the skills of engineers and landscape architects in demand, as repeatedly emphasized during the conferences. At the 1912 meeting, John Muir recommended utilization of these professions in the parks, a reflection of an increased (but wary) tolerance of tourism late in his life. And Robert B. Marshall, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, who would later serve briefly as chief administrator of the national parks, believed that the proposed bureau should have an engineer as director and that park superintendents should also be engineers, or at least have a substantial knowledge of engineering. Such individuals could ensure "proper maintenance of the great recreation and playgrounds." [16]

Secretary Fisher's successor, Franklin Lane, shared Marshall's views, and in the spring of 1914 created the position "general superintendent and landscape engineer," to provide administrative leadership for the national park system. Initially held by San Francisco landscape architect Mark Daniels, this position replaced the chief clerk as the department's coordinator of parks. Daniels remained in the job until December 1915. He was succeeded by Robert Marshall, whose title became "general superintendent of national parks." [17] These positions were forerunners of the National Park Service directorship.

Addressing the 1915 conference as general superintendent, Daniels declared an urgent need to develop national parks for tourism: "There are roads to be built, and there are bridges to be built, and there are trails to be built, and there are hotels to be built, and sanitation must be taken care of." Earlier he had told the same conference that the only two justifications for the national parks were "economics and esthetics." These factors, he claimed, "really go hand in hand" and were "so intimately related that it is impossible to disassociate them." For Daniels, the function of national parks was like that of city, county, and state parks, because all required the "supplying of playgrounds or recreation grounds to the people." [18]

Daniels spent much of his time as general superintendent seeking to increase public accommodations in the parks with what one observer described as "artistic development" and the "adaptation of the town-planning method." Daniels informed the 1915 conference that he had planned and designed new development for the Yosemite Valley and other national park "villages," where tourist and administrative facilities were to be concentrated, and that he had planned new roads and other developments in several of the larger parks. [19]

Robert Marshall, his successor, shared Daniels' eagerness to develop the national parks for tourism. At the 1911 conference Marshall had advocated tennis, golf, and skiing facilities as means of improving the "national playgrounds" and competing with Europe for American dollars. He also recommended that firebreaks be cut throughout the parks, and stated that thousands of cattle could graze the parks each season without doing harm. [20] Marshall elaborated on these ideas at hearings before the House Committee on the Public Lands in the spring of 1916, claiming that the number of visitors to the national parks could be greatly increased- that through businesslike management the parks could pay for themselves: "In a few years we will have an enormous population in the national parks. It is worthwhile. It does not cost much money, and eventually the people will pay for the pleasure we give them." [21]

When the National Park Service Act finally passed in 1916, nearly half a century had elapsed since the Yellowstone Act of 1872. In part, the delay in creating a parks bureau stemmed from concerns about increasing the size and cost of the federal government. Strongly favoring a central national parks office, participants at the conferences scarcely considered the possibility of managing the parks without creating a new bureau. Yet Secretary Fisher cautioned the 1912 conference that there was "considerable sentiment" among congressmen to avoid creating a bureau; instead, they would simply designate within the Interior Department an office having as its sole responsibility the management of national parks. As one congressman later put it, an aggrandizing parks bureau might expand and spend ever larger sums of money- it would "start in a small way and soon get up to a big appropriation." Congressman William Kent of California reiterated such concerns in early 1916 when he wrote to Richard Watrous of the American Civic Association that the "most difficult bump to bump is the proposition so blithely entered into of obtaining another bureau," a matter that should be "approached with fear and trembling." [22]

Away from the conferences, the U.S. Forest Service voiced objections calculated to impede passage of the Organic Act. As a bureau of the Department of Agriculture created to manage the already expansive national forest system, it recognized the proposed national parks bureau as a competitor. Forest Service attitudes reflected bureaucratic territorialism and the belief that management of the parks and national forests involved similar principles. Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the Forest Service and a premier power in natural resource politics, steadfastly opposed the concept of a parks bureau. Earlier he had received support from Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield, who reported in 1907 that development and maintenance of the parks and the forests were "practically the same," and that roads and trails, fire protection, and game management were all problems that were "being studied in a broader and better way in the Forest Service" than within the park system. Garfield's recommendation that the parks be placed under the Forest Service was rejected by park proponents, who insisted more vehemently than ever that a bureau be established specifically to manage national parks. [23]

