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

Appropriate and Inappropriate Park Development

Espousing strong democratic ideals and believing in the high social value of the national parks, Mather once wrote that the "greatest good for the greatest number" was "always the most important factor" in determining Park Service policy. As the individual with primary responsibility for implementing the Organic Act, he urged that the Service develop the parks for tourism by providing "such imperative necessities as new roads, improved roads, trails, bridges, public camping facilities, and water supply and sewerage systems." [37] In addition, Mather personally sponsored the creation in 1919 of a support organization-the National Parks Association-headed by his friend Robert Sterling Yard, who had helped greatly in the campaign to establish the Park Service. Reflecting the goals of its parent organization and its sponsor, the association's principal objectives were to protect the parks, enlarge the national park system (through such significant additions as would make the system "an American trademark in the competition for the world's travel"), and promote public enjoyment without impairing the parks. [38]

Soon after Mather first became associated with the national parks, he and Horace Albright had made a tour of the parks, seeking to assess the situation in the field. Mather noted that park facilities were inadequate. Only Yellowstone and Yosemite had extended road systems, but the roads had been designed for horse traffic, now being replaced by the automobile; many park hotels and campgrounds were primitive. The following year Mather claimed in his annual report that the parks had been "greatly neglected." Repeatedly urging park development, Mather got results. By the time his health problems forced him to resign early in 1929, the parks had undergone extensive development involving virtually every type of facility needed to support recreational tourism and park administration. [39] Shortly after Mather's resignation, Albright, as the new director, summed up the park development that had occurred before and during Mather's tenure by reporting that the Park Service was responsible for "1,298 miles of roads, 3,903 miles of trails, 1,623 miles of telephone and telegraph lines, extensive camp grounds, sewer and water system[s], power plants, buildings," and more. [40]

During Mather's directorship, the railroad companies continued to promote their hotels in or near Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Rainier, and other parks. More important for future park development, the emerging automobile age meshed perfectly with Mather's desire to make the parks popular. A member of both national and local automobile associations, he worked closely with them to encourage tourism. In 1916 he advocated pre-par-ing the parks for the "great influx of automobiles by constructing new roads and improving existing highways wherever improvement is necessary." [41] The previous year he had helped found the National Park-to-Park Highway Association. This organization promoted highway improvement and new construction designed to connect the major western national parks and enable tourists to make a giant circle through the West, visiting the parks. Mapped and signposted, but only partially paved, this route of approximately six thousand miles was officially dedicated in 1920. [42]

In 1919 Mather recommended to Secretary Lane that the Service establish a "travel division" or "division of touring" in its Washington office to assist in advertising the parks. Rather than create a new division, however, he kept this responsibility largely with his publications and public relations office. He regularly and enthusiastically reported to the secretary on tourism to the parks, noting, for instance, in 1925 that "it is again my pleasure" to report a large increase in numbers of visitors, who would bring with them, he claimed, a "great flow of tourist dollars." [43]

In overseeing the burst of park development that took place under Mather, Park Service leadership viewed specific development proposals in light of whether they were appropriate or inappropriate in a national park. The appropriate development generally was that which supported the traditional needs of recreational tourism, such as roads, trails, hotels, and park administrative facilities. In many cases designed to harmonize with park landscapes, this type of development generally was not considered to "impair" the parks-although disagreements arose over numerous specific proposals.

In contrast to most tourism-related construction, developments such as dams or mines were considered inappropriate. Outside the realm of park tourism needs and not intended to harmonize with the landscape, they were viewed as serious threats to the scenic qualities of the parks—impairments that could indeed undermine the Park Service's ability to meet its basic mandate from Congress.

