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

Formal Policy and a Bureaucratic Rivalry

In the winter of 1917-18, as the Park Service neared completion of its initial year of operation, Horace Albright drafted a comprehensive statement of national park management policies. After a thorough review (by prominent conservationists, among others), Secretary Franklin Lane issued the policies in the form of a letter to Director Mather. Albright later recalled that the Lane Letter, as it became known, was "a landmark" and the Service's "basic creed." [32] As the new bureau's first formal statement of its responsibilities under the Organic Act, the letter reflected the founders' emphasis on the parks as scenic pleasuring grounds. It was also an affirmation of management practices long under way in the parks.

The letter opened with a reference to the Organic Act's statement of purpose, declaring that the parks were to be maintained in "absolutely unimpaired" condition. This statement, and one in the next paragraph that all activities were subordinate to the duty of preserving the parks "in essentially their natural state," constituted a formidable commitment to pres-ervation. However, the letter then explained that national parks were set aside for the "use, observation, health, and pleasure of the people" (sounding much like Olmsted's early but discarded statement of purpose). It declared the parks to be a "national playground system," to be made accessible "by any means practicable," including through construction of roads, trails, and buildings that harmonized with park scenery. It also encouraged educational use of the parks and appropriate outdoor sports-including winter sports. And the letter urged the Service to "diligently extend and use" the cooperation offered by tourist bureaus, chambers of commerce, and automobile associations to increase public awareness of the parks.

The Lane Letter authorized cattle grazing in "isolated regions not frequented by visitors" and where "natural features" would not be harmed. It forbade sheep in the parks, however. It also forbade hunting, limited timber cutting to that which was most necessary (including thinning to "improve the scenic features"), and called for elimination of private holdings in parks. In the single specific reference to science, the letter recommended that the Service not develop its own scientific expertise, but that it seek assistance from the government's "scientific bureaus." [33]

As a "landmark" and "basic creed" for the National Park Service, the Lane Letter delineated the values and assumptions of the bureau's emerging corporate culture, thereby setting the tenor and direction of park management during the Mather era and far beyond. In 1925 the Service prepared a second major policy statement, signed by Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work and subsequently known as the "Work Letter." It conveyed essentially the same concerns-some verbatim-as had the Lane Letter. [34]

The utilitarian values expressed in both policy letters were probably stimulated in part by rivalry with the U.S. Forest Service. It had taken six years of campaigning to convince Congress to create a national parks bureau; as director, Mather realized that the parks still might not be politically secure. Aside from possible public indifference, probably the greatest threat to the Park Service's future came from the Forest Service, whose proponents resented not having gained control of the national parks. About the time the Park Service was established, some Forest Service public recreation programs began to appear; and in 1924 the bureau's New Mexico office designated the first "wilderness" area, a virtually roadless portion of the Gila National Forest. [35] Initially these were regional initiatives, rather than national. Yet such moves increased the Forest Service's range of land management practices and encroached on responsibilities the Park Service claimed for its own-thus helping to perpetuate the bureaucratic rivalry.

Although the National Park Service may not at first have been aware of the Forest Service's administrative designation of a wilderness area, the beginnings of national forest recreation programs did cause consternation among Park Service leaders. In a 1925 paper on the issue, Mather argued that no overlaps existed between the Park Service functions and those of other bureaus, particularly the Forest Service. He quarreled with attempts to confuse the duties of the two bureaus and with continuing claims by Forest Service advocates that it could operate the national parks at little extra cost beyond that of managing the forests. Placing the parks under the Forest Service, which was engaged, as Mather put it, in "commercial exploitation of natural resources," would, he believed, destroy the parks. As if seeking to prove that his own utilitarian biases were as strong as those of Forest Service leadership, he stated that outdoor recreation responsibilities belonged to the Park Service-that the parks were "more truly national playgrounds than are the forests." In order to meet the dictates of the Organic Act, Mather believed the Service was obligated to develop the parks-to "grant franchises for the erection of hotels and permanent camps, operation of transportation lines, stores and other services, etc." [36] Rivalry with the utilitarian Forest Service stimulated Mather's bent for recreational tourism management.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3b.htm — 1-Jan-2003