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

Utilitarian Act

In 1915, with strong support from Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, Stephen Mather reenergized the campaign for a new bureau, courting prominent writers, publishers, businessmen, and politicians. Mather and Horace Albright worked steadily with their key congressional contacts, particularly California congressmen John Raker and William Kent and Utah Senator Reed Smoot. Mather also gained widespread media attention for the national parks, encouraging two highly popular magazines, the Saturday Evening Post and the National Geographic, to give the parks special coverage. The latter publication devoted its April 1916 issue to the "See America First" theme, praising America's scenic landscapes and tourist destinations and presenting photographs and text on the national parks. With funds from the railroads and from Mather himself, Robert Sterling Yard produced the National Parks Portfolio, which illustrated the beauty of the parks, promoting them as tourist destination points. Yard distributed this literature to influential people across the country. [43]

In the spring of 1916, Congress studied the proposal for a national parks bureau. A House report released in May gave its own definition of the purpose of the national parks- that they were set aside for "public enjoyment and entertainment." In hearings before the House Committee on the Public Lands, Richard Watrous of the American Civic Association explained at length his conviction that Canada, having established a national parks office in 1911, was ahead of the United States. He quoted its parliamentary mandate- that the parks were to be administered "for the benefit, advantage, and enjoyment" of the people. This purpose was to be achieved, in the words of an official Canadian government report, "not only by providing for the people of Canada for all time unequaled means of recreation in the out-of-doors under the best possible conditions, but by producing for the country an ever increasing revenue from tourist traffic." [44]

After six years of campaigning, proponents of a new bureau prevailed. Responding to their political strategy and persuasive promotional efforts, Congress passed the bill establishing the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law on August 25, 1916. [45]

Among the most important supporters of the legislation were Secretary Lane and congressmen William Kent and John Raker, who less than three years before had been principal players in gaining congressional authorization for a dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley. It was the Raker Act of December 1913 by which Congress authorized the dam that was destined to bring about massive "impairment" to Yosemite through total destruction of natural conditions beneath the dam and reservoir, thus raising the specter of similar havoc in other national parks. Kent took a thoroughly utilitarian view of Hetch Hetchy, believing that a reservoir would be "the highest form of conservation," making the valley more accessible and useful for recreation. Indicating that such gigantic man-made features as dams and reservoirs could be acceptable intrusions that would not "impair" the parks, Kent insisted that the "creation of a lake would not impair the beauty of this wonder spot [Hetch Hetchy], but would, on the other hand, enhance its attractiveness." [46]

The support of Kent, Raker, and Lane for the National Park Service Act represented an accord between the aesthetic and utilitarian branches of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century conservation movement. Indeed, the national parks themselves constituted both an aesthetic and a utilitarian response to portions of the public domain through the promotion of public use and enjoyment of especially scenic areas. Originally used in reference to the management of reservoirs and of grazing on public lands in the West, the term "conservation" had by the early twentieth century come to identify the nationwide movement for efficient and rationally planned use (often referred to as "wise use") of natural resources. It implied, as one contemporary observer stated, "foresight and restraint in the exploitation of the physical sources of wealth as necessary for the perpetuity of civilization, and the welfare of present and future generations." [47] Creation of the National Park Service had been urged partly on the basis of need for efficient management of the parks; and, efficiently run, the parks (with majestic scenery as the basis of their economic value) could be the essence of "foresight and restraint" in the use of natural resources to benefit future generations.

The Organic Act's statement of purpose called for the Park Service to "conserve" the scenery and other resources, while most early national park enabling acts (including, for example, Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Glacier) called for "preservation" of resources- a blending of the related concepts of conservation and preservation. [48] In its broader sense, conservation included preservation as one of many valid approaches to managing resources. The conservation movement comprised a wide array of concerns, of which the wise use of scenic lands in the national parks to foster tourism and public enjoyment was very much a part.

Expressing the hopes and aspirations of McFarland, Olmsted, Mather, Kent, and many others, the Organic Act's "plain language" provided for public use and enjoyment of the parks, and was clearly utilitarian. The act even allowed consumptive use of certain park resources- evidence that the founders intended "unimpaired" to mean something quite different from the strict preservation of nature. Section 3 of the act authorized the leasing of lands in the parks for the development of tourist accommodations, thereby perpetuating the commercial tourism that was ongoing in all national parks, in most instances predating their establishment. The nominal restrictions placed on the leases (twenty years per lease, and no interference with the public's free access to "natural curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest") provided virtually no protection against potentially destructive impacts on the parks by the lessors. The primary statutory restraint on leasing remained the act's statement of purpose.