Roads, when not built in excess, were accepted as appropriate development. Mather was convinced that each of the large parks should have one major road penetrating into the heart of the scenic backcountry, and he wrote in 1920 that the "road problem" (the need for more and better roads) was "one of the most important issues before the Service." [44] After using his own money to help purchase the Tioga Pass Road, which cut across Yosemite's high country and passed through the scenic Tuolumne Meadows and along the shore of Tenaya Lake, he convinced automobile associations to improve the road. Mather predicted that tourists would soon use "every nook and corner" of Yosemite; and, recognizing that the Tuolumne Mead-ows had already become popular, he anticipated adding automobile camps to avoid "insanitation and other evils." In 1919, realizing that the Yosemite Valley had become crowded, he advocated a new road to take visitors through the upper end of the valley, passing near Nevada and Vernal falls, and connecting with the Tioga Pass Road-a proposal that was never implemented. [45]

Despite such efforts, Mather declared that he did not want the parks "gridironed" with roads. He would limit road development to leave large areas of each park in a "natural wilderness state," accessible only by trail. This concern was echoed in Secretary Work's 1925 policy letter (drafted by the Park Service), stating that excessive construction of park roads should be "cautiously guarded against." [46] Two years later, for example, Mather adamantly objected to the "Sierra Highway," proposed to cross Sequoia National Park; he wrote to Superintendent John White that the idea of the road "does not appeal to me in any way." Mather wanted it "distinctly understood" that the Service was "not attempting to over-build from the road standpoint." [47]

Overall, though, the Mather era brought extensive road building. Aware that tourists were bypassing Glacier National Park because it had no east-west road, Mather pushed for construction of the Going to the Sun Highway, to cross the continental divide, traversing miles of previously undisturbed areas. Even in Alaska's remote Mt. McKinley (now Denali) National Park, the Service undertook a road program, contracting with the Alaska Road Commission in 1922 to build a highway into the park's interior. With the railroad from Seward to Fairbanks nearing completion, Mather sought to accommodate the anticipated increase in tourism; by the time of his resignation, highway construction extended about forty miles into the park. [48] In 1924 Mather's aggressive lobbying brought congressional increases in national park road appropriations, followed in 1927 by a ten-year, $51-million program to improve existing roads and build new ones. [49 He looked forward to improving roads in parks such as Lassen Volcanic and Hawaii, which previously had had no significant road development. Also, Mather's engineers and landscape architects laid plans for building Trail Ridge Road, to cut across Rocky Mountain National Park's high country, in places at elevations of more than twelve thousand feet above sea level. [50]

In addition to roads, the Service designed and built hundreds of miles of foot and horse trails and encouraged visitors to get out of their automobiles to see the parks. Writing in the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1920, Mather advocated that the parks' remote areas be "rendered accessible by trails and public camps" (a clear reflection of the Sierra Club's own creed, to "render accessible" the California mountains). [51] Two years later the park superintendents recommended a policy of building ten miles of trail for every mile of automobile road, to avoid the "cheapening effect of easy accessibility" with the automobile. Every year Mather reported progress in trail construction in the parks, and in many cases these trails did indeed make some remote areas accessible. For example, with enthusiastic Sierra Club support, the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Trail (both part of an extensive Sierra trail system) were built through Sequoia National Park's backcountry. The planning, design, and construction of these major trail projects covered the entire span of Mather's career with the Service, and beyond. [52]

Mather also backed construction of administrative and tourist facilities throughout the national park system-another type of acceptable development. As before 1916, many of these structures were built in a "rustic" architectural style, designed to harmonize with the grand scenery surrounding them. Increasingly, the appearance of national parks reflected the influence of the landscape architects, and the carefully designed landscapes sometimes competed with the parks' scenic features for the public's attention. During Mather's directorship, the log and stone structures and winding scenic roads designed by men like Vint and Kittredge helped establish the classic appearance of national park development, which would not be seriously modified until the midcentury "Mission 66" construction program brought about more modern designs.

The 1920s saw completion of headquarters buildings in, for example, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Mount Rainier. "Ranger stations" were built in many parks, some in a "trapper cabin" style suggestive of the fur trade era and particularly favored by Mather. To enhance its interpretation of natural history in the parks, the Service erected museums, two of the most prominent early examples being in Yosemite and Grand Canyon, built with donations from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. In Mather's last year as director, the Service accepted more funds from the Rockefeller memorial to build rustic-style museums in Yellowstone, at Norris Geyser Basin, Madison Junction, Fishing Bridge, and Old Faithful. In addition, Mather approved construction of hotels built by park concessionaires, including Sequoia's Giant Forest Lodge, the Phantom Ranch in the depths of the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite's impressive Ahwahnee Hotel. [53]