With the Park Service legislative campaign under way in earnest, Pinchot wrote to Olmsted asserting that the national forests already provided recreation for about as many people as did the national parks, and that the methods of protecting the parks and forests were similar. To Pinchot, both were "great open spaces," essentially the same except that certain uses were not allowed in the parks. Thus a parks bureau would involve "a needless duplication of effort." Henry S. Graves, director of the Yale School of Forestry before succeeding Pinchot as head of the Forest Service, took a conciliatory stance, agreeing to the establishment of a national parks bureau. However, Graves sought to maintain a clear distinction between national parks and national forests. He wrote to Horace McFarland in March 1916 that he hoped to avoid "hybridizing" through the establishment of "so-called parks" where (just as in the national forests) lumbering, mining, grazing, and water-power developments were allowed. Very likely Graves had in mind parks such as Glacier, where the enabling legislation permitted railroad rights-of-way and water reclamation projects. True national parks, Graves wrote, should be set aside exclusively for the "care and development of scenic features and... for the enjoyment, health and recreation" of the people. [24]

Indeed, Graves agreed with Pinchot that duplication between forest and park management would be inevitable, and he wrote that he absolutely opposed any attempt to "dismember the National Forests." He recommended strict qualifications for national parks to resist park proposals on lands that had value for "other purposes," a strategy that would prevent many public lands from becoming parks. Graves would not only keep the national park system smaller, but also place the new bureau within the Agriculture Department, where the Forest Service could exert greater influence. As he described it, this arrangement would promote a close relationship with the Biological Survey, the Bureau of Entomology with its "experts in insects," and the Bureau of Public Roads with its "corps of trained road engineers." [25]

In contrast, Horace McFarland informed Graves early in the national park campaign that he saw a distinct difference between park and forest management. To McFarland, a national forest was "the nation's woodlot," while a national park was "the nation's playground." He fervently believed the two kinds of management did not mix well- it was unwise for a bureau that managed forests on a sustained-yield commercial basis also to manage national parks. The parks should not be the "secondary object" of the agency overseeing them; this would make park management, as he explained to Pinchot, "incidental, and therefore inefficient." McFarland had no confidence in Pinchot's sense of Forest Service "harmony" with the "economic and sociological purpose" of the national parks. He asserted that there was "very good reason to suppose" that the attitude of the Forest Service was "inimical to the true welfare of the national park idea as serving best the recreational needs of the nation." [26]

McFarland's apprehension about Forest Service opposition remained strong. As congressional hearings on the legislation proceeded in the spring of 1916, he wrote to Olmsted on the difficulty of overcoming the Forest Service's attempt to "emasculate this Park Service proposition." He pointed out that Stephen Mather believed "there is a constant and continual hostility in the Forest Service against the whole idea of National Parks as such." [227]

As the legislative campaign progressed, opposition also arose from western livestock ranchers, concerned about permanent loss of grazing privileges in present and future parks. William Kent, an influential congressman who would soon introduce the national park bill in the House, had a ranch of his own in Nevada and a number of rancher constituents and friends. He backed their cause, arguing that grazing had a beneficial effect on parks by preventing forest fires (a generally accepted belief at the time). Kent would allow grazing, yet ensure that public use areas were preserved "so far as their beauties are concerned." [28]

Although privately opposed to grazing livestock in the parks, Stephen Mather's public stance was influenced by his need for Kent's support in the legislative campaign. Thus, Mather compromised with the ranchers and told Congress in April 1916 that permission to graze was a "very proper" amendment to the bill. In accord with Kent's views, his chief concern was to prevent grazing in areas frequented by park visitors. Mather recalled that the parks' general superintendent, Robert Marshall, had asserted that "a certain amount of grazing in those areas where it will not interfere with the campers' privileges is perfectly proper." Mather testified that he concurred with this assessment, noting also the hazards of allowing grasses and other plants to build up to the point where they could ignite and feed destructive fires. Although initially the Senate would vote against grazing in the parks, inclusion of the provision helped secure House support for the legislation. Mather, Albright, and others found it expedient to agree to the provision despite their private opposition. [29]


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap2a.htm — 1-Jan-2003