Section 3 allowed perpetuation of other established park practices by authorizing the National Park Service to destroy animal and plant life if "detrimental to the use" of parks. Already a routine means of protecting the game species most favored by the public, destruction of predatory animals was allowed to continue under this provision. Also, the Park Service was authorized to dispose of timber, particularly if necessary to control insect infestations that might affect the appearance of scenic forests. (Fishing, a consumptive use of park resources, was not mentioned in the act, although it would continue as an exceptionally popular park activity.) In response to pressures from cattle and sheep ranchers, section 3 allowed continuation of livestock grazing in all parks save Yellowstone, when not "detrimental to the primary purpose" of the affected parks. This provision meant, as Mather had testified to Congress, that the parks could serve "different interests without difficulty." [49] In the Organic Act, Congress permitted sheep, cattle, and tourists to use the national parks.

Section 4, the act's final provision, had strong potential to affect natural resources in specified parks and probably, like grazing, was another expedient to gain support of California congressmen. The section affirmed a February 1901 act authorizing the secretary of the interior to permit rights-of-way though Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks for, among other things, power lines, pipelines, canals, and ditches, as well as water plants, dams, and reservoirs, to "promote irrigation or mining or quarrying, or the manufacturing or cutting of timber." Before granting permits, the secretary was mandated to determine that such proposed development projects were not "incompatible with the public interest." Although Congress would withdraw this authority in 1920, section 4 demonstrated that, as with livestock grazing, public use of the national parks was in certain instances intended to extend beyond recreation and enjoyment of scenery toward clearly consumptive resource uses. [50]

Together, sections 3 and 4, permitting manipulation of plants and animals and fostering certain consumptive uses, (1) did not modify any natural resource management practices begun in the parks prior to passage of the Organic Act; (2) slanted the Organic Act toward "multiple use" of the parks' natural resources; (3) moved the definition of national parks further away from any close approximation of pristine natural preserves; and (4) substantially qualified what Congress meant when it required the parks to be left unimpaired.

Even though the Organic Act implied the preservation of nature in its mandate to conserve natural objects and leave the parks unimpaired, the founders gave no substantive consideration to an exacting biological preservation. Olmsted's correspondence, for instance, rarely even alluded to preserving natural conditions. He seems never to have seriously considered the parks as having anything like a mandate for truly pristine preservation.

The absence of explicitly articulated interest in preserving natural resources of all types throughout the parks suggests that the founders assumed that, in effect, undeveloped lands were unimpaired lands- that where there was little or no development, natural conditions existed and need not be of special concern. The ongoing manipulation of the parks' backcountry resources, such as fish, forests, and wildlife seems not to have been viewed as impairing natural conditions.

Still uninformed on ecological matters, the founders did not advocate scientific investigations to improve understanding of the parks' flora and fauna and ensure their preservation. Rather, as at the national park conferences, they sought advice from foresters and entomologists on how to prevent fire and insects from destroying the beauty of the forests. With threats such as fires, insects, and predators under attack, and with properly limited development, park supporters promoted the parks both as pleasuring grounds and as unimpaired natural preserves.

Although Olmsted had sought a declaration of the national parks' fundamental purpose in "unmistakable terms," the Organic Act decreed what Stephen Mather would call the "double mandate": that the parks be both used and preserved. In truth, the act did not resolve the central ambiguity in national park management- the conflict between use and preservation of the parks. Not defined, the principal concept, to leave the parks "unimpaired," was left open to sweeping interpretation that would allow extensive development and public use (reinforced by section 3 of the act), but would later justify scientific attempts to preserve (and even restore) ecological integrity in parks. Nothing in the act specifically authorized scientifically based park management; but nothing precluded it when it later became a matter of concern.

Following passage of the Organic Act, the National Park Service, as the sole bureau responsible for the act's implementation, would provide its "administrative interpretation" of the new law. During the legislative campaign, the enthusiasm expressed for opening the parks to public use and enjoyment reinforced the urge toward resort-style development. And for its first seventeen years, the Park Service was in fact run by two of its founders, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright-who, because of their personal involvement in passage of the act, never questioned their understanding of the act's intent and the statement of purpose. Under their supervision, park management was set in a direction that would continue with little change for at least the next half-century, thus fundamentally affecting the conditions of the parks and the attitudes and culture of the National Park Service itself.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap2c.htm — 1-Jan-2003