Although much of the new construction was designed to be in harmony with the natural settings, the development of national parks also involved less aesthetically pleasing facilities, including parking areas, campgrounds, water storage and supply systems, electrical power plants, sewage systems, and garbage dumps. And tourism development often went beyond such basic accommodations to include, for instance, a golf course and zoo in Yosemite, as well as a racetrack for the "Indian Field Days" celebration held during the summers. Mather personally encouraged construction of golf courses in Yosemite and Yellowstone, believing that tourists would stay longer in the parks if they had more to entertain them. [54]

In line with the Lane Letter's endorsement, the director believed that where feasible the parks should be developed for winter sports-especially Yosemite, which he hoped could become "a winter as well as a summer resort." [55] The winter use concept reached a peak in early 1929, at the very end of Mather's career, when Horace Albright led an aggressive campaign to host the 1932 Winter Olympics in Yosemite, a proposal that would have required extensive development. Albright's enthusiastic support for this project was evidenced in his February 1929 letter to Yosemite assistant superintendent James V. Lloyd, applauding him for doing a "magnificent job" of "stirring up the San Joaquin Valley towns to support the plan to secure the winter sports of the 1932 Olympiad for Yosemite." Although the Service lost out to Lake Placid, Yosemite would soon initiate a winter sports carnival to attract off-season tourists, using facilities developed during Mather's time, such as a toboggan run and an ice rink. Albright would also promote winter resort facilities in Rocky Mountain, arguing that it "has been done in other parks, and we will have to find a place for the toboggan slide, ski jump, etc., where it will not mar the natural beauties of the park." [56]

Earlier, Albright had found himself in disagreement with Mather over the proposal to build a cable-car tram across the Grand Canyon. Albright supported the tram as a means of enhancing the public's enjoyment of the canyon, but Mather opposed it as an inappropriate intrusion. Following a lengthy debate and analysis, the proposal was defeated. [57]

In fact, the Mather era witnessed a continual debate over the degree and types of tourism development to be allowed in the parks. Without definitive guidelines, and with the most substantial precedents being the early development of national parks and resorts elsewhere in the country, Mather and his staff groped to determine what was indeed appropriate. Following their November 1922 conference in Yosemite, and in response to negative comments in the press regarding development, the superintendents drafted a statement analyzing the role of park development. They noted that without facilities to accommodate the public, a national park would be "merely a wilderness, not serving the purpose for which it was set aside, not benefitting the general public." Yet they recognized that there was "no sharp line between necessary, proper development and harmful over-development." Seeking a cautious golden mean, they stated that the parks needed "more adequate development" but that "over-development of any national park, or any portion of a national park, is undesirable and should be avoided." To this, Sequoia superintendent John White added his view that the Service's "biggest problem" was to develop the parks "without devitalizing them; to make them accessible and popular, but not vulgar; to bring in the crowds and yet to maintain an appearance of not being crowded." [58]

The superintendents, in their 1922 recommendations against overdevelopment, urged that the parks be kept "free from commercial exploitation" and argued against industrial uses such as dams, power plants, and mining. [59] Indeed, while rapidly developing the parks for tourism as it deemed appropriate, the Service gained early acclaim through its opposition to commercially motivated development proposals considered inappropriate in a national park setting. To a large degree, it was the actions of others (not the Park Service itself) that the Service viewed as threatening the parks.

Perhaps its most difficult confrontation during the Mather years came with the fight against water development proposals in Yellowstone. In 1919 Idaho's congressional delegation, intending to irrigate lands in the southeastern part of the state, sought legislation permitting several dams to be built in Yellowstone, including those proposed at the outlet of Yellowstone Lake and on the Falls and Bechler rivers. Water from these sources in the park would be tapped to supply Idaho farms. Montana also lobbied for a dam at the outlet of Yellowstone Lake as a means of flood control and irrigation. [60]

Among the founders of the National Park Service, perhaps the most notable disagreement on how the parks should be protected involved dam proposals. The Yellowstone proposals had the backing of Interior secretary Lane, who had joined other founders in support of the Hetch Hetchy dam and continued to promote reclamation projects in the West. A firm believer in utilitarian management of the nation's natural resources, Lane claimed that the dams in Yellowstone would "improve the park instead of injuring it." [61] Mather vehemently opposed the secretary on this issue, threatening to resign rather than support the dams.

