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

The Statement of Purpose

In 1917, looking back on the campaign to establish the National Park Service, Horace McFarland commented that the Organic Act's statement of the national parks' basic purpose was the only item that proponents of the act could not have done without. It was, he said, the "essential thing" in the legislation, and "the reason we feel that [the Organic Act] is worthwhile." Even as the campaign first got under way, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who would author the statement of purpose, had believed it would be of "vital importance" and urged that the purpose of the parks be defined in "broad but unmistakable terms." [30]

In its final form, the statement declared the parks' "fundamental purpose" to be

to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. [31]

Despite its ambiguities, especially in regard to potential conflicts between preserving parks and opening them to public use, this mandate would become the National Park Service's touchstone- its chief point of reference for managing parks. The charge to leave the parks "unimpaired" in effect perpetuated the charge to preserve "natural conditions" as stated in the 1872 Yellowstone legislation and subsequent national park enabling acts. And as "unimpaired" set the 1916 mandate's only actual standard, it became the principal criterion against which preservation and use of national parks have ever since been judged. [32]

The earliest draft of the statement of purpose was prepared by McFarland, Olmsted, and others during a December 1910 meeting of the American Civic Association. Somewhat vague, the draft merely stated that the parks would not be used "in any way detrimental or contrary to the purpose for which dedicated or created by Congress." [33] But the acts by which Congress had established the different national parks were sufficiently varied and ambiguous that Olmsted was concerned. Later that month he urged an explicit statement that would "safeguard or confirm" the purposes of all of the parks. He recommended a declaration that the parks were

agencies for promoting public recreation and public health through the use and enjoyment... [of the parks] and of the natural scenery and objects of interest therein. [34]

Olmsted expressly recommended that "scenery" be included in this statement- the attribute of parks that was his greatest concern and that contributed most to their public appeal. Writing to Henry Graves of the U.S. Forest Service, McFarland declared this statement to be "for the first time, a declaration of the real purpose of a National Park." Echoing Olmsted, he believed it to be "of extreme importance that such purpose be declared in unmistakable terms." With such remarks, his early 1911 correspondence to both Graves and Gifford Pinchot suggests how important it was to McFarland to distinguish national parks from national forests. [35]

It is significant that for nearly five years- from December 1910 until November 1915- this working version of the statement of purpose defined the national parks primarily as agencies to promote "public recreation and public health" through "use and enjoyment" of the scenery and its special features. This strongly utilitarian concept of the fundamental mission of the parks was not only in accord with the attitudes expressed at the national park conferences and elsewhere, but also may have served to counter the Forest Service's brand of utilitarianism.

Even with its emphasis on recreation and health, Olmsted's statement of purpose raised concern that it might tie the hands of the proposed new bureau. In late 1911 Secretary of the Interior Walter Fisher wrote to McFarland that the statement had the potential to curtail managerial discretion in the parks; it could "embarrass the proposed bureau" and cause questions to be "constantly raised as to the character of each act undertaken." He added that "any one who claimed that any particular action would be detrimental to the value of the parks might undertake to restrain the bureau from the proposed action." [36] (Indeed, Fisher's concern foreshadowed criticism of national park management that would recur many times through the ensuing decades, and that would use as its justification the Organic Act's statement of purpose.)

McFarland responded to Fisher that without the statement even the new bureau itself might not understand the basic purpose of the parks it was being created to manage. To McFarland, the national parks needed a "Gibraltar"- a statement of their "true and high function"- in order to defend the parks against those who would damage them. He asserted that if Yosemite National Park had had a proper definition of purpose in its legislation, the threat to inundate the Hetch Hetchy Valley might not have arisen. Although he preferred wording that would "avoid the difficulties of too great restriction upon administrative discretion," Secretary Fisher acquiesced and agreed to retain the statement as written. [37]

In the autumn of 1915, after several years of failure to get the national park bill enacted, the American Civic Association redrafted the legislation and arrived at wording close to what would appear in the final bill. At first, the review draft that Richard Watrous of the association forwarded to Olmsted in October 1915 contained essentially the same utilitarian, recreation-and-health definition of parks as before, except that it called for "conservation of the scenery and of the natural and historic objects" found in the parks (emphasis added)a more protective statement than before, and more explicit about the kinds of objects (or resources) to be conserved. [38]

But Olmsted concluded that a different version was in order. He reviewed Watrous' draft and responded on November 1, 1915, with a revised statement of purpose that omitted reference to the parks as agencies for public recreation and health. Retaining the commitment to conservation of natural and historic features and to use and enjoyment of the parks, he strengthened the statement by adding that the parks should be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Within two weeks, his new version appeared in the working draft of the bill, the only substantive change being the addition of "wild life" to the short list of resources to be conserved. [39] This revision would be incorporated into the final legislation with only minor alterations.

In recommending wording that required the parks to be left unimpaired, Olmsted did not indicate that he considered the intent of the new version to be a particularly significant departure from that expressed in the bill's earlier public recreation and health statement. In fact, he suggested the new wording almost offhandedly in the last paragraph of a three-page letter, asking "would it not be better to state [his proposed new version]?" [40]

Olmsted's original statement of purpose had emphasized public recreation and health needs, and his final version seems to have been intended to further similar goals. Mentioning "enjoyment" twice, the final statement provided for the enjoyment of the parks, but required that parks be left unimpaired so that future generations also could enjoy them. These goals could be met by essentially the same means as those of the earlier public health and recreation mandate- by maintenance of the parks' scenic landscapes, which would help ensure continuance of public enjoyment of the areas. Olmsted could have perhaps strengthened the preservation aspects of the statement by plainly requiring the parks to be left "unimpaired for future generations" rather than "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations" (emphasis added). But given the legislative history's repeated focus on parks as scenic pleasuring grounds, even without the specific references to "enjoyment" the act would not necessarily have called for rigorous preservation of the parks' natural conditions.

Anticipating public use, Olmsted sought to protect the beauty, dignity, and nobility of national park landscapes from commercial blight. Aside from his desire to make management more efficient, prevention of excessive commercialism in the parks was the one concern that Olmsted repeatedly emphasized. Early in the legislative campaign, he expressed fear that some would attempt to "make political capital" out of the parks by developing them for tourism; later he envisioned that a statement of purpose would provide a "legal safeguard" against "exploitation of the parks for commercial and other purposes." In early 1915 he worried about General Superintendent Mark Daniels' eagerness to make the national parks, in Olmsted's mocking words, "accessible to the `Pee-pul.'" Daniels, he feared, was more concerned with securing an array of "improvements" than with maintaining "the perfect conservation of the quality of the landscapes." [41]

The new mandate was very much a reflection of Olmsted's professional interests. A landscape architect who had developed parks and other public places across the country, he made his living designing outdoor areas for aesthetic appeal, enhancing their scenic beauty for the enjoyment of the people. Indeed, in an unsuccessful effort to include in the legislation authorization of a special board to provide advice and assistance to national park management, the only profession for which Olmsted specifically sought inclusion on the board was landscape architecture. [42] Protecting the majestic national park landscapes through restricted, judicious development was Olmsted's primary concern. His final statement of purpose- against which so much national park management would be both justified and criticized- was thus in accord with the widely held concept of national parks as scenic pleasuring grounds.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap2b.htm — 1-Jan-2003