Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 3
Perpetuating Tradition: The National Parks under Stephen T. Mather, 1916-1929

In the administration of the parks the greatest good to the greatest number is always the most important factor determining the policy of the Service.—STEPHEN T. MATHER

In September 1916 Joseph Grinnell, head of the University of California's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, coauthored an article in Science magazine entitled "Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks." A close observer of the parks (particularly Yosemite), Grinnell, along with his co-author, Tracy I. Storer, also at the University of California, reflected on the various uses of the parks, from recreation to "retaining the original balance in plant and animal life." Regarding their concern for nature, they warned that "without a scientific investigation" of national park wildlife, "no thorough understanding of the conditions or of the practical problems they involve is possible." They also predicted that, with settlement of the country causing alterations to nature, the national parks would "probably be the only areas remaining unspoiled for scientific study." [1] This article, published less than a month after passage of the National Park Service Act, sounded an early cautionary note that national park management should have firm scientific footing.

Under Stephen Mather's direction from its founding until early 1929, the Park Service ignored Grinnell and Storer's counsel. In November 1928, shortly before the ailing Mather resigned as first director of the Service, his soon-to-be successor, Horace Albright, wrote him about possible new positions for forest, fish, and wildlife management. After more than a decade of enthusiastic development of the national parks for tourism, Albright stated that it was "highly essential" to begin hiring staff in "other than... landscape architecture and engineering, both of which have been pretty well provided for." Influenced by an emerging interest in science within Park Service ranks, he urged that the bureau not set itself up for charges of having provided "thousands for engineering of one kind or another and hardly one cent for experts to look after our fish resources, wild life and forests." [2]

Indeed, the Park Service had continued the management practices of its military and civilian predecessors. Rather than altering the direction of park management, the Organic Act's immediate outcome had been administrative and political gains for the national park system. The act consolidated park management, enabling it to focus on the needs of the entire system and giving it a voice with which to promote the national park idea to Congress and the public. National park leadership was elevated to a fully visible and aggressive new bureau within the Department of the Interior, and was backed by leading proponents of outdoor recreation, tourism, and landscape preservation. The fact that by the time Mather resigned he had become an institutional hero within the Service and commanded respect in broader conservation circles suggests that his persistent expansionist and developmental policies met with widespread approval.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3.htm — 1-Jan-2003