In his 1919 annual report, Mather argued briefly against the "menace of irrigation projects" and the following year reported extensively on a number of recommended dams and the threats they posed to Yellow-stone and other parks. Because of the precedents that the dams could set, Mather saw the proposals as putting the entire national park system in a state of "grave crisis." They would not only destroy the beauty of the lakes and streams, but also flood meadows, forests, and other feeding grounds for wildlife. [62] Mather and his staff lobbied vigorously against the Yellowstone dam proposals. Their efforts were boosted when Secretary Lane resigned suddenly in 1920 and his successors, John Barton Payne (a strong conservationist) and Albert B. Fall (who was no conservationist, but liked Mather and the national parks) both agreed to oppose the dams. With secretarial support withdrawn, the bills ultimately failed, and the potentially massive intrusions in the parks were averted. [63]

The Service was not always successful in opposing dams-for example in Glacier, where the park's enabling legislation specifically allowed use of park streams for irrigation and power. Construction of a dam at the lower end of Sherburne Lake outraged Mather, but he wrote in 1919 that the dam provided one consolation: it was a "glaring example of what is to be avoided in national parks having lakes still untouched." [64] The dam may have provided park supporters with a glaring example, but it did not faze pro-development groups. Soon irrigation associations in both Montana and Canada sought to tap the waters of Lake St. Mary, also in Glacier. Robert Yard of the National Parks Association urged that the lake's scenery be used in its defense, writing to the Park Service to "play up St. Mary Lake as one of the scenic marvels of the world." The Service successfully opposed this project; still, Glacier's legislation would encourage reclamation groups to continue seeking water projects in the park that the Service considered unacceptable. [65]

Among the most pervasive threats of inappropriate development were potentially unsightly uses of privately owned lands (today known as "in holdings") situated within national parks. The result of patents being issued on public lands before establishment of a park, inholdings were anathema to the Service. Excluded from Park Service control, use and development of inholdings could cause serious intrusions, potentially scarring the landscape and crippling the Service's efforts to leave the parks unimpaired. Chief among the threats resulting from the in holdings were mining, timbering, and uncontrolled commercial development. Experience had shown what could happen on private lands. For instance in Sequoia, before the Park Service was established, the Mt. Whitney Power Company dammed two rivers and built roads, flumes, and a power plant on its lands. [66] In Glacier, more than ten thousand acres were in private hands when the park was created in 1910, some of this acreage along the shore of Lake McDonald, where summer cottages and resorts had been built. [67]

Indeed, from the first, the Service made acquisition of private lands a high priority. Consolidation of all lands within park boundaries would allow control over development in the parks. To reduce the threat of inappropriate development, the Park Service continually sought to acquire inholdings, accepting them as direct donations, purchasing them, or swapping them for federal lands elsewhere. [68]

The 1918 Lane Letter declared that privately owned lands "seriously hamper the administration of these reservations" and advocated their elimination. Those in "important scenic areas" had the highest priority for acquisition. But for nearly a decade Congress failed to appropriate funds for buying inholdings, thereby forcing the Service to rely on private donations for such purchases. Mather himself contributed substantially to land acquisition in Sequoia and other parks, such as Yosemite and Glacier. Under the Service's prodding, Congress in 1927 and 1928 began to make regular appropriations for inholding purchases, but with the requirement that these funds be matched by private donations. In 1929, shortly after Mather's resignation, Director Albright predicted that reliance on private funds would not be satisfactory because potential donors felt that acquisition of park lands was the government's responsibility. Although Mather had secured some congressional funding, the inholdings remained, in Albright's words, one of the Service's "greatest problems"-a threat to the parks' integrity, and a "distinct menace to good administration and future development." [69] Albright's remarks foreshadowed a long, still-ongoing struggle to control inholdings.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3c.htm — 1-Jan-2003